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Medieval Scottish Calendar and Holidays
Draft Edition

by Sharon L. Krossa

Last updated 22 Oct 2002  

Yes, yet another draft edition. Most of it is relatively polished, but I still have a fair amount to do in the last section (Religious Year). To the best of my knowledge, the information that is contained currently is accurate, if not yet complete.

Calendar Year

Late medieval Scotland, like the rest of Christian Europe, used the Julian calendar. Also, again like elsewhere in Christian Europe, the start of the calendar year was 25 March. (DSH, s.v. New Year's Day)  This was the date of the Feast of Annunciation, called Mary Day and Marymass, strategically celebrated exactly nine months before Christmas; the calendar year was considered to start on the day Jesus was conceived. (The start of the calendar year is when the number of the year changed. So, 25 March 1530 was the day after 24 March 1529, and so on.)

Scotland, like England, continued to use the Julian calendar until Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. However, in Scotland King James VI changed the beginning of the calendar year from 25 March to 1 January, starting from 1 January 1600. (In contrast, England retained the 25 March start until 1 January 1753.) (DSH, s.v. New Year's Day) 

As a consequence of the 25 March start of the calendar year, modern scholars and students need to be very careful dealing with pre-1600 dates that fall between 1 January and 24 March. Dates directly quoted from manuscripts and other pre-1600 sources, obviously, are using that 25 March-24 March calendar year. However, most historians and modern works normalize dates to a January-December calendar year to make it easier for modern people to understand. (If historians don't do this, their readers think the historian has made a mistaken when a book talks about something that happened in April 1560 as having happened only a few weeks after something that had happened in March 1559...) Often historians will use both the year of record and the normalized year, for example "2 February 1311/1312" or "2 February 1311/2". (There are a number of different typographic conventions -- some use a slash / between the years, some a dash -, others put the normalized year in parentheses (), still others use a smaller font for the last digit or two and write them one above the other.) This removes all ambiguity about the year for dates that fall between 1 January and 24 March, and is highly recommended. When a work does not use both years for such dates, find where the author or editor discusses whether they've normalized dates to a January-December year or left them as found in the original documents. Note that if an author doesn't indicate whether they've normalized years, this may be a sign that they have not properly interpreted the dates in the primary documents they've used, especially if they are not a trained historian. (This is less of a worry for general histories than for specialist studies and published editions of primary documents.)

New Year's Day

As indicated above, in the late Middle Ages, the first day of the calendar year was 25 March. However, by at least the early 16th century, "New-Year" was celebrated on 1 January -- long before the first day of the calendar year was moved to 1 January (in 1600).

A 15 December 1525 entry in the Aberdeen Council Register (ACR, xi, 657) reads [emphasis editorial]:

Original Scots Modern English
... chargit the relict of willeam forbes to pay thome neylsone
x s. at new3eris day nixt to cum and vthir tene at kandelmes of his aw
tovng grant ... for a Jak bocht be hir husband fra the said
... charged the widow of William Forbes to pay Tom Neilson
10 shillings at New-Year's Day next to come and other ten at Candlemas of his own
tongue grant ... for a jack bought by her husband from the said Thomas

(Above, editorial expansions marked by italics. )

Candlemas was 2 February, so the above indicates that the "new3eris day nixt to cum" was between 15 December and 2 February -- and not 25 March.

The January date New-Year was even more explicitely indiated in a 17 January 1567/1568 entry in the Burgh Court Books of Inverness (Inverness, 159) [emphasis editorial]:

Original Scots Modern English
Thom Waus strykis ane brocht on Andro McSande that wrangusle and aganis the law he beand his feyt serwand and resauit the mast pairt of his fee and being in hes seruice, that he left his seruice on New Yeiris Ewyn being the first day of Januer and passit to Jame McFale and remanis with hym, desyrand hyme to be compellit to rander hyme ane serwand vagis and expensis dale send syne extendyn to sax pennis ilk day quhilk he payit to his dawet. The syis hes fundyn McSande in the vrang and suld pay ane servand fee send the tyme forsaid. Tom Waus strikes a pledge on Andrew McSande that wrongly and against the law he being his fee-ed servant and received the most part of his fee and being in his service, the he left his service on New Year's Evening being the first day of January and passed to Jamie McFale and remanis with him, desiring him to be compelled to render him a servant wages and expences part/portion since (that time) extending to six pennies each day which he paid to his ?debt?. The assise has found McSande in the wrong and should pay a servant fee since the time foresaid.

