Orkney’s New Year traditions are no whit they used tae be. In the last twenty year, the tradition o First Footan his aalmost completely died oot. It used tae be that ye could visit any hoose in yur neighbourhood eftir the bells, sure o a warm welcome, a dram and some supper.
Gangs o young folk wid waander fae wan hoose tae anither and anither – the length o a parish or a small isle. A neebor tells me that when he flit intae his new hoose in the West Mainland in the late eighties he hid a hunder visitors the first New Year.
The celebration wis immense, and the drinking wis legendary. It wis aal the better because ye didna ken who might turn up, or whit might happen. When Hogmanay came roond there wis a mixture o trepidation and excitement. Gossip and funny stories were repeated, and it gaed ye a rare chance tae sit doon and enjoy the company o neighbours, freends, and family. Ye took a peedie gless o whisky, and moved on kweekly. It wis unpredictable, and it wis great fun.
Nooadays, half the country hooses are inhabited by folk belonging tae the new, mobile, professional class. A lot o rural Orkney is effectively a commuter belt for workers in the Toon, and many o these folk set off on the first boat sooth when the Christmas holidays begin. There’s no the same critical mass o likeminded neebors sharing an Orcadian culture. Wur traditional fower- or five-day-long festival o wild daftness his geen wey tae controlled family ‘New Year’s Eve’ parties, tae planned ‘open hoose’ nights, or, worst o all, tae Tesco Kirkwall urging us tae ‘celebrate Hogmanay’ – but whit dis Tesco really ken aboot Hogmanay, apert fae the name?
I’m minded o George Mackay Brown and Ernest Marwick writan oot lists o things they hid seen disappear fae Orkney in thur lifetimes. These writers hid a romantic urge tae record the last o things as they remembered them: workan watter mills; strings o sillocks dryan in the wind; rare Orkney words. Hoo sad it will be if we hiv tae add ‘Hogmanay’ and ‘First Footeen’ tae this evocative list.
So, Ah’ll be settan oot shortly tae First Foot wan or two o the neebors wae a bottle o whisky and a couple o funny stories Ah’m heard lately. I hope ye’ll mibby brave the cowld waather and dae the same yersels. A Happy New Year tae ye, beuys and lasses!