With Old Year’s Night almost upon us once again, I have to decide where to be at the bells. Living in Edinburgh this used to be easy, the town used to gather on the High Street, spilling out onto Princes Street. However nowadays things are not so easy, the Edinburgh Hogmanay I used to know is dead.
When I first moved to Edinburgh, returning to the land of my birth after a long sojourn in the south, I experienced the real Edinburgh Hogmanay. I had been told that the High Street was the place to be at the bells. Heading out on Old Year’s Night, I went to pub I regularly frequented, which closed at 11:00 pm. In those days, most of the pubs closed early for Hogmanay, but not because they had to, as most were licensed to stay open till midnight or beyond. No, they closed so that their staff could join in the celebrations in the centre of town.
Arriving on High Street, the place was very busy, at its height in the mid 1990s there were 300,000 people (Edinburgh has a standing population of about 500,000) out on the street for the Bells. The thing that truly impressed me was the friendliness of the crowd. On Ne’er Day (New Years Day) in the news reports you would hear about how there had been a couple of thousand people gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square and that there had been a few hundred arrests by the police (mostly for theft but several for violence). Whereas in Edinburgh it was unusual for there to be more than 10 arrests, all for drunkenness.
At midnight traditionally bells were rung, but this has long been replaced by fireworks and the Edinburgh fireworks are big (if the killjoys from the Council haven’t cancelled them because there is a wee bit of wind blowing). The centre of the fireworks displays is the Castle, in some years there have also been major displays on the other Edinburgh hills (there are seven in all) as well. From the ramparts of the Castle and surrounding area four tons (or more, this year it is to be 7 tons) of fireworks are set off in the space of 5 minutes, but the sound of the fireworks is almost drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Then the greeting would start, a central part of Hogmanay is to welcome friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and of course a kiss to wish everyone a “Guid New Year!” or as Burns put it
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
There is a version of the final line which runs “We’ll tak a kiss o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” and so it was in the days before the fence. For several hours people would work their way up one side of the High St and down the other, greeting all they met. This went on until the council street sweeping teams moved in at 3 am to start the clean up, by sunrise the streets were so clean you wouldn’t know there had been such great revelries the night before.
One year a friend of one of my flatmates decided to mark all those who where kissed by one of the party by giving them a wee spray of vanilla essence. Before setting out from the flat we were all anointed with vanilla essence, the effects of this were interesting. One lassie I met gave me a quick kiss, only it wasn’t so quick, when she finished she smiled and said “you taste of ice cream” and then came back for seconds…
Of course it isn’t only on the High Street that the celebrations are carried on, down on Princes Street various bands play. One year a famous Edinburgh Ceilidh band, The Tartan Amoebas, were playing on the roof of the Waverley Centre, up on North Bridge there were people dancing impromptu ceilidh dances. No caller was needed, these were all locals who knew the dances. For me it was always centred on the High Street, it was only later on (after 1 am) that I would go down the Mound to Princes Street to find other friends there.
In that time it was the town coming together to clear out the vestiges of the old year, to have a clean break and welcome in a young, New Year on a happy note. Even at my first Edinburgh Hogmanay, when I had only been living in the town for three months, I met at least ten people who I could put names to, but it was the other 20 odd people, who greeted me by name and I hadn’t a clue who they were, that surprised me. There were many many more who openly offered me the hand of friendship or as Burns put it
“And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine,
And we’ll tak a right gude willie waught
For auld lang syne!“
Only some were not so keen on the bit about “we’ll tak a right gude willie waught“.
But all this was before the fence. It was decided that the celebrations were getting too big and so it was decided to fence off the city centre. The people of the town were fenced out their own party, yes, the council let you apply for a pass to get in, but less than 50% went to people living in the town. The effect of this has been to totally change the nature of the “famous Edinburgh Hogmanay”. Last time I was inwith the fence for the Bells, I met one person I knew and if I extended my hand with cry of “Happy New Year”, people looked at me as if I was mad and drew away as I was not part of their group. So I say the Edinburgh Hogmanay is dead, killed by the desire to provide something for the tourists. Yes the tourists come in their thousands and brave the weather to see in the new year in Edinburgh, not knowing that they have killed the very thing they have come to see, such is the nature of tourism I suppose.
Wherever you are at the Bells, here is wishing you HAPPY NEW YEAR!! One final piece of advice if you do see a man in kilt, do go up to him and offer your hand and ” tak a kiss o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”, but don’t ask what is worn under the kilt, you might find out more than you bargained for.