The Hogmanay Boys – Hogmanay traditions in the Uists

University of the Highlands and Islands Gaelic Officer, DJ MacIntyre, describes taking part in a Hogmanay tradition as a child on the island of South Uist.

“I remember to this day the feeling of freezing rain blinding me and the extreme cold wind causing my ears to hurt. However, that did not bother me at this time. What was the occasion? Well, this was Hogmanay and the boys of the township were carrying out the traditional ritual of going from house to house on this special evening. What is the tradition behind it? It is widely thought that some of these island traditions came from the Vikings who were settlers in the Western Isles in particular, during past times. To be honest, that did not matter to me. I was out and about having fun.

This traditional event which happened in the Uists throughout the centuries, was also practised in many other places, but with differences in format depending on where you lived.

On these nights it was the young males that went round the township with permission given to boys as young as 5 to go out with the big boys. The upper age limit was normally 17.

dj-macintyreMy township was North Boisdale and I would say there were about 25 houses to visit and a few not so friendly dogs to dodge! The start time was 7pm and all the boys would meet up at one end of the township and begin to visit each house on route. Each person had a pillow case or bag that would be filled with goodies received from householders. As you walked between each house the boys would shout in Gaelic “Hogmanay and New Year Hooray”. This alerted the folk, especially on a clear calm night, that the Hogmanay boys were on their way.

Outside each house one person would recite the Hogmanay poem and at the end of the poem ask the man of the house for permission to enter. Once inside the house a candle would be lit by the senior/eldest boy in the group and then the candle would be passed round all family members starting with the householder. There was superstition involved with this as it was thought that when the candle was being circled above each individual’s head, if the candle was to go out it meant that individual would have a year of bad luck. Of course jokers within the family would try and blow the candle out when this was taking place!

Whisky tasting by the fireOnce every member of the family had been passed the candle, the mother of the house would bring out the gifts. Loafs of bread, sugar, fruit, biscuits and of course sweets. Sometimes folk would offer meat or fish. The man of the house would give money as would older males in the family. Older men in the township would offer a dram to the senior boys, which would of course be refused.

On leaving each house the oldest boy in the group would wish luck on the family for the coming year.

After being to each house the pillowcases would be full and heavy and it was at the last house that the fun began. The pillowcases would be emptied and the goods shared out evenly. It did not matter how old you were the boys all got their share. The hosting house would also provide a small party that would finish before midnight so all the boys were home before the bells.

On the way home the blinding rain or freezing conditions did not bother me as I now had a pillowcase full of goodies, a full belly, and money in my pocket. A great start to the New Year!”

Links with Norse tradition

Orkney September 2015 photoshootDr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney, confirms the Hogmanay Boys tradition has connections to Norse culture. She explains:

“As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” (go Yule-goating). Julebukk involves putting on a mask and going to people’s doors to chase Christmas out around New Year. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties – ah, the joy of ending up with a huge sack of goodies!

“If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, Norwegian people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billygoat’s head on a stick. The guisers would be offered food and drink at each farm.

uphelly“These customs are extremely old, going back to pre-Christian beliefs. Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year. Interestingly, similar traditions are also found in Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland and Orkney. In Shetland today, for example, guisers travel around and are offered food and drink at Up Helly Aa in January.”

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” – Experiences of an engineering intern in New York

BSc (Hons) Architectural Technology graduate Rory Macfarlane from Dundee travelled to New York to take up an internship as an engineering assistant with Turner Construction in February. Here, he provides an update on his progress and experiences:

My project is in full swing and has been for a couple of years, it is called the NYU Langone Kimmel Pavilion Project and it’s part of New York University’s massive hospital network in New York. It’s a very complex and technologically advanced hospital with all the latest state-of-the-art steel frame construction, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and will be one of, if not, the best hospitals for operations once complete and with a specialist paediatrics unit.

Kimmel Langone! Cutain wall installation underway

The hospital is going to be the sort of place where presidents, film stars, diplomats and their children go for treatment. Mock-ups of the patient rooms and reception area are being built on the floor of another building a few blocks away they have been renting for the last three to four years. The total cost for the project is expected to reach approx. $ 800 million!!

Very interesting, but also crazy, how time-consuming the process with unions, design issues and delays etc is. I am basically working as a change order engineer dealing with sorting out whether or not changes requested by the design team, subcontractors or Turner can be facilitated, coordinated and, most of all, who’s going to pay for the change. I then put together packages with letters, drawing backup with mark-ups, subs proposals and other info to request the money whether it be in the GMP or outside and request these funds from NYU.

Inspecting patient headwalls

I am learning a lot about how to actually get these types of buildings built and that alone is worth the trip. It’s very interesting a lot of the time and Turner also encourages you to take up training courses. I will be taking a course in Building Information Modelling training up to Level 5/6 as it is being used on my project and they are expanding into the design and build side of construction so it is an area an employee can get into. I am also learning about LEAN for four days as there is a big push within the company to streamline and reduce waste in all facets of the construction phases.