In this case, <Ewyn> refers to the evening of the day itself, rather than to the evening before the day (that is, it means modern "evening", not "eve").

Note that Aberdeen was one of the four largest, most important burghs and was thoroughly Lowland in culture (and Scots-speaking). Inverness was also a burgh, and thus predominantly Lowland in culture and Scots-speaking, but also geographically on the border with the Highlands and with a relatively large number of residents with clearly Highland (and Gaelic-speaking) backgrounds.

So, at least in 16th century Scotland, "New-Year" was 1 January and so quite a different day from the first day of the calendar year, which was 25 March. Currently I do not have any evidence to indicate how much earlier than 1525 this was true. (If you have specific references indicating 1 January being New-Year in Scotland earlier than 1525, please contact me.)


Hogmanay is a Scots language word having to do with New Year. The earliest reference I could find to Hogmanay was in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST, s.v. Hagmané):, which dates it only to 1604 as the "word shouted in soliticing [the New-Year's Eve gift]":

Hagmané, Hagmonay, n. [Obscurely related to OF aguillanneuf, haguimenlo, etc., mod. Norman dial. hoguinané.] Hogmanay, the New-Year's Eve gift: the word shouted in soliciting this. -- [January 3rd], William Pattoun delatit to haue been singand hagmonayis on Satirday; 1604 Elgin Rec. II. 119. It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New-years Eve, crying Hagmane; 1692 Presb. Eloq. (ed. 2) 82.

The Concise Scots Dictionary has some additional information (CSD, s.v. Hogmanay):

Hogmanay &c la17-, hagmane &c 17-18; hangmanay &c 19-e20, hugmanay &c e19 ... n 1 31 Dec, the last day of the year, New Year's Eve la17-. 2 (1) a New-Year's gift, esp (19-e20) a gift of oatcakes (AIT) etc given to or asked for by children on New Year's Eve la18-. (2) the cry uttered in asking for the New Year's gift 17-e19. (3) esp your etc ~ any form of hospitality, esp a drink given to a guest to celebrate the New Year, or a gratuity given to tradesmen and employees on that day 20-. 3 specif an oatcake or biscuit baked to give to the children on 31 Dec 19.
haud etc ~ celebrate the passing of the old year la18-. [northernF dial hoguinane, OF aguillanneuf a gift given on New Year's Eve, the word shouted in asking for this; cf NEW-YEAR]

The referenced Concise Scots Dictionary entry for NEW-YEAR reads (CSD, s.v. New-Year):

New-year &c, New-3ere &c la15-17; New(e)r- &c 16-, Neer- &c la19- ... n 1 the New Year la15-. 2 a gift, or a drink or food given in hospitality at the New Year la19-.
~ day la15-, ~'s day 16- 1 New Year's Day la15-. 2 = n 2, la19-. ~ even 16-, ~'s even 17- New Year's Eve, HOGMANAY. ~(is) gift a New Year gift 16-17. ~('s) mas = New Year's day or tide la15-, now Sh. [the contracted forms are only Sc; uncapitalized forms are also common in all senses, esp in the early period]

There are a number of significant things to note here:

For most of the 17th century "Hogmanay" referred only to the New-Year's Eve gift and the word shouted in soliciting it. It is only in the late 17th century that it came to be used to mean 31 December (New Year's Eve) itself. Even in the sense of New-Year's gift and/or the shout soliciting the same, the earliest example is from 1604 -- there are no known examples from the 16th century or any earlier. So Hogmanay is not, in fact, a medieval Scottish word.

Linguistically, the Scots word is related (however obscurely) to French (both Old French and a modern French dialect), not to Gaelic (or any other language from the Celtic language family). The French word meant/means a gift given on New Year's Eve and the earliest Scots meanings likewise refer to such a gift and soliciting such gifts. Further, earlier, in the 16th century, Lowland Scots had the concept of a New-Year's gift, called in 16th and 17th century Scots New-3ere gift or New-3eris gift. In addition, the two 17th century quotes cited above come from a Lowland burgh (albeit one relatively close to the Highlands) and describe people in the South of Scotland (which were Lowland), respectively. None of this is indicative of a Gaelic origin for either the term Hogmanay or the Lowland practice of a New-Year's gift.

