New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh – Edinburgh, Scotland

For the past eleven years, Edinburgh has hosted not just Europe’s but possibly the world’s most exciting New Year’s Eve celebrations. The Scottish New Year is known as Hogmanay, and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is a four-day festival of parades, fireworks, concerts, street theatre and general spectacle, all culminating in a huge street party on the night itself in Princes Street, the city’s main drag. My husband Andrew and I have spent the last several New Year’s Eves at home, enviously watching the festivities from Edinburgh on television. But last year, we decided that in 2003/04 we wouldn’t just dream it, we’d do it!

The most useful advice we received from those who’d been to Edinburgh for Hogmanay was to book accommodation early, unless we wanted to either: a) pay lots of money, or b) end up in a grungy youth hostel. Accordingly, we lined up our accommodation in April 2003! Another important factor to consider when visiting Edinburgh for Hogmanay is obtaining passes for the Street Party in Princes Street. Admission to the Street Party in the city centre on New Year’s Eve is by pass only – passes are free, but are distributed well in advance and there are never enough to go around. You can apply for them by postal ballot from October, but we decided not to risk this and decided to guarantee ourselves some passes. You can do this in a number of ways, but the cheapest is to become a member of the First Foot Club, the ‘friends’ of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. We bought our memberships online on the official website. For £15, members are guaranteed a Street Party pass, as well as priority booking for the various ticketed events held throughout the festival, and a variety of useful discounts in shops, restaurants and attractions around the city. This makes it pretty good value.

Coming from Dublin, travelling to Edinburgh was a relatively straightforward matter. Leaving on 28 December, we caught an hour-long Aer Lingus flight, which departed Dublin at 5.30 pm. By 7.30 pm we were pulling up in front of our hotel in a taxi. We chose the Borough Hotel, located in Causewayside, about a 20 minute walk (or short bus ride) south of Waverley train station in the city centre. The Borough Hotel is quite slick and modern in appearance, with a big emphasis on design – no tartan or chintz here. Our room was small (i.e. big enough for a double bed, a few shelves, and not much else) but well appointed, with a very comfortable bed, satellite TV and a DVD player. The bathroom was a good size and quite clean, with gratifyingly strong water pressure (sometimes a rarity in Britain).

After a late dinner and a good night’s sleep, our sightseeing began in earnest the following morning. We started with an excellent walking tour called ‘Secrets of the Royal Mile’, offered by a company called Mercat Tours. Our jovial local guide led us around the Old Town of Edinburgh, in and out of the ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ (small narrow lanes) which run off Edinburgh’s main historic street, the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle in the west to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the east. Our guide explained that this street is like a fish’s skeleton, with the Mile itself forming the backbone and the long, narrow closes and wynds radiating out from either side of it. Sights we took in during the tour included High Kirk of St. Giles (chief cathedral of the global Presbyterian Church), the old Parliament Hall, the Courts of Justice, the National Library, the Mercat (‘market’) Cross and Edinburgh Castle itself. En route, the guide relayed many fascinating stories of historic Edinburgh and its people. A thoroughly enjoyable tour – I was particularly struck by the way in which the city has preserved a genuine medieval character, in a way that most other major British cities (like London) have not.

After our tour ended at noon, we ambled slowly back down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which we visited for about an hour and a half. The Palace is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland and so it is very impressive. We picked up informative audio guides and toured a variety of rooms, most atmospheric of which were the suite of rooms which had been occupied in the sixteenth century by Mary, Queen of Scots. As she’s always been a bit of a historical heroine of mine, this was wonderful to see. One room in particular featured a large collection of the effects of Mary and her contemporaries, which have been acquired by the Royal Family over the years – her rosary, needlework, locks of hair, jewels, etc. The rooms were extensively restored in the 1980s, with a few rather cheesy historical effects having been removed at that time. This included the large and obviously fake ‘bloodstain’ on the floor of the central chamber, which gullible tourists were long told was that of David Rizzio, Mary’s Italian secretary who was brutally murdered at the Palace by a band of conspirators which included her husband.