On the roof with the Empire State building in the background

My degree was an excellent opportunity for me to enter the field of architecture and pursue my dream career. From the offset the course engaged me and the rest of the students in my year in a fast paced and well-structured learning curve with excellent lecturers and tutors. Their goal is to prepare you with all the tools and all the passion necessary to fulfil your potential in the construction industry.

The unique opportunity to come and work in New York has been a dream come true and one that I could only have achieved with the help of both my lecturers at my local campus, Inverness College UHI, and the university itself. I doubt there is any other Scottish university that offers this chance of a lifetime. The classes, projects and technical facilities available are all geared towards you hitting the ground running in your new job and the training I received allowed me to come to work in the most highly pressurised construction environment on the planet and be well prepared for the job. As the say in New York, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”!

For more information about our Architectural Technology BSc (Hons), visit

Rory and fellow intern Ewen at New York Tartan Day Parade

Elite Athlete Fund Report CELTMAN! 2016


Sam Black, a BSc (Hons) marine science student at SAMS UHI in Oban, received support from the university’s Elite Athlete Fund to compete in this year’s CELTMAN! The extreme triathlon is held in Wester Ross in June and involves a 3.8k swim, a 202k cycle and a 42k run. Here, Sam describes what it’s like to take part in the gruelling challenge.

SamSam with his support runner Joakim

I’m very happy to report that, in a time of 15 hours, 19 minutes and 58 seconds, I crossed the Celtman finish line after a fairly strong race. Additionally, my arrival at the second run transition with 45 minutes to spare enabled me to run the high mountain route, earning me a Celtman finisher blue t-shirt and a pair of rather sore legs. Easier said than done right? Well, here’s a little look into what it involved…

The day before the race

10pm: After a long journey and some delays my parents arrived in Torridon with 90% of my race gear. Almost immediately a whirlwind of packing, preparing and practice ensued which continued until around 1am. My mind raced as I lay in bed with around 7 different alarms set for 2.15am.

Race day

With at most an hour of sleep under my belt the alarm rang and I began shovelling porridge and toast into my mouth. My father, girlfriend, support runner and I left the cottage at 3.15am and headed for Shieldaig through a thick fog. Upon arrival I registered, set up my gear and jumped on one of the buses taking athletes to the start line.

Tensions where high as we disembarked the bus at the start line. For the next 30 minutes we waited impatiently in a field by the start line as the midge began to swarm, urged on by a group of drummers and a piper who played a foreboding tune.

The swim

Following this we headed to the shore as the race organiser shouted, “5 minutes until the start!” Unlike the majority of others, I stayed on dry land until we had one minute left, where then I made a quick dash out to the start line. Shortly after I heard somebody shout from behind “bloody hell go C’MON, the airhorn’s burst”. The message quickly swept through the ranks and before I knew it I was swimming for my life through shoals of jellyfish and neoprene clad feet. After a few kicks in the face I made my way into the clear and swam into a nice rhythm; stroke, stroke, stroke, gasp, repeat. We were racing!

“I’m getting pretty cold now, I must be near half way”, I said to myself. Sadly, after checking my watch, I found that I’d been swimming for 11 minutes. I battled on, but with around 500m to go I couldn’t keep my fingers together and my pace dropped. As one of the very few who made the mistake of swimming in bare hands and feet, arriving on the rocky, barnacle covered shore was a tricky business. Now completely disorientated, I was thrown up the shore by a marshal where I found my feet on the Shieldaig slipway.

SwimPhoto by Steve Carter (

The cycle

My support runner (Joakim, who could have been Postman Pat for all I knew) pushed me towards my bike and helped me get changed. After 2 small sausage rolls, some hot water and a kit change I felt human enough to grab my bike and head off to start my 202 km cycle.

As my father was on kayak safety duty, I rode the first 70km of the cycle unsupported. I blasted through the first 50km incredibly fast, averaging around 33 km/h, purely because I was freezin’!

The next 150km seemed to pass quickly thanks to my fantastic support team, the incredible weather, jaw-dropping scenery and a quick toilet stop that even Paula Radcliffe would have been proud of.

Yum-yums, mars bars, flap jacks and energy gels kept my spirits high as I pushed through a light headwind toward transition 2. I couldn’t wait to give my wee bony bum a rest and stretch the legs out!


The run

Riding slightly ahead of the main group I was, unlike many others, lucky to get through transition 2 (Bike to Run) fairly unscathed in around 6 minutes. With 2.5 hours to cover the 18 km to transition 2A, Joakim and I were pretty confident we would make the 11 hour cut off, enabling us to run the high mountain route. The continued roastin’ weather coupled with the brutal nature of the bike to run transition made the first 12 km pretty tough.

With gritted teeth I arrived at T2A with 45 minutes to spare: “Congratulations, you’re going up the mountain!” said someone at the sidelines. “Yay for me”, I replied as we began our approach towards Ben Eighe which towered above us.

