Oidhche Challain: No admission without a rhyme

Boisdale boys after visiting houses for Oidhche na Callainn, circa 1950. Credit DJ MacIntyre

In the latest feature published in association with the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches project, Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, course leader for the MSc Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, discusses the once ubiquitous traditions of Oidhche Challain in the Highlands.

It is a pitch-black night in a west coast village 150 years ago, the night of the 12 January: New Year according to the Julian calendar still followed by older people in the community, even though it was superseded by the more accurate Gregorian calendar a century ago.

Suddenly the silence is broken by a cacophony of shouting boys, and the pandemonium is taken up by dogs barking all over the village.

Oidhche Challain – or Oidhche Challaig or Oidhche Chullaig depending on where you are – has begun.

Gangs of boys in masks and white clothes roam from house to house. The strongest of them wears a calf- or sheepskin on his back, maybe with the horns still attached.

The gang swaggers round each house three times – in the Outer Isles, where the walls are wider, they even climb up them – then they demand entrance at the door.

But first, each boy has to recite his own rhyme. No rhyme, no admission.

Once allowed in, the gang parade three times sunwise around the peat fire in the middle of the floor, thumping the big lad in the skin with tongs or shinty sticks, making a fearful din.

Their leader ceremonially ‘fumigates’ the household and its inhabitants with smoke from a singed caisean-uchd or sheep’s dewlap, reciting a Duan Challainn or Hogmanay Rhyme. Before they leave, the boys are rewarded for their efforts with bannocks and treats to be wolfed down later at a midnight feast.

We can find more about Oidhche Challainn from field recordings in the School of Scottish Studies, now accessible on the wonderful online resource of Tobar an Dualchais.

For some collectors, it was the different versions of the lengthy Duan Challainn that interested them the most.

Thàinig mise a-nochd d’ur n-ionnsaigh,/A dh’ùrachadh dhuibh na Callainn./Cha leig mi a leas a bhith ga h-innse,/Bha i ann bho linn mo sheanar…

Tonight I have come to you to renew the Callainn. I don’t need to tell you, it was here in my grandfather’s time. / I shall ascend at the door-lintel, and descend at the door. I shall recite my rhyme politely and skilfully, as I should. / The New Year caisean is in my pocket, and a lot of smoke will come out of it. No one who gets a smell of it will not be forever healthy because of it…

And so on. You can listen to good versions online at Tobar an Dualchais, among them from An Rubha, Lewis, Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh, and in Cladach a Tuath, Cape Breton.

For the old men the collectors recorded, bodaich who had taken part in Oidhche Challainn as boys before the First World War, it was not necessarily the rann that remained strongest in the memory.

For many, it was the feast that counted. Donald John MacDonald from Baile an Truiseil, Lewis, remembered being regaled with rud beag siùcair, rud beag teatha, bainne, sgadan (‘some sugar, some tea, milk, herring’).

The local shop was kept specially open to give boys the chance to buy with their Callainn pennies exotic luxuries such as wheatflour loaves and jam. Others recalled the staying up late at night and the rowdy fun: Mary MacCormick, Earsaraigh, Barra, remembered how the boys would chase after the girls in the dark

When we compare the Tobar an Dualchais recordings, stories about the New Year at the beginning of the twentieth century, with earlier descriptions, it becomes clear that Oidhche Challainn had only relatively recently become a night for children.

Two or three generations previously, it had been a much more adult occasion, led by a man in a bull hide rather than a lad in a calfskin. Despite the nostalgic tone of some reminiscences, other accounts suggest that this older Oidhche Challainn was renowned for ribaldry and rough-housing – and also, perhaps unexpectedly, for poetry.

No one could cross the threshold of a house to receive hospitality unless they had a rhyme: the more memorable and pointed the better.

Tobar an Dualchais offers us a handful of fascinating examples, many clearly following well-worn templates. Some blessed generous hosts with extravagant praise, others playfully threatened the potentially tight-fisted with public vilification and even physical violence (TaD IDs 64558, 68180, 74364).

We also have a handful of intriguing old verses full of convoluted local in-jokes and smutty double-entendres that may once have had audiences helpless with laughter, but today are fiendishly difficult for us twenty-first century unsophisticates to decipher (TaD IDs 81706, 81901, 87632).

In an article in the School’s journal Scottish Studies, Gaelic scholar Ronnie Black has made a heroic attempt to explain two of the ruder ones!

Evidence from Tobar an Dualchais and other sources highlight the importance of Oidhche Challainn and similar celebrations throughout the year as a means of ensuring community cohesion, especially in times of hunger and distress.

During the carnivalesque New Year’s night, customary relationships were turned upside-down. By reciting their Hogmanay rhymes, poorer people not only gained entry to the houses of their better-off neighbours and thus claimed the right of hospitality; they placed these neighbours under a nasg Challainn or ‘Hogmanay bond’, a pledge to assist them.

These neighbours responded in kind with a sort of competitive giving: Mary MacCormick from Barra tells how her mother would spend two whole days baking barley bannocks to give away on Oidhche Challainn.

The celebration underlines the power that spoken verses once enjoyed in Gaelic society. Callainn rhymes reaffirmed neighbourly relationships by requesting, or extorting, hospitality; by provoking laughter; and by inspiring a mutual delight in and appreciation of apt, incisive poetic phrases.

In doling out honour and dishonour, they also enforced community norms. Oidhche Challainn faded away for any number of reasons: church disapproval; the withdrawal of gentry patronage for such rough-and-ready occasions; in cultural shifts in popular manners; or quite simply the change of the calendar itself, enforcing new patterns of work and education.

Murdo MacLeod from Liùrbost, for example, describes how Oidhche Challainn was held in his youth on the nearest Friday night to the Old New Year, because of the school week – much to the disgust of local bodaich.

The decline of such communal celebrations across the Scottish Gaelic world suggests a fraying of community ties.

In an increasingly precarious world, the unravelling of traditional neighbourly relationships and the passing away of an older way of conducting village life may have been significant, if unquantifiable, factors in impelling families to decide to leave their native soil.

Where did Oidhche Challainn come from? As many scholars have recognised, its name betrays its origin.

A’ Challainn is the Scottish Gaelic version of the New Year festivities of the Kalends, the greatest annual celebration in the late Roman Empire. We have sermons and penitentials from across western Europe in the early Middle Ages describing, and condemning, Kalend customs in which men dressed in horned animal skins paraded from house to house reciting bawdy rhymes – very reminiscent of our own Oidhche Challainn.

But although the priesthood may have complained, Kalends celebrations spread across Europe hand in hand with Christianity.

In Oidhche Challainn we see a carnivalesque caricature of the clergy, a mock annual exorcism carried out with smoke, when evil, in the shape of a horned beast, was scapegoated, beaten, and driven forth from the house.

As so often with Gaelic traditions, what appears as pagan or Celtic at first glance turns out to be firmly rooted in mainstream European culture.

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