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
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.
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
More festival details available from:
British Tourist Authority,
18 College Green,
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Box Office,
21 Market Street,
Ph: (0131) 4731998 Fax: (0131) 4732003