Continuing our New Year’s celebration theme, this post is by our regular contributor and Librarian extraordinaire, Dr Karen McAulay. What can we learn from old Scottish traditions which can help us start the new year in top shape? 

Actually, I’m a bit of a fraud here.  I’m an ‘English’ living in Scotland. Although I’ve been here plenty long enough to know how important Hogmanay is, I must confess that I grew up in a home that enjoyed a modest glass of sherry as the clock reached midnight, then all occupants went to bed.  New Year’s Day, therefore, dawned upon a clear-headed and stone-cold sober household.

In Scotland, on the other hand, Hogmanay has traditionally been a time for partying throughout the night.  My husband remembers his aunt and uncle coming home in the ‘wee sma’ hours’, and the first-footing round friends’ and neighbours’ houses.

The First Footer, or person who crosses the threshold of a house for the first time in the year is meant to be a harbinger of good luck. My husband was on occasions prevailed upon to do the first footing, chunk of coal in hand (the best luck for the household was thought to come from a dark-haired stranger). Scottish housewives would already have made sure their houses were spotless to welcome in the new year. When people did eventually surface the following day, more visiting would take place, whisky bottle in hand.

A century ago, Hogmanay was actually more important than Christmas, to many Scots.  Seems hard to believe now, doesn’t it?

During my doctoral research, I came across some early 19th-century correspondence in which a ballad collector was a bit dilatory writing a preface for a song-collection, because he had been so preoccupied by the festive season. Around the same time, my own great-grandfather-in-law went missing one Hogmanay, being fished out of Greenock dock a couple of weeks later.  Urghh! I hope he enjoyed his last Hogmanay celebrations before he slipped  (or was he pushed?!).

Well, this is all very interesting, but what bearing does it have on a 21st   century researcher?  Can I suggest that lessons can be learned from the Scottish traditions?

For a start, you’ve hopefully had a chance to let your hair down, socialise, catch up with friends and family, and take a brief break from your solitary research existence.  ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, the saying goes.  I truly believe that it’s good to take a bit of a break from time to time. Maybe you received some lighter reading matter over Christmas?  Great!  Or had the opportunity to get outdoors and stretch your legs?  A bit of physical exercise is very beneficial to the average stressed-out doctoral student.

The turn of the year is also a good time to review your own progress.  Maybe you could set aside some time to assess where you’re at.  Have you reached a dead end?  Or are you facing so many interesting opportunities that you’re frankly a bit overwhelmed?  Sometimes it pays to write it all down, and look at your options.

The spotless housekeeping part of the tradition hardly sounds appealing, but if you’re anything like me, you might feel a lot less overwhelmed if you at least spring-cleaned the area around your desk, and tried to catch up with your filing!

Lastly, of course, there are the traditional ‘New Year’s resolutions’.  As Inger discussed in the previous post – does anyone actually make them, let alone keep them?  Hmmm.  Ah well, here are a few tangible and specific ones to consider:

  •  I’m going to keep my bibliography up-to-date, perhaps using electronic software to impose some discipline on the chaos and make things easier for myself later.
  • I’m going to try to keep on top of current literature.
  • I’m going to [try to] avoid social media while I’m meant to be working …
  • I’m going to plan my writing so I can keep to my deadlines.
  • I’m going to write a paper/ speak at one or more conferences this year.
  • I’m going to make sure my CV is up-to-date.

So there you are, rested, relaxed and all organised for the New Year.  Doesn’t  that feel good?

But if you don’t manage to be quite this virtuous on the first of January, don’t worry: William Motherwell did get that preface finished, so he obviously got back to his desk eventually.  Just don’t emulate Great-Grandfather McAulay.  Celebrating New Year is one thing, but it plainly can be taken too far!

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