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Past Times

How Dundee celebrated New Year in times gone by

Dundee partied its way through Hogmanay for generations.
Graeme Strachan
These revellers in Dundee are bringing in the year 2000. Image: DC Thomson.
These revellers in Dundee are bringing in the year 2000. Image: DC Thomson.

Out with the old and in with the new.

Dundee partied its way through Hogmanay for generations.

Thousands of people gathered by the Christmas tree and splashed around in the fountains but New Year is now much more family-orientated than in the past.

The only occasion in recent years that a crowd of that size has been seen on Hogmanay was for the millennium concert.

No one knows exactly from where the word Hogmanay comes, but one possibility is that it stems from the Norman French word hoguinane, which means “gift at New Year”.

A lone policeman controls the crowd in Dundee’s City Square in 1966. Image: DC Thomson.

It is a special time steeped in tradition, superstition and hope.

Hogmanay in Scotland was once more popular than Christmas and excited children went from house-to-house chanting a traditional rhyme and seeking their “Hogmanay”.

It was not very musical but it left no doubt as to what the singers had come for.

And it was effective – usually rewarded with a “piece” or a ha’penny.

First-footers took to the streets

From midnight until well into the first day of New Year, the air thronged with revelry as first-footers moved through the streets, visiting neighbours, friends and relatives.

The first-footer would traditionally arrive bearing gifts to bring good fortune and health which could be anything from a bottle of whisky to a lump of coal to place on the fire.

Pains were taken to make sure that both cupboards and pockets were full because, if they were empty on Hogmanay, it was thought that poverty would ensue.

The first essential was to thoroughly clean the house before the last day of the old year for it was thought that this banished the ill luck of the past 12 months.

A bread rush to stock up on food at Hogmanay 1981 at Tesco in Dundee. Image: DC Thomson.

In fact, every task had to be done by the last day of the old year for, if any was left unfinished, matrimonial aspirations would not be successful.

Dr Kenneth Baxter from the University of Dundee Archive Services said: “The key thing is Hogmanay and the New Year were for a long time much bigger than Christmas in Scotland and even after Christmas became a public holiday in 1958, the New Year festivities retained their importance.

“In Dundee, the High Street, just outside the Town House had long been a focus for crowds gathering at New Year, with its clock providing the definitive proof that the new year had begun.

“Interestingly, it’s demolition in 1932 thus posed a problem.

“In the event a large crowd did gather in the High Street, but there was reportedly some uncertainty as to exactly when 1933 had started!

“The completion of the City Square meant it soon became the place where people gathered and events were held there.”

Dundee was the City of Paper Hats

Dundee’s first City Square Hogmanay party was in 1934.

Dundee was dubbed the “City of Paper Hats” by the Evening Telegraph.

The newspaper said “every other man and woman in the huge crowd” wore a paper hat, and – judging from the din – carried a “bundle of squibs” which brought loud bangs.

“Many wearers of the paper hats did not go to bed after the New Year arrived.

“They just kept on celebrating, and when daylight arrived the streets were still full of paper hats. By that time the hats had a more jaunty appearance than their wearers.

“The revellers found the City Square a grand place to hansel the New Year.

“And then there were the steps fronting the Caird Hall.

“They provided a welcome resting place for tired revellers.”

From there most of the crowd dispelled and headed off into 1935 on their first-footing adventure while others slept off the excesses with four arrested for drunken behaviour.

Sometimes staying at home can be just as dangerous.

On Hogmanay 1948 a Dundee man took what he believed to be whisky from his cupboard and after his first drink realised it was actually disinfectant.

He was taken to Dundee Royal Infirmary and was later allowed home.

A group of women hoping for a Hogmanay kiss and celebrating the start of 1949. Image: DC Thomson.

Over 10,000 people greeted 1950 in the City Square with explosions of fireworks while dancing and singing to the accompaniment of bagpipes, penny whistles and accordions.

The end of year service in the City Square was introduced in 1952 as part of the programme of events organised around the donation of the city’s first Christmas tree.

“Hugh O. Douglas who, was the minister of Dundee Parish Church (St Mary’s) led the services in his role as chaplain to Dundee Corporation,” said Dr Baxter.

“In 1954 he was joined by William Hughes who had become Lord Provost earlier that year. Psalms 23 and 100 were sung.

“Over 10,000 were gathered in the City Square and the High Street by 11.45pm.

“At midnight a rocket was launched from the Caird Hall to mark the start of 1955 before the crowd joined hands and sang Auld Lang Syne.

“Earlier in the evening there been people selling party hats and first footing gifts and parents and children watched dancing and listened to music.

“Shortly after the New Year was welcomed in the crowds dispersed to go first-footing with special trams laid on for them.”

New Year celebrations in Dundee City Square in 1991.
New Year celebrations in Dundee City Square in 1991. Image: DC Thomson.

Party fever continued in the City Square through the decades including the Hogmanay lead-in to the yearlong celebrations to mark Dundee’s Octocentenary in 1991.

Some 6,000-7,000 people congregated and the countdown to midnight started when all eyes were fixed on a giant laser clock with a chant erupting on the stroke of 12.

Some hardy souls could not resist a quick plunge in the City Square fountains.

A crowd of people pose for the camera in the City Square in 1993. Image: DC Thomson.

In 1993 there were 3,000 “largely youthful and mostly alcohol-fuelled” City Square revellers seeing in the bells but numbers dwindled as the new decade approached.

Fast-forward to 1999 where street parties were being organised across the UK to bring in the new century and Dundee’s ticketed-event was named Millennium Dawn.

Radio Tay DJ Gary Robinson provided the sounds while the Penny Dainties, The Cutting Edge and Boogalusa performed an eclectic mix of live music.

Revellers at the millennium party in Dundee in 2000.
Revellers at the millennium party in Dundee in 2000. Image: DC Thomson.

At midnight a lone piper heralded the dawning of the new millennium alongside a spectacular fireworks display which lit up the skies across the Tay.

Things didn’t quite go off with a bang when only half of the 12,000 ticket holders decided to brave the cold for what should have been the biggest party night ever staged.

A lack of public transport and city centre pubs charging up to £30 for entry was blamed for some people deciding to stay closer to home to welcome in the new century.

Were you among those in the crowd back on December 31 1999? Image: DC Thomson.

Others instead gathered at Dundee Law to get a better vantage point of the fireworks.

That was only 24 years ago, but it feels like a different world.

There have been attempts to revive the Hogmanay City Square celebrations including an Edinburgh-style two-day event in 2019 which was scaled back and headed indoors.

Dundee Hogmanay celebrations used to make headlines throughout Scotland.

Is it time to bring the party back?

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