Cullaig is an ancient Celtic tradition that has persisted in Eriskay, and in a few other scattered villages in South Uist, in the Western Isles of Scotland. It’s something I took part in for years, and, consisting of a pagan ritual, its one of those lovely little connexions we Gaels have with our ancestors. On New Year’s Eve all the boys under the age of fourteen on the island partake in this tradition – they are called na Gillean Cullaig. They make a caiseann, which, historically, is a sharpened stick wrapped in sheep’s wool, but which is today more likely to be a candle wrapped in an oilskin. Bearing the caiseann they visit each house on the island. They knock on the door of the house, chanting as loudly as possible an old Gaidhlig rhyme called the duan. Here are the first few lines:
Thàining sinn a-nochd don dùthaich
A dhùrachadh dhuibh na Callainn
Cha leig sinn leas a bhi ga innse
Bha e ann ri linn ar seanair.
We came to the country tonight
To bless you with a New Year’s light
We needn’t bother telling you
Our grandfather did it in his time too.
The inhabitants of the house stand on the inside of the door listening, and when the boys finish the duan, they shout “friceam fraiceam leig a-staigh sinn!” [friceam fraiceam let us in!] and the man of the house is obliged to welcome the boys into his home.
The man of the house takes the caiseann from the boys and lights it in the fire. He makes the sign of the cross using the caiseann. He then moves the caiseann thrice clockwise in a circle, before making the sign of the cross again. Clockwise is a ‘lucky’ direction in Gaelic superstition. He performs this ritual on any of the children too young to do it themselves, before passing the candle on to the lady of the house (provided there are no other men in the house.) She blesses herself and repeats the ritual. The caiseann is then passed on around the elder children, and any other women. Tradition dictates that if the caiseann goes out on anyone while making the circular motions, then they will not live to see the next New Year.
The gillean Cullaig are given sweets and other treats, as well as money, and if they are lucky a bonach – a slice of dumpling. They are then sent on their way to the next house. The boys must be quick as they cannot be out on Cullaig after midnight. When they return home, the night’s takings are eaten to bring in the New Year, and any extra is shared out between the boys, and their sisters, if they have any.
After the bells, the grown men on the island will go first footing. Often they will take their sons’ caiseann with them, and the entire ceremony will be repeated again. This time, however, the rewards are a dram in every house. For obvious reasons, the grown men tend to linger in houses so they do not cover as much ground. Indeed, today, while the gillean Cullaig are still going strong, I only know of a few men – my dad among them – who still bother taking their caiseann with them when firstfooting.
Cha robh duine ann a chluinneadh e. Shaoil e gur ann coltach ri brag tàirneanach a bha a’ chasad, a’ sracadh plaide balbh na speuran le brùchdail oillteil borb. Cha robh duine ann a chluinneadh e. Shaoil e gur ann coltach ri cù fiadhaich a bha e, a’ cofhurtaich ann an co-sheirm le corra-biod casan a’ phuist. Ach cha robh duine ann a ghluaiseadh; cha robh duine ann a chluinneadh; agus cha robh duine ann a bhruidhneadh.
Cha robh duine ann a chuideachadh e. Bha greim aig galair air choireigin air an fhir seo, am fear àrd. Bha a chraiceann, a bha uaireigin cho geal ri min, air dubhadh fo grian loisgeach. O chionn fhada, ann an ciaradh an t-saoghail, mus tàinig spòg a’ ghleoca gu stad, bha e cho fut ri fiadh. Ach a dh’aindeoin gàire an turlaich sna speuran, bha sgàil air tuiteam thairis aodainn. Aodann a bha ag innse sgeulachd mu oidhcheannan fada, fuar, a’ falach bhon t-saoghal a-muigh, bhon fhìrinn, bhon chathair falamh, bho neamh gun ghrian.
Rinn e casad bheag eile. Sheas a chluasan an àird ag èisteachd ris a’ mhac-talla: fuam èiginneach fada, a’ magadh air. Las a shùilean airson a’ mhionaid bhiothbhuan ud. Ach an uairsin, a’ tilleadh gu fàsach bodhar an t-saoghail, bha na lòin leotha fhèin. Bha na sùilean falamh, glas, mar ghlainne cheòthach, mar sgàthain gun duine coimhead annta.
“O! nan cluinninn aon fhacal, aon fhacal, bho chreutair eile. Eadhan dìreach madainn mhath.”
Is a-rèir cruth an t-slèibhte, bha am facal mu dheireadh a’ seòladh air ais gu cluasan uaigneach.