Old Thoughts at a New Year: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay

Rooftops of Edinburgh from Camera Obscura

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for the sake of auld lang syne…

The last time I crossed over the border from England to Scotland, I was ten years old and driving for a day and a night in cross-legged comfort from the front seat of my dad’s car, where I voraciously read a ton of Goosebumps novels and a couple of Jacqueline Wilsons. Our destination was Perth, where my mum was performing in a play at the local theatre.

My memories from that time are blurred and faded. I remember rain, and cobbles, and a slight haze of mist that fogged over the tops of buildings. I have vivid recollections of watching Jurassic Park 2’s waterfall scene through tightly clenched fingers at the back of a half empty cinema.

Such is the mind of a ten year old.

Regardless of that week in the Scottish north, I’ve never really felt like I’ve actually been to Scotland. So when I was invited to Edinburgh, along with a group of twenty other bloggers, for one of the biggest New Year celebrations in the world, I couldn’t exactly say no.

Hogmanay Logo

Like a number of people around the world, New Year has often held something of a stigma for me. Each year, December 31st is given such importance that you feel guilty or embarrassed if you aren’t heading to an incredible party or an amazing event – and yet the years I’ve spent choked between damp bodies on the South Bank or spending three hours walking home through London’s cavorting streets are not the happiest of occasions!

In fact, some of my best New Year’s Eves have been spent inside, with friends or family, far from the chaos of the outside world. And I’ve been pretty smug about avoiding the craziness of a normal New Year’s Eve.

But then, Hogmanay in Scotland is not your typical New Year’s Eve knees up. Sure, there are fireworks, street parties, general jubilation and a heck of a lot of alcohol, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Something that I didn’t really understand until I became a part of it.

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At Hogmanay, it’s the old versus the new. It’s Scottish tradition combining with global modernity. The ancient grandeur of Edinburgh’s famous skyline peppered with ferris wheels and fairground rides, industrial speakers and strings of fairy lights.

And it’s about looking back to ‘auld lang syne’ – which literally means ‘times long past’ – and relishing the chance to step into the past. Starting with an evening of brandishing giant flaming candles while being led by a horde of roaring vikings, and ending with state-of-the-art fireworks exploding above a 12th century castle perched upon a dormant volcano.

Talk about your history.

Setting the streets alight

Lighting torches

The torchlight procession, which officially opens Hogmanay on December 30th, was what first alerted me to the wonderfully weird clash between the past and the present. Clutching at our huge tapered candles, I listened to overly concerned tourists fret about the expensive jackets purchased specifically for the depths of Scottish winter.

“Does wax stain if it drips onto polyester?”

“What if the sparks go into my hair and I catch on fire?”

And I heard more than one American voice pipe up with, “Isn’t this a health and safety risk?”  But luckily Edinburgh doesn’t concern itself with such trivialities. Hogmanay is bigger than that. And it was a talking point in days to come when you knew a torch bearer at the bus stop by the wax splatters on their sleeves.

Torchlight procession in Edinburgh

My favourite part though (as someone who labours under the delusion of “if I don’t have a photo of it then it didn’t really happen”) was the complete inability to take part in the procession, observe it and record it at the same time. It was hilarious watching my fellow bloggers try and fail to take shots with their iPhones of gloved hands holding flaming torches, while simultaneously avoiding dripping wax, sparks, and the ever present danger of burning someone else.

Needless to say, it was a little tricky.

Ultimately, we were all forced to pocket our electronics and simply enjoy the moment, walking through the streets with thousands of other people in the continuation of a centuries-old tradition.

“It’s like someone vomited tartan all over us!”

Bloggers in tartan at Edinburgh's Hogmanay

While not the most pleasant of sentences uttered by one of our blogger contingent, I absolutely adored being dressed head to toe in Scotland’s traditional pattern. Not least because the layers of thick wool sweater and tartan cape were enough to dispense with my rather unflattering Michelin-man-style puffer coat.

And despite the sidelong looks from the actual Scots as we wandered through the streets, it really got me in the mood for Hogmanay that night. Not to mention it was the perfect outfit to join in with dancing a few rounds at the Keilidh on Princes Street, leaving me breathless and red cheeked with tartan appendages flying.

I am not a great dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I like to think my kilt helped me out a bit.

Fancy a New Year’s swim?

Loony Dook at Queensferry

The aptly named Loony Dook has been officially running for twenty five years, and allows various crazy people to run, screaming, into the freezing cold water of the Firth river in outrageous costumes, on January 1st.

Yet again, it’s a tradition the Scots have embraced with open arms and chattering teeth, and was an absolute joy to watch – particularly for its location in Queensferry, set under the beautifully imposing behemoth that is the Forth Bridge.

Proud to be Scottish

Which brings me to my favourite discovery about being part of such a momentous Scottish celebration. The patriotism I felt by Scots for their country was incredible, and something I honestly had never thought about properly.

It’s something I feel sad that many English people, including myself, seem to be missing – but maybe it’s because I haven’t seen England through the eyes of a visitor as yet.

Forth Bridge at Loony Dook

Celebrating Hogmanay made me feel very small, but not in a negative sense. Instead of being insignificant in amongst the magnitude of crowds that thronged the Royal Mile and Princes Street, I felt like one tiny component of one huge event; something that absolutely needed all our tiny selves as contribution, in order to come together properly.

