History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Tonight Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh will end with an impressive fireworks display. Thousands will be gathered there to see in the New Year -- many more will be at home watching it on the telly because we're introverts and that's the way we like it.

Historic Environment Scotland has done some research into when fireworks were first displayed in Scotland. Few will be surprised to find that 'Renaissance King' James IV (r 1488-1513) was responsible. He sponsored poets and alchemists and other scholars, but he liked a party as well as the next royal. The occasion was not New Years, however:

In 1507, James IV hosted a splendid pageant that would be known as ‘The Wild Knight and Black Lady Tournament’. During this extravaganza, the first fireworks ever witnessed in Scotland were launched in Edinburgh.

Pageantry, tournaments, feasting and then fireworks. I wonder if his pet alchemist John Damian played a part in the preparations for the event. After all, how do you make fireworks but with chemical reactions?

In the 1537 celebration, they used ingredients like saltpetre, sulphur, oil, petrol, turpentine, aqua vitae, mercury, canvas, thread and wheel-rims.

No health and safety regulations back then. Wise people stayed far away from the explosive works, I'm sure. You can read more about the costs of such an event -- and the possible identity of the Black Lady (who may have been one of Margaret's 'Moorish' ladies-in-waiting (possibly North African) at Historic Environment Scotland. Yes, even in medieval Scotland there were people from around the world.

So does this have anything to do with Hogmanay? When did fireworks become part of the celebrations? It's unclear. So much is shrouded in the unwritten history of the land. The earliest written record of the word in The Dictionary of Scots Language only dates to the 17th century:

1696 Atholl MSS [The manuscripts of the family of Atholl at Blair Castle] (1 Jan.): I passed on of his sh[illing]s to too poor women I brought up to my chamber yester-night to heare them sing a hog ma nae song.

There are many mentions of customs in the 18th and 19th century. Robert Chambers offers up a charming description (1847):

It is still customary, in retired and primitive towns, for the children of the poorer class of people to get themselves on that morning swaddled in a great sheet, doubled up in front, so as to form a vast pocket, and then go along the streets in little bands, calling at the doors of the wealthier classes for an expected dole of oaten bread. Each child gets one quadrant section of oat-cake (sometimes, in the case of particular favourites, improved by an addition of cheese), and this is called their hogmanay. . . . The children, on coming to the door, cry “Hogmanay!” . . . Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers, And dinna think that we are beggars; For we are bairns come out to play, Get up and gie's our hogmanay!

Have your bread, cakes and whisky ready tonight! Then wait to see who will be your First Footing on the morrow...

[Image of James IV from the Stirling Castle heads via Historic Environment Scotland]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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