The door is suddenly thrown open. The midnight countdown has ended. The crowded room stops, stares, then cheer as a bagpiper, in full regalia, playing Auld Lang Syng strides into the centre of the room. Music fills the house as guests join hands in a large circle, singing the traditional Scottish New Year’s poem penned by Scotlands’ bard Robert Burns.
In British Columbia, this event happens twice a year. For local residents, the countdown to New Year is at its traditional time: midnight. For ex-patriots of Scotland, the celebration arrives eight hours earlier – 4pm New Year’s eve: midnight in Scotland. For years Lower Mainland Scots have been celebrating this milestone at homes and in pubs with food, singing and of course, bagpipes. The strong contingent of Scots are proud to gather together in local pubs to mark the turning of the year in true Scottish style with whisky, beer and bagpipes. But it’s not only the Scots who are getting in on the bagpiping act.
The pipes are a great way to make an impact at events on New Year’s eve – or anytime for that matter. Crazy enough to take the New Year’s Polar Bear plunge? What better way to mark the occasion then to be led into the cold, miserable ocean by a bagpiper. New Year’s Levee’s are ideal for piping. In other Canadian cities, I have played outside venues as guests arrive to celebrate and raise a glass to the New Years’ morning at government houses, city halls, private homes and even church rectories. Levee’s normally follow the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay – the custom of gathering to welcome the New Year with “first-footing” which starts with another knock at the door after midnight. In my (pre-bagpiping) youth we gathered with a local Scottish family to enjoy games, drinks, dances and song. At midnight, the door opens and a dark-skinned boy (usually one of my grumbling brother’s) strode in, presented the host with three symbolic gifts: coal (to keep warm throughout the year), bread (for nourishment throughout the year), and whisky (for good cheer). The host then presents the “first-footer” with a kiss and a gift. All then join hands, sing “Auld Lang Syne” and sit down for a New Year feast that of course included haggis.
The celebrations of New Year’s are as varied as the cultures that now make up Canada. But for Scots, including those whose ancestors left the ‘old country’ several generations ago, it’ continues to be a special occasion; a time to gather with friends and family, to celebrate the end of one year, and to ring in the new, with gifts, song, camaraderie and of course, bagpipes.