Nollaig (‘Christmas’) in the Scottish Highlands Long Ago

Although Christmas was not the most important festival in the Gaelic communities of the western Highlands, it was observed; today it is much more the commercialised festival that it has become all over Britain, but in Carmichael’s day, the old traditions wers still observed, although even at that time they were rapidly dying out. Up to the last century, Christmas chants were very numerous. Carmichael comments that, where they wers still recited, it was the boys of the township who performed the ceremonies attendant on the chants. He records that on Christmas Eve groups of boys used to go from house to house, and from township to township chanting the old traditional songs. They were known in Gaelic as Gillean Nollaig, ‘Christmas Lads’, or, alternatively goisearan, ‘guisers ’. They dressed up in white, wearing long, surplice‑like shirts and tall white hats. When they entered a dwelling‑house they would immediately lift up any child they found there. If there was no child in any particular house, a substitute of some kind was used; the baby, or imitation child being known as Crist or Cristean, ‘the Little Christ’. The infant was placed on the skin of a male lamb, a creature without blemish, which was first specially consecrated for this purpose. It was then carried three times round the fire in a deiseal (‘sunwise’) direction, the leader of the boys carrying it, while all the boys followed, singing a chant known as the Christmas Hail. The sacred lambskin was called uilim. Afterwards, offerings were made to the babe. Then the people of the house gave the Christmas lads food and drink and a feast followed. Martin notes that the inhabitants of Harris, who were all Protestants, observed the festival of Christmas, but provides no further details. He also makes the same comment about the Protestant island of North Uist, likewise with no attendant details. He makes an interesting comment that on the festival customs of the island of Oronsay; he notes that, although the men kept the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Godd Friday, the women only observed the festivity of the nativity of the Virgin Mary.

Carmichael records a very interesting tradition of Christmas for the stock. This was known as Nollaig do Spréidh (‘Christmas for the Livestock’), and continued, in some areas at least, until the mid‑nineteenth century. For example, apparently on the island of Lismore, it was the custom to provide each animal with a special breakfast on Christmas morning. Horses and cattle were given a sheaf of corn from the stall; sheaves of corn were spread out for the sheep in the fields; the pigs and the poultry likewise had a special feast. If there was a suitable tree near to the dwelling-house a sheaf of oats was hung up on it. If not, a wooden pole was erected and the sheaf was fastened to the top of the pole, a custom reminiscent of of the most archaic pagan practice. Carmichael also records that in Breadalbane the cows were believed to go down on their on their knees in their byres at midnight on Christmas Eve. Another very odd Highland belief was that all the bees would leave their hives at three o’clock on Christmas morning, to return again immediately.

From the book, ‘The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands’ by Anne Ross (B.T.Batsford, London, 1976).


1.Carmichael: A. Carmichael, ‘Carmina Gadelica’, Edinburgh, 1928.

2. Martin: M. Martin, ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’, Stirling, 1934.

A Box of Christmas Readings