After so much history, we needed to take a load off and so repaired to Rick’s Brasserie in the ‘New Town’ – the area north of Princes Street characterised by elegant Georgian architecture – for an enjoyable meal and a few drinks (for which we had a discount courtesy of our First Foot membership). We then rushed back to Parliament Square on the Royal Mile as the first big event of Hogmanay – the Torchlight Procession – was due to kick off at 6.30 p.m. The procession is held every year and attracts tens of thousands of participants, who buy torches in aid of charity. Each year there are different groups invited to lead the procession, but this year it was a gang of ‘Vikings’ from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. They paraded through the crowd in their big horned helmets, roaring and brandishing their torches, before taking up their places at the front of the parade, along with a large wooden boat on a float.

Finally everyone in the crowd got to light their torches and we were off. We left Parliament Square and proceded down towards the New Town, turning right along Princes Street before winding up to Calton Hill, east of the city centre. The sight of the river of flaming torches behind us was quite magnificent, and we were lucky enough to be walking right behind a pipe band, which played a steady stream of tunes en route. As we reached the top of Calton Hill, a pagan sight awaited us – the wooden boat had been placed atop a huge pyre and lit. It blazed away to the delight of everyone in the audience, and the event finished with a brief but spectacular fireworks display before the crowd broke up and we all began to make our way back to the city centre.

It was 8 pm by now, but our long day was not over yet! We retired to a coffee shop to warm up (it had been pretty cold all day – temperatures hovering around the freezing point). Then at 9 pm we made our way to the Mercat Cross for another Mercat Tour, this one called the ‘Ghost Hunter’. What with Edinburgh being an ancient place with plenty of gruesome history, I had been anticipating a bit of a scary walk around the dark and spooky Old Town, and visits were promised to both an old graveyard and the subterranean vaults in the oldest part of the city. Instead, however, the tour was light on history and heavy on stories of ghosts, murder and mayhem, all told in a slightly overblown fashion by our young guide. Oh well – at least it was interesting to see the vaults, which were only rediscovered a few years ago after having been blocked up for centuries. Many areas of the vaults were recently the subject of paranormal investigation, to document the many weird experiences of visitors on these tours who have claimed to feel ‘presences’ and that sort of thing. I must admit that I didn’t detect anything odd! But by 11 pm, with the tour finally finished, we were feeling pretty cold and tired, and so headed back to the hotel for good night’s sleep.

Tuesday morning dawned and another packed itinerary of sightseeing awaited us. After a fortifying breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, we headed out into the cold – it was another freezing day. Because of this, we took advantage of the city’s bus services and bought a ‘day saver’ bus ticket from the driver of the first bus we got on – it entitled us to unlimited journeys all day and so was good value at £1.80.

By 10.15 a.m. we arrived at our first stop of the day, Edinburgh Castle, and there were already a good few other tourists about. The castle complex is quite large and there’s a lot to see. Accordingly, it’s expensive – admission costs £8.50 for adults, with audio guides costing another £3.00. But once we got inside the castle grounds, we discovered that the audio guides weren’t really necessary as a free guided tour was about to begin! This was a bit annoying (the ticket booth attendants might have informed us of this) but at least the audio guide gave much more information than a tour guide would have. We spent about two and a half hours on site – had we listened to everything the audio guide had to say, we could have spent at least another hour or two. Most of the emphasis was on the castle’s history and function as a military fortification. This was only of marginal interest to me, but Andrew (being a military man) found it very enjoyable. Luckily, also on display were the Scottish crown jewels. There was a very informative exhibition which we passed through before viewing the jewels themselves, which were extremely impressive. We then went on to visit the small suite of royal apartments. All in all, the whole complex was interesting and worth a visit, but it was not, in my opinion, as good as the Palace of Holyroodhouse. However, this is personal preference on my part.

