Sitting in the flickering candlelight, in front of a roaring fire. Thick clouds of darkness and shadows enveloped the farmhouse, as a mighty storm bit across the land taking the power with it.

My first island Hogmanay saw wild storms peppered with intermittent power cuts. Those 'Hydro' workers out in the fiercest of weather were working hard to get light and heat back into the island’s homes.

It had started with a large gathering in the local hotel, the air fizzy with the excitement of the party season and all the hopes and dreams as one year was set to merge into the next. It felt strange then to suddenly find myself being bundled out of the door by a kilt-clad Happy Farmer, into the eye of a storm, as last orders were called, and the bar emptied well before midnight.

Homeward for ‘the bells’, a time-honoured tradition in the Highlands and islands.

The remaining revellers were ‘blown’ back to the farm in dribs and drabs, as the rain lashed down in torrents. The Happy Farmer’s sister had arrived up from Devon with a large crowd ready to celebrate a Hebridean Hogmanay. Hot water had run out long ago, as the tank had been emptied in the flurry to get everyone ‘spruced up and party ready’.

Huddled in the small snug, as it was the warmest room in the old farmhouse, in front of a roaring fire, we tucked into roast venison. You could barely see the food on the plate, such was the darkness that had descended.


Hebridean sheep in the foreground and snow-covered paps of Jura in the background ... how much more festive can it get at Persabus?

Hebridean sheep in the foreground and snow-covered paps of Jura in the background ... how much more festive can it get at Persabus?


Trying to decipher when the bells actually rang was the next issue, as with no power, lots of watches all set at slightly differing times and several drams on the go ... did it even matter?

Some poor guest, deemed to have the darkest hair, was bundled out of the back door and into the storm with plenty of time to midnight. Reassurances that he was the ‘lucky’ one, he was armed with coal, a bottle of whisky and some cake, and told to wait until the hour had passed.

Gun shots were fired into the night skies to mark the passing of the year, and as our ‘first foot’, dreich and cold, was allowed across the threshold once more, the house was blessed with warmth, food for the table, and drink for the year ahead and the party began.

I hadn’t quite appreciated how much stamina was required for an island Hogmanay, as more and more guests continued to arrive throughout the night. Each one clutching a bag of drink and food to share with the party. In turn, they were offered food and a dram from the house before they left for the next home.

Into the wee small hours and beyond, gamekeepers performed their party pieces, swivelling under an upturned broom. A 'squeeze box’ on the knee and ceilidh dances commenced across the kitchen.

There were songs a plenty, and as the storm died down and the night skies became day, still more revellers arrived. Others lay snoring in the very seats they had been partying in a few hours back, still clutching mugs of soup.

Finally, at some unearthly hour, I managed a little ‘shut eye’, as someone, somewhere in the farmhouse kept that party going. A party which continued into the next day and beyond.

There was such a hearty welcome in every home. Tables laden with food, as I was treated to the remarkable Highland hospitality of Ne’er Day and beyond, as the Happy Farmer took me out and about ‘visiting’ as the traditional first footing continued.

This 'visiting' flowed well into the month of January, interwoven with the celebrations of the annual Islay Farmers’ Dinner, the old New Year, the venison suppers which lead on into Burns’ suppers.

At some point, everyone would eventually find their merry way home once more. Those islanders knew how to keep the celebrations flowing and lighten the spirits of the darkest of months.


One of the Persabus Hebridean sheep managing to get into the Christmas spirit last week

One of the Persabus Hebridean sheep managing to get into the Christmas spirit last week


In those early days, the run up to Christmas had been an altogether quieter affair. Back in the city, whilst the streets were illuminated with festive lights, glitzy shop windows, and carols blasting out, the island’s villages had hardly a Christmas light in sight.

In October, the island’s mothers would gather, to form committees and begin the meticulous planning required to organise the most fantastic community Christmas parties for all the island’s children. Village halls filled with piles of home baking, party games, chocolate selection boxes, and a magical visit from Father Christmas, armed with a sack, filled with fantastic presents for every girl and boy.

Christingle services were held in the churches, followed later with nativities and 'Watchnight' services. On the farm, Christmas day continued as every other day, with feeding rounds and farm duties at the top of the list. Hogmanay was when the celebrations on the island really began.

Today, as we shimmy our way through these strange Covid-19 times, it is heartening to see the whole island ablaze with festive lights. The villages are lit up, remote farmhouses sparkling under moonlit skies.

Santa was seen, passing Port Ellen Primary School, his sleigh being pulled by a tractor, in early December. Apparently, Rudolph, Prancer and the rest of the gang were seen having a hearty feast at Dunlossit, ready to participate in the Reindeer Ramble.

The Old Kiln Café, at Ardbeg, had been out in force delivering Christmas dinners and Boxing Day beef Wellingtons. The pensioners were treated to an early Christmas dinner at Ballygrant Inn before the suggested restrictions came in. Santa and his grotto appeared on the village green, with a magical wonderland of deer, elves, and a sleigh, welcoming the island’s children.

Islay Young Farmers held their first Christmas Tractor Run, which saw a huge procession of sparkling tractors, decorated with flashing lights, making their way from the auction mart in Bridgend, on to Bowmore, raising money for the Islay and Jura Sick Children’s Fund in the process.

Tractors festooned with baubles, Santas and reindeer joined in the afternoon of fun, as wide-eyed children, adults and a few happy farmers looked on.

Mairi ‘the Magic Lamb Lady’s’ home is a sea of festive lights and energy, bringing that much needed sparkle to the island and beyond, as the community spirit takes over, and everyone brings to life the magic of festive cheer.

So, as one year merges into another, I find myself wanting to cling onto the very crumbs of everything the passing year has brought, reluctant to let go. The collection of memories captured in thoughts, photographs, words, and art.

As those bells chime and another year passed into the realms of the history books, time slipped by in an instant. I am already looking forward to the Happy Farmer continuing to lead me on his merry dance throughout the year ahead, which just leaves me to wish you and yours a very Happy New Year.