New York has its ball dropping above Times Square. In Paris, there are the flashing lights of the Eiffel Tower and champagne toasts on the Champs Elysees. In London, the lights on the London Eye go off at the stroke of midnight.
There are loads of places around the world staging their own celebrations at the end of the year but for me, the best first night blowout is in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s even on the list of 1000 Things to Do Before You Die.
The Scottish word for New Year’s Eve is Hogmanay and depending on how the last week of the year plays out on the calendar, Hogmanay can last anywhere from 3 to 6 days. The minimum period is from December 31st thru January 2nd - presumably to give the Scots an extra day to recover from their celebrating without wasting a sick day.
The festival attracts partiers from all over Scotland, indeed, from all over the world. The official website shows the best of last year’s celebration and has regular updates on the plans and performers lined up for the coming year.
Edinburgh is ideally laid out for this kind of giant block party. The physical centerpiece of the city is Princes Street Gardens, a large, roughly rectangular park of mostly open space separating the Old Town to the south from the New Town to the north. The Gardens were laid out in the 19th century on a drained lake bed; walking paths criss-cross this expanse of lawns, flower beds and one or two putting greens. Benches are plentiful. In winter, a skating rink is set up in the center of the Gardens. Princes Street has several of the best spots for viewing the Castle at any time of year but the sight of the Castle, sitting atop its high, volcanic perch, crowned by the glorious midnight fireworks on New Year’s Eve is unforgettable.
Waverley Station, the main train station, is right across the street from the Gardens, so the train drops you at exactly the right spot to start partying immediately.
Many of the activities and performances at Hogmanay revolve around current pop music and on New Year’s Eve, there are multiple live stages set up and more than one giant TV screen to broadcast the goings-on, keeping the place jumping and spreading out the crowds.
The 1998-1999 Hogmanay festival was especially grand; many performers and street artists were being ‘auditioned’ for the big millennium celebration the following year. The entire area of central Edinburgh area surrounding Princes Street was enclosed by portable chain-link fencing more than 10 feet high. Admission to the area was free, but you needed a special wristband to pass into the festival area. These wristbands were widely available,
including at hotel desks, which is where we scored ours. There were some events that required paid admission, but the free street party was so large and the crowds so thick that even trying to see all the free stuff was impossible. No extra expense incurred.
As the event has evolved, more events and performances require paid admission, either individually or as group events.
This being Scotland, there was an overabundance of men in kilts, many of these guys sporting Viking-type helmets like something from a Wagnerian opera commercial.
There was a line of food trucks along Princes Street selling hot food, beer and packaged snacks, but many brought their alcohol in their pockets or drank on Rose Street, a narrow lane paralleling the main drag and consisting almost exclusively of pubs.
There were rules to minimize the hazards of so many outdoor drinkers running loose – mainly a prohibition against glass containers, a rule that seemed to be observed since there was no broken glass on the street. There were also plenty of rubbish bins that attracted large volumes of cans, plastic bottles and paper boats emptied of their
A few minutes before midnight, all the jumbotron screens switched to the same image – a live shot of a single bagpiper playing atop the National Museum of Scotland. There was so much noise I don’t think anyone could hear what he was playing – probably Scotland the Brave, the unofficial anthem of Scotland. A digital readout in the corner of the screen showed the time and the crowd noise increased as the last few seconds were counted down. At midnight, people sang Auld Lang Syne – lyrics on the screen for those needing
them, the fireworks lit up the sky above Edinburgh Castle.
Then the kissing started. The streets were filled with thousands of people, smiling and laughing and kissing friends and strangers alike and the party was not over yet. Pocket cameras got whipped out and photos taken everywhere of partiers grinning alongside smiling police constables. The crowds that had filled Princes Street and the Garden moved up the North Bridge to join the party along the Royal Mile. The Castle itself was off-limits because of the fireworks, but just below the Castle approach was one of the
live stages where a reggae band was just finishing up. They were replaced by a
fiddle band from Shetland named Fiddlers Bid and they kept several blocks at the
Castle end of the Royal Mile stomping and hooting for more than an hour.
Eventually, all the live acts finished up, the food trucks closed, people made a last visit to the porta-potties which, remarkably, were still quite clean, even including dry toilet paper hanging in the right place! Sadly, it was time to head home.
Most of the partiers had come into the city center by car or bus or taxi and had dribbled in over a period of hours. The plan now was to get everyone on their way back as quickly as possible. Free buses were available to take people home. The police pointed folks towards Haymarket – the smaller of Edinburgh’s 2 train stations. From there, staff directed people to the bus that would take them to their hotel or their street or neighborhood.
The night ended with a ride back to our hotel in a bus filled with people singing ‘An old man (and his dog (Spot)) went to mow a meadow’ – a song where each verse expanded on the previous verse. Sort of like ’99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’. One partier sang the new verse and the rest of us sang back the rest of the reel; it is a song that’s easy to sing even hearing it for the first time and made you instantly feel part of this group of strangers, if only until your arrive at your stop.
Here we are at our hotel, esperiencing our own NPR driveway moment – everyone was still singing; we didn’t want to get off the bus! It’s 3 am and there’s more to see and do after we get some sleep. And have some haggis. Happy New Year.
Postscript – on New Year’s morning, the newspaper estimated the crowd at 100,000 but there were only 4 arrests.