ON the Scots Language Centre website, you’ll find an essay about the historical Scots traditions anent Christmas and New Year – or rather Yuletide and Hogmanay. It’s called What’s The Scots For Christmas And New Year? and can be found at scotslanguage.com

Here’s a quotation: “Traditionally in Scotland, the marking of the New Year was of greater significance than Christmas. Scots had long celebrated old rites at this time and besides the Calvinist church after 1560 took a dim view of the Catholic practices celebrated at Christmas and so discouraged those.

“Until 1599 the New Year began on March 25 but King James VI changed this to January 1 from 1600 onwards. In the Scots language New Year’s Eve has been known as Hogmanay since at least the 17th century. It is thought to derive from the French for a New Year’s Eve gift. In Scots we say “haud Hogmanay” for “celebrate the end of the old year” and, once the New Year comes in, we call it “Ne’rday” – New Year’s Day.

“It has been traditional in Scotland to ‘first fit’ or make a first visit to the homes of friends and neighbours on this day and to bring a ‘handsel’ – a gift. ‘Handsel’ comes from an old word found in various languages and means to give with the hand. It is found in this form in Scots from the 14th century onwards.”

And there I was thinking idly that “Hogmanay” might be roughly cognate with “Houghmagandie” – that is, a time for giving each other enjoyable things with more than the hands, although hands are very good too. But no, it’s more likely to have international and interlinguistic connections which are worth celebrating every bit as much as the pleasures of intimate physicality.

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I do remember Hogmanay as having a different kind of importance when I was a boy. Christmas: great! Presents, good humour, japes and jokes and family, and a tree my grandparents would arrange to arrive that would be set up in the hall, where the skylight reached up so much higher than the ceiling.

You needed ladders to put decorations on it. As a child, you could literally climb into it and disappear in games of hide and seek. What larks.

Hogmanay was great fun too but you had to be older to make any sense of it. The drinks and food and convivial spirit really only started at midnight. At big family gatherings – and it was a big family – everyone would make a point of being present for the ringing of the bells at midnight.

I remember on one occasion in my teens arriving back from London, getting the blue train from Glasgow to Airdrie, being met by Uncle Alex and being driven at top speed the two miles to Calderbank, going through the close and into the backyard, then racing up the stone stairs to the front door in the moonlight, and joining the family in the coal-fire warmth of the living room (which we called the kitchen) just seconds before the bells started ringing.

And, being next door to the village church, they rang very loud and seemed to go on forever. Then – for a lasting moment – the air still resonant with trembling bell metal, the silence really meant something. That’s done. This is ahead. A moment of fear and hope.

You have to recognise the fear as well as the hope, pause on what might go wrong as well as what you determine to intend. We’ll come back to this. Today, I want to stay with the festive spirit.

It was peculiarly – I mean, these days, quite peculiarly – festive, at my grandparents’ home. At such parties at Christmas, or maybe at Halloween, two or three of my uncles out of a company of maybe 16 or 18 people (uncles, aunts, cousins as well as grandparents and parents) – would disappear.

After 20 minutes or so, some of us might notice they weren’t in the room anymore but before anything was said, the doorbell would ring and these bizarre-looking people in strange costumes, fur coats, scarves, big hats pinned to their hair, men in women’s clothing with handbags and walking sticks, utterly unrecognisable, would be standing at the door, speaking in the strangest voices, almost incoherent words but in a very self-assured tone.

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These people were invited into my grandparents’ house to tell their stories, and they did, and the game was to see how long they could keep you entranced with the stories, the voices and the costumes.

These were my uncles but you couldn’t tell who was who under the disguise, and the stories they told were fabulous and fantastic.

It was a tradition of domestic performance that I suspect is now completely extinct. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

It would need a government survey. But certainly, the language called Scots is far from extinct. A stocking full of recent books will testify to that, and there’s still time to order them for presents – to handsel them, even via Santa Claus.

