Highland Archive Centre

The Highland Archive Service collects, conserves and makes accessible records which reflect the history and diversity of the Scottish Highlands and its inhabitants for the benefit of present and future generations. We have four centres covering the Highland region in Caithness, Inverness, Lochaber and Skye and Lochalsh. The archives held at these centres are the records of official bodies, businesses, societies and individuals and are a unique records of our Highland past. They date from the 14th century to the present day and include records of schools, poor relief, churches, businesses and family and estate papers.

Culag Bridge, Lochinver, in winter. Image courtesy of HLH Libraries (www.ambaile.org.uk).

A new year has begun and with it, we are looking back at the end of the year events of Christmas and New Year. From school holidays and visiting family, to nativity plays and present-shopping, many homes are a hive of activity. Documents in the collections at the Highland Archive Centre show that many of the things we do to mark Christmas and Hogmanay have not changed over the years. Family, business and local government records show that the themes of food, family and, of course, faith, have been central to the festive season for many years.

School at Christmas time

These days schools often run up to the Christmas holidays with treats, nativity plays, choirs and parties, and archives show that this has long been the case.  The Durness School log book entry of 23rd December 1904 records that as the term drew to a close that year pupils were presented with oranges, buns and cards (despite the prolonged absence of their teacher due to Scarlet Fever).  That year they were off school until 4th January – some years weren’t so generous and pupils sometimes didn’t even have Christmas Day itself off!

Extract from Durness School Log Book, 23 Dec 1904 (GB0232/CS/5/5/47a). Copyright: Highland Archive Service, Inverness.

Christmas shopping lists

Many people associate this time of year with the giving of gifts, the dominance of retail and the hectic busyness of shops.  Business collections held at the Highland Archive Centre give an insight into shops ordering extra stock for the season in past generations.  The letter book of Robert Rutherford and Sons, Helmsdale, from 1885, contains a list of items purchased from suppliers for Christmas presents.  The list conjures up an image of a shop full to bursting with exciting gifts – framed scripture texts, picture books and India rubber balls sit alongside draughts boards (with men), pocket knives, pencil cases and musical tops for children.  Women are catered for with a supply of ‘Lady’s Companions’, leather purses and plush albums.  The list also includes 1x ‘Father Xmas’, with no further details! 

Extract from Rutherford letterbook containing the Christmas order (GB0232/D1224/1/2/1). Copyright: Highland Archive Service, Inverness.

A Hogmanay poem

After the busyness of Christmas, as the old year turns to the new, it is often a time for reflection, thinking over the events of the year gone by, and planning for the one ahead.  Among the many personal documents held at the Highland Archive Centre is the 1818-1831 diary of Anne Fraser, a Highland governess.  She wrote at New Year, ‘I have promised to call up the children at the first ring of the door bell, that they may see Mr Nicolson & Mr Turner who have promised to be our first foot…’  While waiting for the gentlemen to arrive as the family’s first foot (a tradition still observed to this day) she noted in her diary “’tis sweet to spend an hour alone at such a time, to meditate on all the mercies of the by gone year.” 

“Hogmanay or The Last Night of the Year” from the diary of Anne Fraser (GB0232/D1038/1). Copyright: Highland Archive Service, Inverness.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history, and customs of the Highlands you may be interested in our Learn with Lorna series, in which our Community Engagement Officer shares stories from within our diverse collections.  The films, viewable on YouTube and Facebook, include an episode on Christmas in the collections and another on Festivities and Traditions.  

Written by Lorna Steele-McGinn, Community Engagement Officer at the Highland Archive Centre.

Special thanks to Peter Mennie for his assistance.

Edited by Isabel Lauterjung.

Further information:

Find out more about the service here: Highland Archive Centre – Highland Archive Centre (highlifehighland.com)

Search the catalogue here: Home Page (highlifehighland.com)