The first 300m of ascent gave me a new found appreciation for the accuracy and appropriateness of the word ‘hamstring’. However at the 500m mark my legs woke up, allowing me to almost double my pace. After being piped up onto the ridge by yet another bagpiper Joakim and I snapped a few pictures and set off down the scree. I was able to shut off my brain as we began our descent over the blocky, sharp rock and before I knew it we were applying some emergency blister patches on the summit of the second Munro.

By this point we were quite unaware that the hardest part was yet to come: 4km of treacherous descent and 5km of mind numbing stepping stone trail, all before 9km on unforgiving asphalt. My stomach packed in after 6km and was only saved by a pact Joakim and I made over a mars bar – “The first one to be sick loses”.

Upon reaching the road we ditched our bags, drank the rest of our water and ran off the go get our free finisher beer. By this point we were both pretty tired, however we pushed through. With 3km to go we were rewarded with a gorgeous view down Loch Torridon. I could have cried….in fact I probably was crying, who knows! The last 1km followed the shoreline by Torridon village before doubling back and finishing up at the village hall. As we rounded the corner I saw my Dad, who informed me that everyone was at the finish.


The finish line

Joakim and I crossed the line with a time just shy of 15 hours and 20 minutes. It was pretty moving to have so many friends and family members at the finish. It was as much their race as it was mine and I cannot thank them all enough for their support.

And that was that. Joakim and I continued to eat from the moment we stopped until when our heads hit the pillow that night. Surprisingly my legs felt pretty good and the only injuries I appeared to have sustained were a result of insufficient application of anti-chafing cream. And with that, I’ll leave it there.

Well, almost! I’d like to say a huge thank you to the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Elite Athlete Support Fund for their financial support. Ultimately, I would not have been able to compete in the race had I not received the funding from the support fund. It was incredibly comforting to be supported by my home university institution and I hope through my blog, various newspaper reports and the CELTMAN! video itself I have inspired both students within and outside the university to do something similar.

FinishJoakim (blue t-shirt) and Sam (vest top) with friends and family at the finishing line



Towards an “Internet of Food”: Food Ontologies for the Internet of Things

For many people January is a time to set healthy eating goals after the excesses of the festive period. Knowing which foods to opt for and which to avoid or working out how much you should eat can be a complicated process.

Professor Boulos, an expert in digital health at the University of the Highlands and Islands, is part of a group of researchers which have suggested there is potential to develop powerful and comprehensive systems which can help users make healthy choices tailored to their personal circumstances.


A new breed of “automated food scanner” apps, devices and methods is emerging which aim at identifying the exact nature of food and drinks in our diet.

Methods include: barcode scanning, weighing with portable electronic scales, vision-based measurement of volume/weight/portion size by smartphone camera photos, remote food and drink recognition by crowdsourced volunteers or dieticians using smartphone photos of meals sent over the Internet and/or Near Infrared spectroscopy (using a handheld sensor/scanner communicating wirelessly with a specialised smartphone app).

However, these methods are of limited value if we cannot further reason with the identified food and drink items in the context of a user’s health conditions and preferences.

Many of these methods connect to lookup databases to match and identify a scanned food or drink item and report the results back to the user. Such databases are based on ontologies – formal namings of sets of concepts within a domain. In smart e-health systems, food ontologies offer efficient and flexible means to capture knowledge about dietary concepts.

My research partners and I reviewed a number of existing food ontologies that can, with appropriate modifications and additions and along with other relevant non-food ontologies, supplement these databases in an attempt to progress from the mere automated identification of food and drinks to an application which can reason with identified items to better assist users in making healthy choices tailored to their circumstances.

Existing ontologies

The ontologies reviewed included:

  • FoodWiki – a food consumption mobile e-health system which aims to help patients to avoid unhealthy ingredients that could worsen their health condition
  • FOODS: A Food-Oriented Ontology-Driven System – Diabetes Edition – a food menu recommender system for people with diabetes
  • Open Food Facts – a global food database based on contributions from individuals around the world which allows users to learn about food nutritional information and compare products from around the world.

Although none of the reviewed ontologies is fully comprehensive in scope and coverage (some are meant for very specific uses), they are good examples to learn from and might also form a basis to be expanded for future developments towards a universal comprehensive “smart diet assessment and recommendation” engine/application for consumers and patients with various diet-sensitive conditions worldwide.

Existing ontologies and their applications hint at the potential of the “powerful and smarter semantic reasoning with food data” that can be achieved if such ontologies are combined with other relevant non-food ontologies.

Delivering an “Internet of Food”

This kind of advanced application and reasoning requires a detailed knowledge of (or ontologies about):

  1. Individual user’s characteristics and health status/medical history
  2. The best, current clinical evidence about nutrition/dietetics and disease conditions
  3. Knowledge about different foods and drinks, local cuisine characteristics/cooking habits, commercial food/drink product offerings, etc. Variation by country and region should also be taken into consideration, given that people frequently travel these days for short or prolonged periods for work or leisure.

