By Laurie GoodladDecember 30th 2019
Laurie Goodlad

Just as with Christmas, Shetland celebrates New Year in much the same way as anywhere else in the UK and beyond. We bring in the bells at midnight, sing Auld Lang Syne and share food and drink with loved ones.

Shetland does however have a few traditions of its own – serving reestit mutton tattie soup and bannocks being one of them. But New Year runs much deeper here than merely ‘flesh and bannocks’ and, in the past, New Year was celebrated very differently, and like Christmas, was held on a different date than today. However, there are still parts of Shetland, such as Foula (our most westerly island), and parts of Unst (our most northerly), that celebrate old New Year on the 12th (or 13th) January.

In the 16th century, Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian Calendar to bring the calendar year back in line with solar equinoxes; as a result, the dates all shifted, bringing Christmas (Yule) and New Year (Newerday) forward 10 days (from the 5th and 12th). But, the festive celebrations were still held as they had been traditionally, following the Julian Calendar. There were further discrepancies when adopting this new calendar system, and Foula lagged behind the rest of the islands holding their celebrations on the 6th and 13th – they probably introduced the calendar changes in 1800 during a leap year, creating this extra day.

One aspect of past New Year celebrations in Shetland involved a group of men, disguised in hats, collars and clothing made of straw, who would go around the neighbourhood gathering food on New Year’s Eve for a feast. This tradition was more or less forgotten by the turn of the 20th century, although some districts (Skeld for example) carried it on into the inter-war years.

With the pressures of crofting and fishing removed during the dark period around the winter solstice, people had more opportunity to be merry and light-hearted, jovial fun was just the tonic to fill the long winter nights. ‘Skekling’ was a popular pastime, and New Year was a favourite time to do this. Skeklers wore a costume made of straw with a pointed straw hat and would often come into the house and perform a dance or sketch – skeklers were also commonplace at wedding receptions. Skeklers also had a wider purpose; they acted as a reminder that trows (hillfolk who lived in underground lairs) were at their most active at this time and that people needed to remain vigilant against their mischief, deception and trickery.

Today people still go ‘first footing’ friends and neighbours with a bottle in hand. In some parts, Burra for example, they may even disguise their true identities – I remember my dad’s neighbour dropping along on New Year’s Day a few years ago sporting an empty box of cider over his head as a disguise. We knew who he was immediately, of course!

New Year was all part of the greater festival of Yule, twenty-four days of celebration beginning at midwinter and carrying on through till Up Helly Aa at the end of January. One custom associated with both Christmas and New Year in Lerwick was ‘tar barrelling’ ‒ quite simply, the act of passing through the narrow streets of Lerwick rolling burning barrels of tar. This dangerous, and often raucous tradition was outlawed in Shetland in 1874 (although is still done in other parts of the UK) and led to the rise of Up Helly Aa as we know it today – an organised fire festival where guizers parade through the streets of Lerwick carrying flaming torches.

My days of all-night parties are over; I long for a clear head on New Year’s Day and the opportunity to get out for a bracing walk and participate in a little of everything I’d like to do over the coming year. This is an age-old custom in Shetland, as folklorist and author Jessie Saxby recalls:

Men fished if only for an hour (from a crag if too stormy to use a boat). Girls began a bit of knitting, if only a few stitches; a yard of ‘simmond’ (straw rope) was woven, a turf turned, a stone set up, a shilling laid by, a torn garment mended and a new one shaped, the byre was redd-up [cleaned and tidied], fishing gear was repaired, everything pertaining to thrift was got under weigh that the New Year might begin with ‘a blessing frae the Lord that bids a’ folk no’ be idle.’ From that day till ‘Up-Helly-A’ (twenty-fourth night) work and play went hand in hand.

So bear it in mind this New Year that you have to get up in the morning; start that craft project, slip the first stitches onto the wire, put pen or brush to paper and check in on the herbaceous borders to ensure that your year will be fruitful and filled with health, happiness and prosperity!

And from me, Laurie, and all at Promote Shetland, we would like to wish you every success and happiness for the year ahead.