Last week, I noted the anthology Wanderlust Women: Three Poets, with work by Lesley Benzie, Donna Campbell and Linda Jackson, who edits the book. There’s a new edition now, with another Wanderlust woman, Tracy Patrick. Check out the publisher’s website seahorsepublications.com

Lesley Benzie is also in Norlan Lichts: New Poems In Scots From The North-East (Perth: Rymour Books, 2022), along with those great Scots language poets Sheena Blackhall and Sheila Templeton.

In his incisive and illuminating introduction, Ian Spring highlights both the tradition of Scots language poetry, in which Blackhall and Templeton are drawing from Violet Jacob, Marion Angus and Mary Symon, who were born in the 1860s.

But our contemporaries live in a different, as well as a familiar world. The language gives us continuity, history disrupts it, and poets write in the balance between. Sheila Templeton takes the perennial theme of the death of a child but here the experience is in the time of Covid lockdown:

Months eftir she wis yirdit, thon snarl

of a gaitherin, jist close family

aa they were allowed in lockdoon

lang eftir the doul o pickin

the sma plaque tae be eekit oan,

matchin the dairk granite leam

o the bigger lair-steen – nae room

there for a grandochter’s nem…

Ian Spring reminds us that this poem’s title is Vilomeh, a Sanskrit word meaning “against a natural order” often used to describe the death of a child. This characterises the international context of contemporary poems in Scots, ranging from the north-east to the Far East, eyes open to conditions in, and connections with, Granada, Croatia, Rwanda and Cambodia.

Sheila Templeton gives us longing, in beautifully restrained, sharp-imaged lines in Northsick:

... Aa I cud think on

wis a winter morn lang syne. Gaspin lungs

in ice-thick air, skitin an slidin the hale road

tae the skweel. Hamesick for frost rivin the braith

tae ma breist, for the high lift, a fite burnin mune

the aipple green veils o the Merry Dancers.

That elision of the English “school” and “squeal” in the Scots “skweel” tickles me. But then there is compassion for others. Disjaskit is prefaced by a note: “Fae a TV news item, showin fowk escaping durin the Yugoslav Wars 2001” and ends:

Eyven fae this distance o camera lens

– an the lang miles atween us,

I can see mair clearly than I’d wint,

the tears dryin oan his saat-begrutten face.

Which is why all politicians need to read more. More poetry, like this, to remind them what compassion is, how others live, what they should prioritise, and what they should do. Without literature, politics is a park of braying donkeys, dinosaurs, disasters. And Sheila knows this too, in The Fechtin Dominie, in memory of John Maclean, where she asks if it was worth the cost:

... Peterheid jile, that rubber tube

sickenin doon yer thrapple, puir fushionless lungs, fite hair at 40;

Agnes an yer quinies awa fan they cudna stamach another day

o makkin-dae, nivir eneuch siller. Yer ain licht oot at 44.

And she’s answered the question already: his stamp is on Scotland forever. Hamish Henderson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith are all with Templeton in this. The company goes back to Maclean and beyond, and forward to us now and further. We’ll come back to the great work of Sheena Blackhall but here’s a wee taster of the wealth and warmth of humour Scots can also express, in her poem, Variations On The Scottish Scone Eating Ceremony:

Tyrone McGraw, aged three

Stuffs hauf a scone in his mou in a wunner

Jam squelches doon his chin in jammy runnles

“Pure deid brilliant, maw,” sez young McGraw.

These books, and there are many more, showcase the work of fine poets whose provenance and pleasure extend beyond the territories of local attachment. There’s no harm in staying in those territories and talking or singing to neighbours and friends. That’s partly what the gift of a “handsel” means.

BUT if on the one hand you can hear some of the poets read Scots on the Scots Language Centre website, buying the books and reading them more than once wherever you are is also a good investment. Better than the investments most bankers seem to endorse. Good poetry repays and multiplies investment. Believe me. I know.

If the poems I’ve quoted here indicate something of the range and perennial vitality of Scots, there are older poems pertinent and timely as we head towards Yule.