We left the castle at about 12.45 pm as we had a reservation for lunch at 1 pm in one of Edinburgh’s best restaurants, the Witchery by the Castle. I’d been quite looking forward to this as I’d been told the food and ambiance were lovely. We had our meal in the ‘Secret Garden’ dining room, which was indeed a very evocative setting. The service was attentive, and the food delicious. Obviously all this came at a price – the a la carte menu is quite expensive – but we opted for the two-course light lunch menu, a snip at £9.99 per person. I started with a delicious cream of cauliflower soup and then had the omelette Arnold Bennett, which featured a delicate filling of smoked haddock and soft cheese. Yum. Andrew had the confit of duck salad and a main course of goat’s cheese tart.

With happy full bellies, we then spent a few hours after lunch strolling the streets and browsing in the shops. We made a pit stop in one of the many Highland Outfitters to buy Andrew a casual sporran and new hose to go with his kilt (which he planned to wear to the Street Party on New Year’s Eve, of course). We then popped in for a quick visit to the quirky Museum of Childhood. One of the great things about Edinburgh is that nearly all the museums are free, so you don’t have to feel too guilty if you haven’t loads of time to spend in them. The Museum of Childhood’s displays of toys, clothes and other childhood memorabilia were quite extensive and well-arranged. Funnily enough, most of the people visiting were not children, but teenagers and twenty-somethings reminiscing about their youth.

I had hoped to visit The People’s Story, another of the free museums of the Royal Mile, but by this point it was nearly 5 pm and it was likely to be closed. Feeling a bit tired, we jumped on a bus back to our hotel to rest for a few hours. We settled into the hotel’s chic bar for happy hour cocktails, read newspapers and (in my case) wrote this diary. Later on we had a bit of bar food to sustain us for the evening, before wrapping up warmly again and heading back into town about 7.30 p.m.

From 8-11 p.m. the ‘Night Afore Fiesta’ was held in the New Town. This consisted of live music, street theatre and dance, with performers all along the length of George Street. By about 8.30 p.m. the area was packed and the ‘ceilidh stage’ (featuring traditional Scottish music) was rocking, with people in the crowd being taught various Scottish country dances. Street theatre troops were walking the length of the street, entertaining as they went. From 9 pm, back at the ceilidh stage, the crowd was gearing up to perform the world’s longest ‘Strip the Willow’ – a type of dance. Hundreds of people began dancing on cue just after 9 pm and the whole proceedings were filmed by the BBC.

By 9.30 we started drifting to the other end of the street, just in time to view a parade by a theatrical company called Runga Rung. They featured dancers and floats, with figures in fantastical costumes flinging glitter and flowers into the crowd, and all set to a Bollywood beat (much of the alternative entertainment that evening had an Indian theme). We followed the procession to the western end of George Street where a large video screen was in place. There, we enjoyed yet more performances, dancing and music before a grand finale with fireworks. It was a really entertaining show and brought the evening to a close around 10.30 pm. Not much left for us to do but head back to our hotel for a bit of relaxing and a drink before bed.

The 31st of December dawned and we were off that morning to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, sometime floating palace of Britain’s Royal Family. Decommissioned in 1997, the yacht is now permanently moored at the port of Leith, about three miles from Edinburgh city centre. After changing buses in the city centre, it was a fairly straightforward trip to reach Britannia. A huge shopping and entertainment complex has been built around the yacht – a bit soulless perhaps, but it has smartened up the area considerably. Admission prices are steep (£8.00 for adults) but luckily we got a discount with our First Foot membership. Before boarding the yacht itself, visitors were ushered through a good exhibition about various aspects of the yacht Unlike Andrew, I was less interested in the engineering and naval side of things, and more in life on board and any attendant royal secrets!

