Travel Writings


‘The Party Starts Here’ is the official slogan adopted by Edinburgh City Council, in their declared aim of making Edinburgh the site of the biggest and best Millennium New Year’s Eve party in the world, this time next year. However, the Scottish capital is already the place to be on December 31st - or Hogmanay as the natives call it - if you want to bring in the New Year in style, as I discovered around this time last year, when I spent a week there.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the latest festival in the calendar of this city of festivals, is now in its sixth year, and is the most well-attended and successful winter festival in the world. Last year the Street Party element alone attracted over 400,000 people. The event began in 1992, when Edinburgh hosted the European Union Summit, and a street-party was organised to liven things up. The whole enterprise has snowballed since then.









Of course, the Scottish tradition of placing more emphasis on ringing in the New Year than on celebrating Christmas goes back much further. It all started because the 16th century Protestant reformation was particularly severe there, and the elders of the Kirks banned religious celebrations, including Christmas, which they portrayed as ‘Popish’ and ‘Catholic’. But the rites of New Year were spared because they were pre-Christian. So, right up to the latter half of this century, most Scots worked over Christmas, and didn’t get a break until January 1st, so they could enjoy themselves the night before.

One of the many traditions associated with New Year in Scotland, some of which date back to Pagan times, is that of First Footing. After the stroke of midnight, the first person to visit a house should bring a piece of coal or other gift, to guarantee prosperity for that household during the coming year. To insure further good luck, this first caller must also be dark-haired, a condition which probably harks back to the fear of blond strangers born of bad memories of Viking day-trippers.

But no matter what time of the year you choose to go, Edinburgh is still one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. This distinction is partly an accident of nature, for the city is built upon a jumble of hills and valleys. However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the natural geography was enhanced by the works of a succession of Georgian and Victorian architects. The result today is high drama: there are countless spots where Edinburgh looks less like a city and more like a theatrical backdrop (which, in a sense, it becomes, during the International Festival and Fringe Festival in August, when the one million visitors dwarf the number who crowd in for Hogmanay.)

That Edinburgh is pure theatre is immediately demonstrated to travellers as they emerge from Waverly railway station, and look along the valley of Princes Street Gardens and gaze upon Edinburgh Castle, perched dramatically on its precipitous crag of volcanic rock. To the left, huddled on a lofty ridge, is the Old Town. Halfway along the valley, among the trees, rise the classical columns of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy. On the right soars the Scott Monument, a tribute to Sir Walter Scott.

Perhaps it is for its Castle that Edinburgh is most famous, and it offers splendid panoramic views of the city. Within its confines there is also much to see. The Royal apartments include the tiny room in which Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to the boy who was to become King James VI of Scotland and I of England. The Scottish Crown Jewels are on show in the Crown Room. The oldest building in all Edinburgh, St Margaret’s Chapel, is in the Castle’s precincts.

The first buildings in Edinburgh were hard by the Castle, for protection, but gradually they spread down the ridge to the east of the fortress. This is the Old Town. Before going down the Royal Mile, it is worth making a sortie along George IV Bridge to the top of Candlemaker Row, a convenient route to the Grassmarket, a square noted for its antique shops, boutiques, pubs and restaurants. Robert Burns and William Wordsworth were amongst those who once lodged in the White Hart Inn on the north side of the Grassmarket.

In the High Street is St Giles’ Cathedral, with its open ‘crown’ spire, a famous landmark in the city. The most picturesque house in the High Street section of the Royal Mile is the one said to have been occupied by John Knox, the famous Protestant reformer. Almost directly across the street is the Museum of Childhood, and at the end of the Royal Mile is Canongate, where most of Edinburgh’s surviving medieval buildings are concentrated.

To the north, between the Castle and the Firth of Forth, is the New Town, still called that despite the fact that it was created in the 18th century. By far the largest area of Georgian architecture in Europe, it remains largely residential today. Devised by the City Fathers to alleviate congestion within the confines of the city’s defensive wall, the New Town was designed by James Craig, and the influence of the French Enlightenment on Scottish intellectual life is evident in the rationalist approach taken in planning the symmetry of the streets.

Among Edinburgh’s other attractions are the Zoo, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Royal Botanic Garden at Inverleith, and the Camera Obscura in Castlehill, which was used to take the world’s first photograph.

Accommodation could well prove problematic, as places can be booked out sometimes a year in advance. If you leave it too late you may find the only digs left are way out of town. But it is still worth making the trip, as this year’s Edinburgh Hogmanay promises to be the best yet. Running from December 29th to January 1st, the festival will be catering for clubbers, culture vultures, foodies, sporties and tourists.

The four days of celebration kick off with a torchlight procession and fire festival. There will be two official festival clubs, The Hogmanay Festival Club and the Spiegeltent. The main event on Hogmanay night, the Street Party, will consist of live music and theatre on stages along Princes Street, a street theatre spectacular around 9 pm, giant screens showing Edinburgh Live TV, and a number of events such as the Concert in the Gardens and the New Year Revels, the main indoor party at The Assembly Rooms, for which tickets are required. This year, a free ticket will also be needed to enter the Street Party ‘arena’. The number of passes has been limited to 180,000, for safety reasons, and all these have already been claimed. But don’t worry if you don’t get into The Assembly Rooms, as you’re bound to find a party somewhere, especially if you’ve packed a wee dram. The Disco Inferno club, for example, is situated just outside the street party zone, so you won’t need a pass to access it.

Of course, next year is the big one, and there’s still time to book. But you could get a little practice in this year at singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, as the bagpipes bring in 1999 and fireworks light up the sky.

Getting There:

Flights over this period are already very heavily booked, but there are still some seats available from Aer Lingus at £199 rtn, plus £16.40 tax.

More festival details available from:

British Tourist Authority,
18 College Green,
Dublin 2.
Ph: 6708000


Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Box Office,
21 Market Street,
Ph: (0131) 4731998 Fax: (0131) 4732003










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