Memories of a Scottish living room

Seasonal insight direct from our Scotland Correspondent

New Year in the small Scottish village I grew up in, was not for the faint hearted. In these days of self conscious, health awareness, at this time of year, I have a nostalgia for the riotous, bacchanalian excess that used to mark the New Year celebrations in my childhood home. If the Scots are well known for their fondness for drink the people of the beautiful, wild West Coast, land of crofters and fisher people, take positive pride in their capacity for drink and a party.

Indeed if someone says to you there, “You were in great form last night,” take it from one who knows, it means you were absolutely plastered, talking rubbish, probably arguing and in fact generally making an all round fool of yourself- behaviour that will endear you to West Coasters for life!

In the way others will practise for a marathon, West Coasters are really in training all year for Hogmanay.

Don’t even entertain the thought that “I’ll just hear the bells in and go to bed.” This is a feat of stamina and endurance. It is about the fine art of pacing yourself and manoeuvring through a three day session of drinking, merriment and eating. Many fall by the way side (literally), many get becalmed in some boring house and don’t know how to extricate themselves but if you are a seasoned, wily, party goer you always manage to anticipate where the “session” and the best “craic” will be. For the lay person that means the house where the fun people, the music and the banter is.

Where’s the party?

My mother would usually calculate that the party would be in our house on 2 January and she would start me and my sisters on making mountains of sandwiches and sausage rolls in the early afternoon. We used to complain bitterly about how did she know anyone would come but her theory of “if I make food they will come” was always spot on.

At these sessions, whisky used to flow like water and as the evening progressed the behaviour would get more and more hilarious or just plain outlandish depending on your viewpoint.

Take M’guard so called because of some mishap with a bike back in the mists of time, who would raid my mother’s bedroom appear in some of her clothes and do a strange dance that involved swinging his lower legs about and around to wild hilarity and applause. Looking back possibly he was double jointed…

Or the world class piper who would strut up and down our tiny living room, leaving our ears ringing with the afterstrains of a pibroch (yet another Highland lament.)

For us kids, it was great watching all these adults shake off their daily personas and become these funny, dancing, singing, laughing people as we inhaled the dense, tar-laden fug of dozens of untipped cigarettes and were encouraged to just have a wee sip of whisky. Then the singing would start. First came the Gaelic songs; eerily evocative, charged with centuries of emotion but which seemed to me to have at least one hundred and ten verses.

Party piece

In fact everyone had their own song or party piece that could be very good or very bad according to how much they had imbibed.

“Acts” ranged from balancing a floor brush on the end of a finger to a classically trained singer doing opera. In fact my own father when he first arrived in the village when asked if he could sing at a New Year party gave an answer that went down in folk lore. “ I can’t sing ,” said the bold Irishman, “ but I can show you the muscles on me back.” Ah now is that not the very spirit of entertainment? Eventually dawn would break and people would drift away. Some moving on to another house others to catch a few hours sleep. Some left behind snoring on our couch to be reclaimed later by surprisingly understanding wives.

Some of these people lived to ripe old age, some died from diseases related to their fondness for drink and cigarettes but one and all left colourful memories and a sense of kindness, fun and companionship that shone through the deep, dark Scottish midwinter.

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