The Scots Language Centre has many pages devoted to them, including performances of songs for children. Also on its website you’ll find “Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis: a history of Christmas poetry in Scots” – you’ll find an essay by J Derrick McClure introducing some of the treasury Kist o’ Riches.

He begins by quoting one of our greatest early poets, William Dunbar, doing his thing for the occasion in his poem “Rorate, Coeli, Desuper!” with its refrain, “Unto us a child is born.” It might be unofficially entitled “On the Birth of Christ”.

McClure comments as follows: “The first line (o the whilk the saicont is an owersettin) is taen frae Isaiah XLV: viii, ‘Ye lifts, gin ye dreep frae abune, an’ the cluds toom righteousness doun: lat the yirth syne her bosom unfauld; an’ heal-haddin itsel come till frute, an’ righteousness braird frae the rute: it’s Jehovh, mysel, made it yald’ (the owersettin o P Hately Waddell).

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“An ower seiven verses, he gars us hear the sterns, the angels, the yird, the baests, the flouers an aa Creation sing tae the glore o the new-kyth’t Sauviour. I hae hard students sayin at this michty sang is no as ‘Christmassy’ as the Nativity Ode o John Milton; an deed, there nae snaw intil’t, nae shepherds, nae manger.

“But in Dunbar we hear the rejycins o the Universe aa an haill: his is the vyce o the auncient Catholic Kirk, at saw the Incarnation as the central event in the story o the warld; an his sang fair dirls wi the life an the jye o its celebration.”

Derrick is right to emphasise the verbal joy of it, and the sheer vivacity the words embody. And I don’t care whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Muslim, English or American, Chinese, French, Spanish or Catalan, or even a Scottish Unionist bent on cultural genocide – if you can’t get into the life in the language of this poem, you need help.

If Christmas is a time for giving, give yourself some. Read it aloud and loud and clearly, with weight and speed, in nuance and in company. Gie it laldy. Bonne chance!

William Dunbar

Rorate, Coeli, Desuper!

(On the Birth of Christ)

Rorate, coeli, desuper!

Hevins distill your balmy schouris,

For now is rissin the brycht day ster

Fro the ros Mary, flour of flouris.

The cleir sone quhome no clud devouris,

Surminting Phebus in the est

Is cumin of His hevinly touris,

Et nobis puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,

Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,

And all ye hevinly operationis,

Ster, planeit, firmament, and speir,

Fyre, erd, air, and watter cleir,

To Him gife loving, most and lest,

That come into so meik maneir

Et nobis puer natus est.

Synnaris be glaid and pennance do

And thank your makar hairtfully,

For he that ye mycht nocht cum to,

To yow is cumin full humly,

Your saulis with His blud to by,

And lous yow of the feindis arrest,

And only of His awin mercy,

Pro nobis puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,

And bow unto that barne benyng,

And do your observance devyne

To him that is of kingis King;

Ensence His altar, reid and sing

In haly kirk, with mynd degest,

Him honouring attour all thing,

Qui nobis puer natus est.

Celestiall fowlis in the are,

Sing with your nottis upoun hicht,

In firthis and in forrestis fair

Be myrthfull now at all your mycht,

For passit is your dully nycht.

Aurora hes the cluddis perst,

The son is rissin with glaidsum lycht,

Et nobis puer natus est.

Now spring up, flouris, fra the rute,

Revert yow upwart naturaly,

In honour of the blissit frute

That rais up fro the rose Mary.

Lay out your levis lustely,

Fro deid tak lyfe now at the lest

In wirschip of that Prince wirthy,

Qui nobis puer natus est.

Syng, hevin imperiall, most of hicht,

Regions of air mak armony;

All fische in flud and foull of flicht

Be myrthfull and mak melody.

All, gloria in excelsis cry –

Hevin, erd, se, man, bird, and best –

He that is crownit abone the sky

Pro nobis puer natus est.