These complementary types of knowledge and the corresponding ontologies are key to delivering a smart “Internet of Food” which, much like the wider concept of the “Internet of Things”, would employ devices with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity to create opportunities for more direct integration between the physical world and computer-based systems to improve efficiency and accuracy. Such an Internet of food could provide context and user-specific diet insights and “intelligent” recommendations based on individual’s health needs, circumstances and profiles at any given time.

For example, if gluten is identified as part of the composition of a scanned food item (from a food ontology) and we know the user who is about to ingest that food suffers from coeliac disease (from user’s health profile/medical history instance of a user model ontology) and we know that eating foods containing gluten can trigger a range of symptoms in people with celiac disease (from best current clinical evidence in a disease ontology), we can warn the user to avoid eating that food item.

Such an application could also help to advise users about any essential ingredients lacking in their diet or about their intake of substances with cumulative toxicity so they can stay within recommended limits. People with diabetes could benefit from a closer look at the carbohydrates profile of their diet and those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease might appreciate automated checks on the amounts of salt and saturated fats in their meals.


There is a growing demand for healthcare services to help people make informed choices about their wellbeing, including the foods and drinks they consume. Improper eating can contribute to or precipitate diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, some types of cancer and some types of allergies.

To enable lay users and healthcare professionals to gain access to relevant medical knowledge about food products in e-health systems that integrate different technologies and data sources, semantic frameworks containing machine-readable annotations (ontology) about food and other relevant domains (e.g., clinical medicine, individual user profiles) are critical for the successful delivery of such smart e-health systems.

The ultimate goal is to progress beyond the mere identification of the details of what is on the user’s plate to answering the key question about “how good or healthy is the food given the user’s individual health condition, personal needs and preferences” and making recommendations for specific, personalised dietary improvements.

– – –

This post has been developed from the paper “Towards an “Internet of Food”: Food Ontologies for the Internet of Things” which was published in Volume 7, Issue 4 of the Future Internet journal. The paper was written by:

  • Professor Maged N. Kamel Boulos – The Alexander Graham Bell Centre for Digital Health, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland
  • Abdulslam Yassine – Distributed and Collaborative Virtual Environments Research (DISCOVER) Lab, University of Ottawa, Canada
  • Shervin Shirmohammadi – College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Istanbul Şehir University, Turkey
  • Chakkrit Snae Namahoot – Faculty of Science, Naresuan University, Thailand


  • Michael Brückner – Faculty of Education, Naresuan University, Thailand


2015 Solar Eclipse

By Dr Eddie Graham,  meteorologist, researcher and lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands

A solar eclipse is when the moon moves in front of the Sun, blocking sunlight from reaching parts of the Earth’s surface. However, due to variations in their orbits and because the moon is much smaller in size than the Sun, total solar eclipses are much rarer than total lunar (moon) eclipses. They are also much less common over high latitudes (such as in Scotland), hence the very unique occasion of tomorrow’s eclipse.

Tomorrow morning (Friday 20 March 2015), the moon will move in front the Sun from approximately 8:30am to 10:45am, covering more than 98% of its surface at its peak in Stornoway at 9:45am (it will reach a complete totality of 100% over the Faroe Isles and within 130 miles of the Butt of Lewis.)

During the eclipse, it is expected to become quite dark and eerie, with sharper shadows and diffuse light patterns and it is likely to feel cold. Birds and animals may react strangely to the event (Eddie welcomes the submission of any strange observations to him at or on Twitter @eddy_weather)

Unfortunately, the forecast is looking rather cloudy for tomorrow, with the greatest chance of viewing the eclipse being over eastern and south-eastern Scotland (or up in an aeroplane at 10,000ft or higher!)

Please note: Do not look directly at the sun. Use eclipse glasses.

Supertides in Scotland

By Dr Jason McIlvenny and Dr Philip Gillibrand, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI


The tides around the coast of the United Kingdom fluctuate between “spring” tides and “neap” tides according to the moon’s phase, full moons and new moons giving rise to the largest range tides, known as “spring” tides. That means that both the highest high tides and the lowest low tides (i.e. the largest range) occur at “springs”, while at neap tides the tidal range is smallest. The word “neap” is thought to have originated from the Middle English word ‘neep’ meaning small.  The word spring refers to the tide springing up and not the season of spring.

In simple terms, spring tides occur when the gravitational effects of the moon and the sun are aligned, giving the greatest net effect. At neap tides, the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon act in perpendicular directions, so the net effect is smaller.

There are other, more subtle, effects on the tides, due to slow variations in the relative orbits of the earth, moon and sun. For example, due to the tilt of the earth and orbital changes, there is an astronomical tidal cycle with an 18.6 year period (known as the ‘nodal period’). During 2015 we will reach the peak of this cycle. Therefore at springs, the large tidal range will be even larger with higher than normal high tides, leading to the so-called supertides. The largest tides will occur at the spring and autumnal equinoxes:

  • 20-21 February 2015
  • 29-30 September 2015

Tides at the equinoxes are generally the largest of the year, so this year will be the largest seen for a number of years.