After passing through the exhibition, we were given (by now ubiquitous) audio guides and finally boarded the yacht for a comprehensive tour. I found it all quite amazing. I’d been looking forward to seeing the royal quarters, and while they were certainly luxurious in comparison to the spartan bunks for the crew below decks, they didn’t seem any more splendid than what you might see on an upscale cruise ship. Apparently the Queen wanted the yacht to be decorated more like an English country house than a palace, and that’s certainly the effect it gave. Overall, the decor was very old-fashioned – probably the height of design in the 1950s when the ship was built, but not really updated since. It gave the ship the air of a time capsule. And it really was quite strange to find myself looking at objects like the Queen’s bed and night table. At any rate, the yacht proved an intriguing and most enjoyable visit.

By the time we finished and picked up a few souvenirs in the shop, it was 1 p.m. We got a bus back into the city centre and did a little wandering around before settling on a small bistro called La P’tite Folie for lunch. A very pleasant meal ensued – tarte au Roquefort, salad, chicken with seafood, and a scrummy prune tart with cream were all consumed with relish. And the damage was very minimal – as I discovered, Edinburgh’s restaurants are extremely reasonably priced in comparison to Dublin. A three-course meal for the two of us came to less than £30.

Crowds were beginning to form in the city centre by this point, with preparations for the evening’s festivities, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a few hours given that we had a long night ahead. I worked on my diary, we read the papers, watched a film on DVD (courtesy of the hotel) and had cocktails at happy hour. All the while, we were periodically checking the weather forecasts for that evening. Without exception, they were forecasting blizzard conditions or heavy rain with high winds for the whole country that night! This did not bode well, to say the least.

Soon it was time to head out for the evening. About 9 p.m., we wrapped up extra warm and packed our rain ponchos, before setting off for the main event – the Street Party in the city centre. It was about a 25 minute walk to the perimeter (the area where the Street Party was being held had been fenced off) where we had to show our passes. No pass, no admittance, though there were already people arguing with security staff over this issue as we went in.

We went to Princes Street and settled down in front of the main ceilidh stage. Also on offer that evening were a concert featuring Erasure at the west end of Princes Street Gardens (at £25.00 per ticket), and a stage with DJs midway along the street. But we decided to stick with the Celtic music and waited by the stage. It had begun raining lightly and it was certainly windy, but at this point the weather did not seem so bad. But by 10 pm, the first ominous announcement was made – the Erasure concert has been cancelled due to poor weather conditions! We heard the next day that high winds had damaged the stage and flying debris had injured four security guards.

However, there was still hope for the other events – the traditional acts, DJs and the fireworks at midnight – at this point. We continued to wait at the ceilidh stage, where the music was due to start at 10 pm, but the minutes ticked by and nothing happened. Then at 10.45 pm, the worst came to pass – a public announcement was made, stating that all events had been cancelled due to the poor weather, and that everyone was urged to leave the area!

To say this was a crushing disappointment is an understatement. Needless to say the crowd was not very happy to hear this news. It was unbelievable that we has come all that way just to be sent home in the end, and the weather just didn’t seem that bad. However, as we passed a policeman on our way back to the hotel, we overheard him saying that up at Edinburgh Castle (the main fireworks site) the winds were so strong that they had damaged the support structures for the fireworks and the whole set-up had been deemed unsafe. The cancellation of the evening’s events marked the first time in the 11 years of the Hogmanay Festival in Edinburgh that anything had been cancelled.

There was nothing to do but head back to our hotel at 11.15 pm. Of course, every pub we passed en route was packed to the rafters. The bar of our hotel was crowded too, but we got ourselves some drinks, and despite all our best efforts and months of planning, we spent yet another New Year’s Eve on our own, watching the TV and the sight of other people enjoying themselves elsewhere!

But what can you do?

I think, had we just come to Edinburgh for New Year’s Eve alone, we would obviously have felt very hard done by. But the first two nights of the festival were great, and we had fun visiting all of the various attractions the city had to offer. We headed home the following day having enjoyed ourselves. While the wild weather washed away our celebratory New Year’s Eve plans, the rest of the trip was great. I would definitely recommend Edinburgh, not just at New Year’s but any time. It’s a magical city with something for everyone.

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