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New Years and Old Traditions: The History of Hogmanay in Dunoon

Reflection is a common pastime for many of us at this point in the year, as we take the time to consider the months that have just passed us and anticipate that which lies ahead. As we look forward to what 2024 has in store for us, we have also been looking back to the Dunoon residents of the past to uncover how they celebrated Hogmanay and New Year's Day. Read on to find out more about the local customs that were commonly practised and events that were held in our town.

Many of the traditional Scottish customs that surround Hogmanay remain familiar to us today, and are still practised each year. These include first-footing, ceilidh dancing, and the recital of Auld Lang Syne. One long-established tradition in Dunoon that still occurs today is the gathering of a crowd under the Jubilee Lamp at the bottom of Ferry Brae. This was usually accompanied by the wishing of a Happy New Year, or the ‘wishing [of the] the old wish’ as it was then referred to. [1] There was also the shaking of hands and a pipe band performance, and it was usually followed by group members going out to first foot. The earliest printed mention of this is in 1925, where it was said that ‘the youth of the town paraded at the Jubilee Lamp in Argyll Street.’[2] The strength of this custom is demonstrated through its continued reference in newsprint each year- for example, a crowd of 300 people gathered to ‘await the advent of the New Year’ and welcome 1931. [3] That year, a group of pipers from the 8th Batallion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders played ‘lively tunes’ that accompanied those gathered as they sang ‘A Guid New Year’ and ‘Happy We’ve Been A’ Thegither.’ The former is a well-known Scottish song often sang to greet the New Year, in comparison to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which is traditionally sang to see the old year off. In 1938 it was mentioned that the tradition of gathering at the Jubilee Lamp seemed to be dying out, as people tended to see in the New Year ‘by their own fireside.’ [4] However, the 1940s saw many Dunoon residents and guests take part in the tradition once more, and town official Provost Marshall attended the event in both 1946 and 1950 and wished everyone a Happy New Year. [5] The Dunoon Ballochyle Pipe Band also joined these celebrations and played a selection of tunes that entertained their audience. Ferry Brae was a perfect location to hear the bells of local churches, with a reporter mentioning that ‘the old year [was] rung out and the new one in by the bells of Dunoon High Kirk.’[6]

Image from Euan Walker (far right hand side) of a group celebrating at the Jubilee Lamp in the mid-1970s/ early 1980s.

Image taken by the author of the Jubilee Lamp as it stands today.

Dunoon also commonly welcomed a large number of visitors that stayed for the ‘New Year Week.' This was weather dependent, of course! For example, heavy fog on New Years Day 1928 resulted in six hour delays for passengers trying to get to Dunoon.[7] It was mentioned in 1913 that many visitors had arrived in town to celebrate Hogmanay, however within three years numbers had lessened considerably due to the impact of the First World War and the ‘rush of munitions-making.’[8] Once wartime conditions had ended, Dunoon again became a heralded Hogmanay haunt. The high number of visitors in the town was often reported in local newspapers, and a special late night steamer service was added for New Years Day 1952 to accommodate the great number of passengers.[9] 

Image from the Dunoon Herald and Cowal Advertiser, December 1893, showing a

New Year's Day entertainment offering.

There were a wide range of daytime and evening activities on offer in the town to keep Dunoon locals and visitors entertained while they celebrated. On Hogmanay itself the Dunoon Grammar School Former Pupils Association would host their ‘fancy dress dance,’ a tradition which continued throughout the years. This was an extremely popular event that sold out in 1924, and a list was published of the winning fancy dress costumes. This list is an interesting snapshot that shows which costumes were considered socially relevant at this time. The winners included a couple that dressed as a packet of De Reszke cigarettes, another that went as a snowman and woman, and a guest that was dressed as popular music hall figure ‘Burlington Bertie.’[10] The annual dance held by the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the Drill Hall was also a popular New Years fixture, as well as the concerts held in the Pavilion. [11] The St Muns Church Committee hosted a dance at the Pavilion in 1926 in order to raise money for their new building, with their present site purchased that same year. [12] On New Years Day itself, there seems to have been a local tradition where the Burgh Hall would host an animal show. For example, this can be traced from 1908 when the Cowal Ornithological Society held their annual competition, a dog show which was held there in 1910, and the Dunoon and District Canine Club’s annual show in 1929, among many others. [13]  Sports events also tended to be held on New Years Day at the recreation ground, usually either athletics or football.  In terms of local football success, the Dunoon team won against their opponent ‘The Scottish Rifles' with two goals to their one during New Years 1910. [14]

Overall Hogmanay is a unique time of year in Scotland which is full of traditions and customs, whether these are local to our town or practised throughout the country. We hope that you have enjoyed this glimpse into how the Dunoon residents and guests of yesteryear celebrated the New Year, and that you have a lovely time as we all follow in their footsteps to welcome 2024.

Written by Iona Tytler, Museum Assistant at Castle House Museum

[1] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 12 Jan 1946

[2] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 10th Jan 1925

[3]  Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 10th Jan 1931

[4] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 15th Jan 1938

[5] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 10th Jan 1948; 14th Jan 1950

[6] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 14th Jan 1950.

[7] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 12th Jan 1929

[8] The Scotsman, 1st Jan 1913; Sunday Post, 31st December 1916

[9] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser , 6th December 1952

[10] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 12th Jan 1924

[11] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 10th Jan 1925; Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 8th Jan 1910

[12] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 9th Jan 1926

[13] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 4th Jan 1908, 8th Jan 1910, 12th Jan 1929.

[14] Oban Times and Argyllshire Advertiser, 8th Jan 1910



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