The high astronomical tides will not cause coastal flooding alone around the Scottish coastline unless combined with the effects of storm conditions. Storm systems can cause an increase in water level known as a storm surge which can elevate the normal tidal height as much as 1.5 meters.

In contrast to this, the upcoming astronomical tides will increase the average spring tide height up to 30 cm around Scotland (most places however will be increased only 10 to 20 centimetres).  The difference in tides between locations depends on local conditions such as the shoreline topography and contour of the ocean floor.

At Scrabster, for example, an average spring tide consists of a high water of approximately just over 5 meters and a low water of approximately 0.5 m. The super tide in January increased this tidal ‘range’, with a high water level of 5.3 m and a low of 0.2 m. It might not sound much (increase of ~25 cm on normal tidal levels); however, if combined with a storm surge there is an increased risk of coastal flooding.

In Inverness the super-tide for January caused a predicted high tide of 5.0 m and a low tide of 0.7 m, whereas an average spring tide (for example, on 22 December 2014) the high water mark was 4.7m and the low tide was 0.9m).

Some tidal statistics from around Scotland are given in the table below:

Location Area HighestTide 2012 HighestTide 2013 HighestTide 2014 HighestTide 2015
mAOD Date mAOD Date
Millport South West 2.14 2.15 2.19 2 Feb 2014 2.15 23 Jan 2015
Ullapool North West 2.95 2.98 3.10 1 Feb 2014 3.01 22 Jan 2015
Wick Far North East 2.14 2.16 2.25 11 Sep 2014 2.29 30 Sep 2015
Moray Firth Moray Firth 2.60 2.60 2.74 11 Sep 2014 2.78 30 Sep 2015
Aberdeen North East 2.46 2.43 2.58 11 Sep 2014 2.63 30 Sep 2015
Leith Firth of Forth 3.14 3.11 3.3 11 Sep 2014 3.34 30 Sep 2015

Areas of low-lying topography are most at risk of flooding. Outside Scotland in French Guiana, for example, the super tides will cause a 6 cm increase in the average spring tide height, which will lead to a 90 m shoreline retreat ( So the threat posed by super-tides depends strongly on the nature of the local coastal area.

Storm surges

Storm surges occur due to the winds and low pressure associated with a large depression or storm. Low atmospheric pressure allows the local sea surface to rise, and strong winds can pile up water against a coastline. Combined, these two effects can elevate sea level by several meters (the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina in the Bay of Mexico in 2005 was about 9 m). Closer to home, in January 2005 a large storm (see figure) created a storm surge which elevated the normal level of the tides in the north coast of Scotland by 1.5 meters. The storm led to significant flooding in communities along the north coast of Scotland.


12 January 2005 storm



View over the river from Janet Street, Thurso, 12 Jan 2005



Scrabster Harbour office front door, 12 Jan 2005



Thurso Harbour 12 Jan 2005


For more information, contact:

Dr Jason McIlvenny, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI.

Dr Philip Gillibrand, Senior Research Fellow, Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI.  Tel: 01847 889686


‘The one that got away’: understanding the salmon in northern Scotland, c.1600 to c.1800

By Dr David Worthington, Head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History  

As salmon anglers prepare for a new season by and on the rivers and lochs of the University of the Highlands and Islands region, this blog shows that this much-discussed fish has had a controversial reputation in history. ‘Omega 3 fatty acids’ do not feature in Gaelic mythology. Nevertheless, the legend of Finn MacCool (Fionn Mac Cumhaill) depicts the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, the flesh of which, when consumed, would transmit wisdom and other powers. Further afield, indigenous peoples from as far apart as the Pacific North West, northern Japan and Siberia, have enacted complex rituals to mark the importance of the salmon in their respective cultures. All of this suggests just how common it has been to seek to benefit from the apparent spiritual, commercial and nutritional value of what is often referred to in Scotland as the ‘king of fish’.

Here in the Highlands and Islands, in 1629, the Scottish Privy Council reported that one of the “speciall temporall blessings [of] … the north pairts of this kingdome consists in the salmound [salmon] fishing”.[1] Several decades later, Daniel Defoe, renowned English trader, writer and spy, claimed that “the rivers and lakes also in all this country are prodigiously full of salmon; it is hardly credible what the people relate of the quantity of salmon taken in these rivers, especially in the Spey, the Nairn, the Ness, and other rivers thereabout”. He added that salmon was “in such plenty as is scarce credible, and so cheap, that to those who have any substance to buy with, it is not worth their while to catch it themselves”. Other 18th century writers came to similar conclusions.