So Hogmanay is a 17th century Lowland Scots word for a Lowland Scots practice of giving New-Year's gifts and shouting to solicit the same whose origins likely have more connections to France than to Highland Gaelic culture.

First Footing

So far, the earliest I have been able to date the tradition that "the first person to enter a house on New Year's morning" was "considerd to bring good (or bad) luck for the rest of the year" is to the late 18th century, based on the dates given for the relevant definition of first fit &c in the Concise Scots Dictionary. Perhaps significantly, The Concise Scots Dictionary indicates that from earlier in the 18th century first fit meant "1 the first person (or animal) met on a journey, esp by a wedding or christening party on the way to church 18-, now Cai Abd Stlg." (CSD, s.v. first) 

Now, it is just possible that the tradition came to Lowland culture (and so Scots terminology) from an earlier Gaelic tradition, but based on the limited evidence above, especially the progression of meanings in Scots (from the first person met on a journey to the first person to enter a house on New Year's morning), a Gaelic origin of the tradition currently seems counterintuitive. Certainly evidence positively indicating an earlier and/or Gaelic origin is necessary before accepting the common assumptions and claims regarding the age of first footing and the associated tradition of luck. Of course, as I have only started my investigation, it may very well be that there is such positive evidence to be found.

(Note that many modern Scottish traditions, whether considered Highland or Lowland, date at earliest to the 18th & 19th centuries. Two or three centuries is plenty long enough to establish something as an authentic and venerable tradition!)

Administrative Year

The dates of the thrice yearly "heid courts" -- "the principal sessions of a burgh-, sheriff-, or baron-court" (CSD, s.v. heid) — and burgh "gild courts":

The dates of the four "terms" (called "quarter days" in English) -- "the four days of the year on which certain payments, eg rent or interest, become due, leases begin and end, and contracts of employment ... began or ended" (CSD, s.v. term):

Religious Year

The most imporant day in the year from a religious standpoint was Pasch (Easter), which also had many lesser but still significant related holy days in the months before and after (such as Ash Wednesday and Whitsunday).

With the coming of the Reformation (1560 in Scotland), Roman Catholic practices, like celebrating Christmas, were severely frowned on. I suspect the modern Scottish tradition of not making a big deal of Christmas may be primarily due to the Reformation. I expect that in the late Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated rather more vigorously in Scotland than modernly. (Indeed, the Reformers spent a lot of energy trying to stamp out Christmas celebrations — such horrible things as singing Yule carols and the like!)

A 14 January 1512/13 entry from the Aberdeen Council Register suggests that Corpus Christi, Easter, and Christmas were particularly important, singling them out for specific mention in a statute requiring each craft to have a pair of good torches to adorn and worship the sacrement on special occassions (ACR, ix, 177) [emphasis editorial]:

Original Scots Modern English
<<The said day>> <<ye provost baillies & council>> <<present for ye time>>
Ratefeit and apprevit the actis maid obefor yat euery craft withtin yis
townne sall haue a pair of Torcheiß honestlie maid of four
pund of wax to decoir and worschip ye sacrament one corpus xristi
and at ye fest of pasche at ye resurrexioun at 3oule and
at all vthir tymes quhen neid is to ye honour of ye townn
And ordanit all fre & vn fre to lott & scot and pay yar part yerto
as yai ar extentit to be ye deknys of yar craftis
The said day the provost, baillies, & council, present for the time,
ratified and approved the acts made before, that every craft within this
town shall have a pair of torches, honestly made of four
pound of wax, to adorn and worship the sacrament on Corpus Christi
, and at the feast of Pasch (Easter) at the resurection, at Yule (Christmas), and
at all other times when need is, to the honor of the town;
and ordained all free and unfree to lot & scot and pay their part thereto
as they are assessed the value to by the deacons of their crafts.

(Above, editorial expansions marked by italics. Text between << >> were formulatic phrases transcribed as acronyms and later expanded, and so may not represent the actual spellings used in the entry.)