So that’s my new year’s resolution, made while people from all around the world held my hands in the darkness, on the slope of a Scottish hill, and throatily chanted words in a language they didn’t quite understand.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

It’s about people. Hogmanay is a chance to remember the people who matter to you in life, and to promise not to forget them. To not forget the past, either, and its importance in shaping our futures; whether for New Years Day, for the year ahead, or for life in general. Balancing tradition and the modern day. Tartan and iPhones. Candlelight and fireworks.

Fireworks at Edinburgh's Hogmanay

This campaign (the wonderfully named Blogmanay) is brought to you by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and is supported by VisitScotlandETAGEdinburgh FestivalsHaggis Adventures and SkyscannerThe campaign bloggers were sourced and managed by iambassador.

However, all opinions, musings, and general attempts at humour are entirely my own. 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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19 Responses to Old Thoughts at a New Year: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay

  1. Kirsten Alana January 12, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Oh Flora, you’ve truly done our weekend proud!! Such a better summary of what we did than I could pen. I love the way you wove in the words of my favorite Scottish song and the way you described having to just drink it all in during the torchlight without using technology (the irony being in the photo of us — I’m the one looking down at my phone)…. Because in the end, that’s what all of Blogmanay was about for me. The times it was best were when I was thoroughly unconnected to tech and far more connected to all of you and to Scotland.

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:10 am #

      I remain convinced that Scotland is better experienced without our technology obsessions and wifi entanglement! And I’m so glad Nadine kept wrenching me away from my iPad to make me look out of the window :) Blogmanay had to involve a certain level of connection but I’m glad some of us were able to switch off from time to time, too, and just enjoy Scotland as it is.

  2. Susan McNaughton January 12, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    So glad you enjoyed the shared experience of celebrating New Year in Scotland. It was the first time in a while that our family had joined in the organised celebrations. Some were fun, but on balance the main thing is to be amongst friends wherever you are. Hope 2013 is a great year for you wherever your travels take you.

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:11 am #

      Being with friends made the celebrations all the more sweet! Happy 2013 to you too, Susan – I hope your year brings everything you’re hoping for :)

  3. Mikeachim January 13, 2013 at 12:35 am #

    Och aye, Flora MacDonald.

    “Vomiting tartan” still makes me giggle.

    I often wonder about this perceived difference in patriotism with the English and elsewhere, here the Scottish. In England it’s almost something to be ashamed of. I’ve heard people who put English flags on their cars or flapping on their clothes lines referred to like this: “Oh, they’re probably B.N.P.”. Being genuinely patriotic in England is a curious and socially weird thing – acceptable in the right context (coming out of a Bond film; going into the Proms) but elsewhere…it can easily be labelled either bigoted or simply deluded. “You support England? Really? REALLY? Bwhahah! Oh boy, you kill me…”

    But yes, the patriotism in Scotland is a shot in the arm. Makes me proud to have a little of the right blood in me. I loved the good-natured chaos, walking the streets after the Street Party, just before you Twittered at me. It kinda felt like people came out and celebrated not because it was just what everyone did at that time of year, but because they *wanted* to.

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:21 am #

      It’s a great line of Kirsten’s, isn’t it?

      I’ve pondered long and hard about the lack of patriotism in England. It’s something I grew quite fascinated with when I was living in the States, because it was so blatant there and so blatantly missing back home; as you say, almost to a point of conscious ignorance for fear of being labelled over zealous.

      But I loved the quiet sincerity in Scottish patriotism. People didn’t shout it from the rooftops but they looked pleased and satisfied when they were being truly ‘Scottish’ – and nobody outwardly mocked us for wearing kilts, either, which in my book means they’re pretty awesome :p

  4. RYAN January 13, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    Flora, I am way jealous of your New Year. Or jealous of all you damn bloggers that went to Hogmanay! All I’ve been reading about is the celebrations (which look epic! Fiiiiire Oooooh!) and I think it blows the US celebrations out of the water. I avoided the nonsense, parties, and expensive bars to stay inside this year. Maybe someday I’ll make it to Scotland to watch the town light up and celebrate the coming New Year. Awesome photos, did you take a swim??

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:15 am #

      I’ve only had one New Years in America (San Francisco a few years back) but it was nothing in comparison to Edinburgh, so you should definitely try out Hogmanay sometime, Ryan! Plus I think it’s safe to say that you brandishing a fiery torch amongst a city full of rowdy Scots would be a sight to behold! I might have to be present for such an occasion.

      And sadly no, I didn’t jump in the freezing river this time around, but there’s always another Hogmanay…!

  5. Kay Gillespie January 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Peachy post Flora lassie. You’ve done the blogmanay festivities great justice!

    p.s. I was also a huge fan of Goosebumps and Jacqueline Wilson!

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:16 am #

      Thanks darling! I feel like you would have been an avid “Round the Twist” watcher too?!

  6. Peter Parkorr January 13, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    Great piece Flora! I like the juxtaposing. It was clearly a bit emotional for you. Glad we all had such a good time together tho.

    • Flora January 14, 2013 at 1:18 am #

      It was a tad emotional I think – but then so was Scotland in general, really! Nonetheless it was an absolute blast to celebrate with everyone. I’d do it all over again like a shot :)

  7. Christie February 21, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Loved reading this! Your blog is awesome!!

    Just thought I’d share a cool gadget I found this week- its called the Skyview- a device that clamps ipads, iphones and other tablets to the airplane seat in front of you. figure it will save my hands next time i fly!!

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