A few warned against the fish, all the same. When visiting the north of Scotland in the 1650s, the English traveller, Richard Franck, was – in contrast to those concerned today about Infectious Salmon Anaemia and other diseases that can spread among and from captive stocks – worried simply that: “…should the inhabitants [of northern Scotland] daily feed upon them,  they would inevitably endanger their health, if not their lives, by surfeiting; for the abundance of salmon hereabouts in these parts, is hardly to be credited… …the danger, in my opinion, lies most in the diet: for as salmon is a fish very apt to surfeit, more especially fresh salmon, when only boiled; which if too frequently fed on, relaxes the belly, and makes the passages so slippery, that the retentive faculties become debilitated; so suffers the body to be hurried into a flux, and sometimes into a fever, as pernicious as death.”[2]

The concept of Highlanders surfeiting on salmon – a fish that has become a more exclusive preserve in the region – seems hard to imagine, although Franck was not alone in claiming its limited role in ensuring a healthy diet.

Was salmon fishing in the north ever carried out as a sport in this period? A quote from Aberdeenshire poet, Arthur Johnston (c.1579-1641), is intriguing here:

“A salmon disports in my pools today: tomorrow he fixes his haunt in the upper stream. Why should I let another devour the creatures I have fed? ‘Tis not a work, but a pastime. The huntsman and fowler make a toil of their work; mine is a refreshment.”

Jonston’s ‘A Fisher’s Apology’, from which this is taken, comprises a lengthy complaint to a local minister about not being allowed to fish for salmon on the Sabbath. It outlines the activity, on one hand, as a highly regulated and commercial pursuit permitting local burgesses to “purchase wine to strengthen the young and enliven the old” and, on the other, as a simple “refreshment”.

So, the part of the salmon in the history of northern Scotland and the Highlands might be considered a ‘big issue that got away’. It is one made controversial by the question of the fish’s extraordinary migrations across sea and up-river, the frequent consideration of its flesh as a source of sustenance, intelligence and more material benefits, its symbolic position as a reflection of the region’s social inequality, or else, for a small number of writers at the other end of the scale, its association with ill-health. Clearly, despite salmon’s high visibility and popularity on restaurant menus and in recipes today and its occasional capture by anglers poised by riverbanks from Ness Walk to the Naver and the Nell, this ‘highly paradoxical fish’[3] occupies a slippery position in the history of northern Scotland. For every dramatic leap upstream there have been moments where it has had to linger in darker pools.

[1] Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, Second Series (Edinburgh, 1901), III, p.18.

[2] Richard Franck, Northern memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp.133-4

[3] Peter Coates, Salmon (London, 2006), p. 10.

A Very Viking Christmas? Yule be surprised!

With merchandise from Disney’s Scandinavian-inspired animation Frozen expected to top toy gift lists this year and the increasing popularity of Scandinavian-style festive jumpers, staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for Nordic Studies give an insight into how Viking culture has influenced Christmas traditions.

Yule Festival

While Christmas is predominantly viewed as a Christian celebration, many of the traditions associated with it are thought to have origins in Viking culture. Scandinavian people marked the time around the winter solstice, when daylight hours start to lengthen, long before Christianity came to Nordic regions. They would prepare food, brew alcohol and visit friends and relatives in the festival known as Yule, a term possibly derived from the Old Norse “jól”.

Dr Alex Sanmark, reader at the Orkney-based Centre for Nordic Studies, explains: “The meaning of “jól” is uncertain and no satisfactory explanation has been put forward, but suggestions have ranged from “the time of blizzards” to “joyous feast” and even “magic”.

“Drinking played an important part in “jól” celebrations. According to early Christian laws, all the farmers had to join together to brew beer for Christmas and this beer should then be drunk at a party for “peace and prosperity”. This is clearly a Christian version of a much older, pagan tradition relating to the fertility cult – a form of nature worship used to try to ensure that people, plants and animals were productive. One of the earliest usages of the word “jól” is in a poem probably composed around 900, where we find the typical expression “to drink jól”, again showing that alcohol was a central part of Viking midwinter celebrations.”

Singing, acting and Santa? 

A further Nordic tradition associated with Christmas involves dressing up, visiting houses and singing songs. Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a researcher at the University’s Centre for Nordic Studies, reveals:

“Another custom surrounding Yule is that of dressing up in costumes and engaging in community drama. As a child in Norway in the 1980s, I remember dressing up to “gå julebukk” – to go Yule-goating. Julebukk involves dressing up with a mask and going to people’s doors to chase out Christmas around New Year time. You sing and carry a sack to collect cakes and sweeties.

“If we go a couple of hundred years further back in time, people used to walk in a group around the farms in the parish, dressed up so that nobody would recognise them. It was the custom for them to be offered something to drink and eat at each farm. These costumes could be rather frightening and represent fantastical animals, such as an effigy of a billygoat’s – or Yule Goat’s – head on a stick. Folk belief had it that supernatural beings were extra active at this time of year, so the costumes could also have represented the “Oskoreia” – a frightening collection of supernatural creatures chasing about. It was best to stay indoors when the Oskoreia sweeps across your farmyard.”

Another creature in Scandinavian folk belief was a small being known as the “tomte” or “nisse”, thought to live in byres and stables.