Certain feast days were commonly cause for special celebrations such as religious processions, pageants, and plays, especially in burghs, typically:

So far I haven't actually found specific pre-1600 evidence illuminating how Alhallowday (All Hallow's Day, aka All Saints Day, 1 November) or Alhallow Evin (All Hallow's Eve, aka Halloween, 31 October) was celebrated, or even whether either was particularly important among the many saints days and holy days in the Christian calendar. However, Allhallowday does seem to have been used as a calendar reference point, much like the term days and court days. (In fact, DOST indicates that Alhallowday was sometimes used as a term day rather than Martinmas.)

As can be seen, and as indicated at the start, there is a lot more work to be done on this section -- I will be adding more, including specific quotes, information, and citations, as time allows.


Mary Day / Marymass Note that there were several different days associated with Mary and called "Mary Day" or "Marymass", including both the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (15 August). (CSD, s.v. Mary) 
Scots Scots is a language closely related to English. There are many terms, some more respected than others, used for the modern Scots language and/or specific dialects of Modern Scots, including "Broad Scots", "Lallans", "Lowland Scots", "Aberdonian", "Doric", "Glaswegian", and many others. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Scots speakers themselves called their language "Inglis", while in the 16th century they took to calling it "Scottis".

Some linguists consider Scots to be a separate language from English, others consider it a dialect of English. Since the categorization of independent language vs. dialect is a subjective one, there is no "one true answer". I choose to refer to Scots as a language for several reasons, including that I find it makes it easier to talk about and explain the linguistic situation in both modern and medieval Scotland.

Note that "Scots" has several other, more common, meanings in addition to referring to the Scots language, including, as an adjective, the meaning "Scottish" and, as a noun, the meaning "more than one Scottish person".

3 (Yogh) The <3> is not a typo; it represents the letter "yogh", which looked roughly like the number three, only written with the tail below the base line similarly to how the tail of a <g> or a <y> drops below the base line. It looks very similar to how many people write a modern cursive <z> with a tail decending below the base line. Yoghs were pronounced roughly like the consonantal \y\ sound of the <y> in English <year>.


ACR The manuscript Aberdeen Council Register. Vols. 8-20 (1501-1551). Aberdeen City Archives, Aberdeen Town House, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.
CE1913 The Catholic Encyclopedia. WWW: New Advent, 1997-2002 [cited 22 Oct 2002]. Original edition, 1913. URL: <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/>.
s.v. Feast of Corpus Christi
DOST Craigie, William, A. J. Aitken, James A.C. Stevenson, Harry D. Watson, Margaret G. Dareau, and K. Lorna Pike, eds. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue from the Twelfth Century to the End of the Seventeenth, founded on the collections of Sir William A. Craigie. 12 vols. Chicago (1-4), Aberdeen (5-7), Oxford (8-12): University of Chicago Press (1-4), Aberdeen University Press (5-7), Oxford University Press (8-12), 1931-2002. Entire contents searchable online as part of the free Dictionary of the Scots Language [DSL] at <http://www.dsl.ac.uk/>. Print volumes: DOST Volume 1: A-C. 1931, reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 2: D-G. Reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 3: H-L. Reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 4: M-N. Reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 5: O-Pn. Reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 6: Po-Q. 1987, reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 7: R-Ru. Reprinted 1993. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 8: Ru-Sh. 2000. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 9: Si-Sto. 2001. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 10: Stra-3ere. 2001. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 11: Tra-Waquant. 2002. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; DOST Volume 12: War-Zurnbarrie. 2002. Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk
DSH Donaldson, Gordon, and Robert S. Morpeth. A Dictionary of Scottish History. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1994. Order paperback from Amazon.com Order paperback from Amazon.co.uk
Inverness Mackay, William, and Herbert Cameron Boyd, eds. Records of Inverness, Volume I. Burgh Court Books: 1556-86. Publications of the New Spalding Club, vol. 38. Aberdeen: New Spalding Club, 1911.
CSD Robinson, Mairi, ed. The Concise Scots Dictionary. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987. Polygon hardcover: Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Polygon paperback: Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Chambers paperback (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; AUP hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Crown hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; MacMillan hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; MacMillan paperback (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; AUP leather cover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble

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