It’s always been a common tradition for residents of a town or city in Scotland to gather around a central market cross or tollbooth on New Year’s Eve, to wait for the hands of the town clock to reach midnight. At “the bells” there would be a great cheer, all the other church bells would ring, ships’ foghorns would blare, everyone would greet everyone else, and bottles of whisky would be passed round (champagne, when you think about it, is woefully impractical). This is basically what still happens today – though with many, many, more people. In some years, the night of December 31 has seen a quarter of a million people population of Edinburgh is only 350,000) thronging the streets of the capital. In the early part of the evening the atmosphere builds, as crowds begin to gather and revellers emerge from pubs to meet up with friends or claim the best spots – either near the music stages or anywhere with a view of Edinburgh Castle – in anticipation of the midnight fireworks display. The street party officially begins at 10pm, with acts ranging from up-and-coming rock bands to big-name DJs appearing on the various music stages, while banks of screens elsewhere relay the action. You might choose to get up close to one stage, or alternatively wander from one to another to get a taste of the different styles of music – camping things up with tribute bands such as Bjorn Again, or concentrating on world music or Scottish folk, with groups like Shooglenifty introducing revellers to the local speciality of rock’n’reeling. The headline gig takes place in Princes Street Gardens with its spectacular setting under the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, though to get close to this one you’ll need a separate ticket for the concert, and it’s always a sellout; in recent years, UB40 and home-grown heroes Texas have done the honours. Basically, though, the best thing to do is just hang out, drinking and dancing and making new friends as midnight approaches, when all who can still focus keep an eye on the clock face on the tower on the Balmoral Hotel, which dominates the east end of Princes Street. This is normally two minutes fast to help folk catch their train at nearby Waverley Station, and Hogmanay is the only day of the year it tells the right time. During the countdown to midnight, the roar of the crowd drowns out any hands still on stage, and at the first stroke of midnight, the spectacular skyline of Edinburgh is lit up by eight tons of fireworks launched from seven hills around the city, including the most dramatic of all, the craggy volcanic outcrop supporting Edinburgh Castle. Then, all that remains is to wish 100,000 people a Happy New Year.
The music on the different stages goes on for another hour, but even after they’ve finished, the crowds take some time to disperse. Unless you have a ticket, invitation or are prepared to join a long queue, you’ll struggle to get into most of the main clubs and venues in town. Pubs start shutting at 1am and are closed by 3am, so most people who are still standing head for a house party. Over the days leading up to Hogmanay you’d be unlucky if no one in your group got an invitation to one of these, and being a friend of a friend is more than enough to gain entry to most places.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day is a public holiday and should by rights be left well alone for nursing hangovers without distraction. But some people are inspired to do the strangest things (or maybe they’re just still drunk). At noon at South Queensferry, underneath the Forth Rail Bridge northwest of Edinburgh, there’s something called the Loony Dook, which involves stripping off most of your clothes and swimming in the sea. Around the same time, a triathlon lakes place around Arthur’s Seat, the hill that looms over Edinburgh, for everyone else, the pubs open at 1 lam, and quite a lot of them sell their own patented hangover cure. You can risk this if you dare, or just seek out one serving a full Scottish breakfast – porridge, followed by a plateful of bacon, sausage, egg, black pudding and fried potato scone.
Insider info Not only do the Scots have their own name for the last day of the year, but the song sung around the globe to see out the old year and usher in the new, Auld Lang Syne, is a traditional Scottish tune with lyrics by Robert Burns, the country’s national poet.
Getting a street-party pass
To avoid overcrowding, entry to the main street party in the centre of the city is strictly limited to those carrying a pass; unsurprisingly, these are difficult to get hold of. Edinburgh residents can apply in writing for a pass (£2.50) sometime in the autumn – if you know someone living in the city, you could ask them to get one for you. Otherwise, you can purchase a ticket for one of the special concerts that take place within the cordoned area on the night of New Year’s Eve (available mid-November); join Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Club, which has a couple of levels of membership – one under £20 and one around £50 – both of which throw in various extras or privileges along with the crucial street pass; or stay in a hotel or hostel that throws one in as part of an accommodation package. A limited number of passes are also normally made available at the Hogmanay ticket centre on a first-come, first-served basis on December 28 – details are available nearer the time.