Dr Ljosland notes: “The “tomte” or “nisse” was an elf-like creature in grey clothing and a pointed hat. It was a good idea to be nice to this being, for example by offering him some food and drink now and then, as he could be helpful if you were kind to him and naughty if you were not. Nowadays, the “Jultomte” or “Julenisse” (“Yule-tomte” or “Yule-nisse”) is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. As a child living in a city, I remember putting out Christmas porridge for the “nisse” in our garage, in the lack of a stable. But it must have worked as it was all gone on Christmas morning!”

Aspects of these customs are echoed in aspects of the festive season we know today, including carol signing, Santa Claus and his elves, pantomime and first-footing.


A more recent addition to many families’ experience of Christmas is the Disney blockbuster, Frozen. Loosely based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, the film is full of references to Scandinavia and its traditions. The animation is set in Arendelle, a mythical kingdom inspired by the fjords, mountains and architecture of Norway. It features several items associated with Scandinavian history and culture, including Nordic runes, a maypole and trolls.

Professor Donna Heddle, director of the Centre for Nordic Studies, summarises the relationship between Nordic culture and Christmas: “There is no doubt the North has had an influence on the modern concept of Christmas and this is now being seen in popular culture, for example, in films like Disney’s Frozen.

“There is a real place in Norway called Arendal and Orkney gets our municipal Christmas tree from there every year – an interesting link which bridges the real and the imagined Nordic world.”

The Centre for Nordic Studies is part of Orkney College UHI, one of the University of the Highlands and Islands thirteen partners. You can find out more about its work and courses at The next intake for its Viking Studies course is January 2015. 

Hoping for a White Christmas? Seven Facts about Yuletide Snow!

By Dr Eddie Graham, University of the Highlands and Islands

We’ve already seen some snowfalls across Scotland over the past week – but what are the chances for there to be enough snow for Santa and his reindeers to pull the sledge this coming Christmas Eve? Meteorologist and lecturer, Dr Eddie Graham, describes seven things to watch out for if you hoping for a white Christmas:

  1. Look to the North! It is from the north that Scotland usually gets its snowiest and coldest weather. Initially, the best places to find snow are Caithness, Sutherland, around the Moray Firth and northern Aberdeenshire. For sustained and lengthy periods of snow across all of Scotland, the ideal conditions would involve a blast of frigid air directly from the Arctic (containing heavy snow showers within a ‘polar low’), followed by several days of fine, freezing weather as a cold anticyclone becomes established – we saw conditions just like this during Christmas 1995 and again at Christmas 2010.
  2. Easterly winds from Siberia are less likely to develop early in the winter, but in the past they have brought substantial snowfalls to east-facing coasts and hills (especially across the Borders and rural Aberdeenshire) – for example at Christmas 1996.
  3. Westerly winds can also bring snow occasionally, but it usually does not last for long at sea-level and tends to be slushy in nature.
  4. Visit the Highlands! The chance of snow increases markedly with altitude in Scotland, almost regardless of how little snow there has been near sea-level. So if you are desperate to throw a snowball or just touch the white stuff, make a beeline for a Corbett (above 2,500 feet) or a Munro (above 3,000 feet) – you are almost guaranteed to see some snow!
  5. Watch for hesitant, wavering fronts advancing slowly from the south-west – if deep cold air has become established over Scotland (for example, during an extended period of high pressure with frosty conditions), a slowly advancing Atlantic frontal system can potentially bring very heavy snowfalls on its progress north-eastwards.
  6. The best conditions for making a Snowman? Actually these are not to be found during coldest weather, but when the air temperature is near freezing-point or even slightly above. This is because snow sticks best when there is a little (liquid) water present. So roll your snowballs at the warmest time of the day! Powder snow, on the other hand, is much more likely at sub-zero temperatures (typically below -3°C, right down to sub double-digits °C) – these make the best conditions for skiing, especially off-piste!
  7. Can I predict snow or icy conditions at home without watching a weather forecast? Yes, certainly! Make sure that you have a thermometer – put it in a sheltered place outside (away from direct sunlight or sources of heat) and watch the barometer and the wind direction too. If the air pressure and temperature are both low and the wind swings into the north-west, north or north-east, then the chance of snow is definitely increasing!

For regular updates on the weather from the Highlands and Islands, you can follow Eddie on Twitter at: or read his weather blog at:

A ‘passage exceeding hazardous’? The ferries of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths before 1900

Dr David Worthington, Centre for History

With the Kessock Bridge undergoing major repairs at the moment and the Cromarty to Nigg ferry due to open next week, Dr David Worthington, head of the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History, gives an insight into how people used to cross the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.

