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Scottish Traditions


Yule candle
The greeting in Scottish Language Dictionaries' Christmas card is usually 'Guid Yule' and as we approach this season, the word itself might trigger memories for you. The entry for Yule in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) gives a fascinating insight into a variety of customs relating to the season, some which are still current and others which have changed:

YULE, n. Also yuil(l), yeul (Ork.), yul(l), yül, yöl, jøl (Sh.); yool For other ne.Sc. forms see EEL, n.2.

You may not be sure what period is covered by Yule. Yule is Christmas, the day itself but also the festive season associated with it. This frequently commences before Christmas Day and continues until after the New Year, especially in Shetland. There it is sometimes referred to as 'the Yules' to indicate that there is more than one festival. You might like to explore this aspect further by referring to the online Kist o Riches which has audio material from Brucie Henderson talking about Yule celebrations in Shetland recorded in 1955.

Before the reform of the calendar in 1752, Christmas Day fell on what became January 5th New Style. As W. Watson states in Glimpses o' Auld Lang Syne (1903): "Christmas or Auld Yule was then held on the fifth day of January." In other areas Yule is synonymous with Hogmanay.

There are many superstitions associated with Yule. A quotation cited in the DSL from Jamieson's An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), illustrates that it is lucky to be the first person to open the door to welcome Yule in:

The door being opened, it is customary with some to place a table or chair in it, covering it with a clean cloth, and, according to their own language, to 'set on it bread and cheese to Yule'.

Other superstitions involve food. Yule bannock is an oatcake specially baked on Christmas Eve and distributed to members of the family. The recipe for that was quoted in Scottish Notes & Queries (1925):

These bannocks were composed of beaten eggs, oatmeal and milk, and were baked on the girdle. Prior to the baking the fortune of each unmarried person present was read by someone skilled in such lore. Each chose an egg and gave it to the fortune‑teller.

Yule sowans was a dish made from oat husks and fine meal steeped in water. Objects such as a ring, a button or a coin, were stirred into them and then distributed among the guests. Predictions about their future were made depending on which objects were found. You might have heard the phrase to brak Yeel's gird, to weep on Christmas Day, and so invite bad luck for the following year, as referred to in W. Gregorís Notes on the Folk‑Lore of the North‑East of Scotland (1881). The word gird is now obsolete but it referred to the cessation from criminal prosecution by authorities over the Christmas period.

The word Yule refers to the Christmas period but it can also refer to a treat given at that time. Servants would welcome receiving their 'Yule'. In H. Haliburton's Furth in Field (1894) this is explained:

It was the usual practice . . . for the farmer to give his servants their 'Yule' or 'Hogmanay' on the closing night of the old year. This consisted at least of a dram of whisky, with 'cheese and bread'. The same entertainment was repeated on the first Monday morning on the New Year.

Yule‑candles were sometimes given by merchants to their customers at this time. The Yule‑candle is allowed to burn out by itself as it is considered unlucky to extinguish it.

You might sample Yule ale, a special ale brewed at Christmas. Many other culinary treats might be in store during the celebrations. Yule batch is a batch of bread baked specially for Christmas fare. Yule‑brose used to be made at Christmas from the stock of beef as a special treat. Yeel‑fish was considered to be a special delicacy at Christmas. It was usually smoked haddock. You might prefer something more traditional such as a Yule‑guse (goose).

Special games take place in some areas at this time. Yeel ba is a game of handball played at Christmas on the Moray coast - for example between Lossiemouth and Hopeman on one hand and Burghead on the other, according to A. Jeffrey in Sketches from the Traditional History of Burghead (1928). In the past Yule pins were used as stakes in the game of 'teetotum' played at Christmas in some parts of Scotland. Children went guising during this period too. According to F. M. McNeillís Silver Bough (1961):

The favourite "hogmanay" of the children who went guising at Yule was an oat farl, with a slice of the Yule kebbuck (a cheese prepared for Christmas).

In the notes from a meeting at the Banffshire Field Club (1894) we read about the importance of the Yule Carlin:

A big log of wood was prepared some time on the day before Christmas, called the 'Yeel Carlin' or 'Yeel Cyarlin'. It was placed on the fire between 8 and 9 o'clock in the evening, and the baking of the 'Yeel Brehd' was begun.

It sets a homely scene.

Making a fresh start was important to many at this time and still is. Clearing outstanding tasks was considered to be essential as this quotation from the Crawfurd manuscript (1760) indicates:

A word or phrase, namely Yule or Ill Yawll, was used at Dunlop, in Ayrshire, in her young days, signifying a person, or a bairn who left a part of his or her task, turn, or job unfinished, or in the traik, at the end of the year, to the next year.

W. Gregor in Notes on the Folk‑Lore of the North‑East of Scotland (1881) tells us that

Every means was used to have some piece of new dress, no matter how small. The one who was so unfortunate as to be without such a piece of dress bore the name of "Yeel's jaad."

The idea of over-eating has always been part of the festive season and still is. It is interesting to learn that a Yule‑hole is the hole in your belt which allows adjustment to allow you to relax after eating too much at Christmas. Merry-making at this time is Yule‑rant. Enjoy the festive season and if you look at the full entry for Yule at www.dsl.ac.uk, you will find a wealth of material about the traditions associated with Yule as well as rich linguistic detail. Please let us know if you still use and enjoy the expressions mentioned in this piece relating to Yule.

Elaine Webster