A ‘passage exceeding hazardous’? The ferries of the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths before 1900

“…a pleasant prospect: the rich banks of the firth, crowded with farms, and animated with all the appearances of industry; small vessels sailing up and down; people busy for preparing and unloading them; fishermen attending their nets; the ferry boats ready at a call; the extensive prospects of the rich-lands in Ross-shire and a good inn seen among trees on the opposite shore.”[1]

Banff-born minister, Charles Cordiner, recorded these fond memories of being aboard a ferry heading southwards across the Kyle of Sutherland in 1776. He was not alone in being so positive about northern Highland ferries. In the 1790s, the Minister of Cromarty concluded that the ‘safety of this ferry [Cromarty to Invergordon] may be judged of’ since ‘no accident has been known to have happened upon it’, a point made also about the Ardersier to Chanonry route by his counterpart in Rosemarkie and by claims, in the 1830s, that, despite the absence of a steamship, there remained ‘no ferry in Scotland better attended to’ than the Inverness to North Kessock service.[2]


A postcard marked 1906, sent to a Mrs Muirhead, possibly of a Cromarty ferry of the time. [Cromarty Archive Image Library No: 276]

These pre-20th century vessels may have served local passengers well enough on the whole. However, sea crossings in northern Europe are scarcely ever placid and external commentators usually conveyed an impression that the ferries were dangerous, at worst, and uncomfortable and expensive at best. In the 1650s, English visitor, Richard Franck, described the Inverness to North Kessock route as ‘exceeding hazardous’ and ‘rugged’, believing he would be capsized not just due to the ‘luxuriant tides, and aggravating winds, that violently contract the surff of the sea’, but because of the ‘porposses’ [porpoises or dolphins] that he thought were in danger of leaping into the boat.[3] In the early 19th century, James Loch, estate commissioner for the first duke of Sutherland, remarked that the vessels were ‘without every accommodation which could make them either comfortable or convenient, the passenger being left exposed to all the inclemency of a variable and boisterous climate’, so that ‘the risk of crossing these narrow friths, hemmed in between mountains, was considerable’.[4] The Minister of Kincardine near Ardgay was justified in being perturbed about the Meikle Ferry crossing across the Dornoch Firth which ‘is considered one of the most dangerous and inconvenient in the north; and many lives have been lost in crossing it’.[5] Tragically, the ferry capsized there during a 1809 crossing causing up to 100 people to be drowned. Shortly after, Bristol-born poet and traveller, Robert Southey, met a son of one of those who died who ‘could never bear to set foot in a ferry boat after that catastrophe, and was thus cut off from communication with the south till this bridge [Bonar Bridge, 1812] was built’.[6]

Possible loss of life aside, travellers complained, even on calm days, of delays, discomfort and cold. In the 1760s, Bishop Robert Forbes was ‘long detained’ at Ardersier since ‘the Boat could not take over the Pasengers that appeared, the Horses and the Chaise all at once’.[7] James Loch said his horse and carriage were only ‘slowly and unskillfully put into the wretched boats’[8] and Southey claimed that passengers on the Invergordon to Cromarty service had been ‘sometimes obliged to mount their horses nearly a quarter of a mile from the shore, and ride mid-leg deep in the water’.[9] Despite calling the Kessock ferry the ‘best in Scotland’, Bishop Robert Forbes also noted that ‘they have no good means of getting carriages on board, and there was considerable difficulty with one of the horses’.[10]

Ferries in the firthlands could also be expensive. Moray minister, the Reverend James Allan, remarked in 1690 that ‘tho I kindled no smoak, they forced me to pay a shilling sterling’ on the Ardersier to Chanonry crossing. For Elgin man, Issac Forsyth, the ‘very considerable revenue exacted’ by the various ferry proprietors may have been ‘requisite for the support and navigation of the boats’, but still ‘few are satisfied with the provision made either for their accommodation or their safety in the passage of the ferries’.[11]

Thankfully, times have changed. Better piers have been built and the Nigg to Cromarty ferry, a service with origins dating back to the 12th century, has, in modern times, become a safe and pleasurable experience for tourists and locals alike. Now that rail and road have taken over though and the Beauly, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths have all been bridged, it is perhaps only through taking to the waters in this way or from the air that we can be reminded of the basics of geography and of the networks that operated to link Ardersier with Little Ferry in eastern Sutherland and many points between along this roughly indented stretch of coastline.

[1] Charles Cordiner, Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland, in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant (s.n., 1780), pp.65-6.

[2] The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799, 20 vols., (Wakefield, 1973-83.), XI, XII; The New Statistical Account of Scotland [hereafter NSA], 15 vols., (Edinburgh, 1845), XIV.

[3] Richard Franck, Northern memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1821), pp.205-6.

[4] James Loch, An Account of the Improvements on the Estates of the Marquess of Stafford, (London, 1820), pp.17-19.

[5] NSA, XVI, p. 422.

[6] C.H. Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, (London, 1929), p. 129.

[7] J.B. Craven (ed.), Journals of the episcopal visitations of the Right Rev. Robert Forbes (London, 1923), p.151.

[8] Loch, An Account, pp.17-19.

[9] Herford (ed.), Robert Southey, p.121.

[10] Craven (ed.), Journals, p.167.

[11] Isaac Forsyth, A Survey of the Province of Moray: Historical, Geographical, and Political(Aberdeen, 1798), pp.338-9.



Where learning means more | Far a bheil ionnsachadh a’ ciallachadh barrachd