Scotland: A Hogmanay hootenanny

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles parties hard in Edinburgh to welcome in the new year in true Scottish style - and witnesses some real craziness.

Hogmanay in Edinburgh, viewed from Edinburgh Castle. Photo / Jim Eagles
Hogmanay in Edinburgh, viewed from Edinburgh Castle. Photo / Jim Eagles

If a world record was set the other day for the longest ever Strip the Willow - that's a traditional Scottish dance - then I'm proud to say I played my part.

Even if it wasn't a world record, it was still great to be able to join in such a marvellous occasion.

Thousands - no, tens of thousands - of people from all round the globe lined up at New Year along the length of George St in the heart of the grand old city of Edinburgh to make the world record attempt.

In the section where we were ... dancing? ... there were Germans, English, Australians, Americans, French I think, Canadians, Danes, Kiwis, of course, and fortunately a few Scots who actually knew what they were doing.

It was bitterly cold, the wind was getting up, and judging from the antics going on all around I was far from alone in being both a very bad dancer and having only the faintest idea of what Strip the Willow is all about.

But who cared? We all happily bounced up and down in time to the music of the Portobello Ceilidh Band, from time to time hooked arms and twirled around with other participants, and generally had terrific fun.

By the time the music eventually stopped some people were very tired from having twirled - or stripped the willow - along several hundred metres of inexpert dancers, I was pleasantly warm and we'd all had enough fun to justify a huge cheer.

No, it wasn't mid-winter madness, nor even the dram or two of The Macallan I supped beforehand at Scotland's historic Assembly Rooms, just the spirit that makes Edinburgh the place to welcome the new year on Hogmanay.

No one is quite sure where the name Hogmanay comes from. One suggestion is from the Gaelic "oge maidne" meaning "new morning". Another that it derives from the French "homme est ne" or "man is born".

But whatever the name means, the festival is clearly descended from the ancient midwinter rites of the Romans, Vikings and Celts who all welcomed the return of the sun with fire, song, drinking and dance.

And it is also clear - and increasingly well known - that no one celebrates Hogmanay with fire, song, drinking and dance as well as the Scots and that Edinburgh does it best of all.

If I wasn't already aware that much of the world gathers in the Scottish capital every New Year's Eve I got the message from the train carrying intending revellers north from London.

By the time we got on in Carlisle every seat was taken and the aisles were full of people standing, resting on the floor or sitting on their luggage. We crammed into the space between the carriages and considered ourselves lucky. Others hoping to board turned away in dismay.

The atmosphere on board was a cheery one, summed up by an American guy who panned his video camera around, saying, "This is how we travel in Europe, folks, crammed in like sardines."

When we reached Edinburgh, the city was almost as crammed as the train. Hotels, pubs and restaurants were overflowing, though we did manage to squeeze into Greyfriars Bobby's Bar - remember that lovely story? - for a pint of Caledonian 80 ale and a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes).

Then we wandered through the city enjoying the amazing mix of the giant Edinburgh Wheel and assorted merry-go-rounds, flying carousels, bungy jumps and sideshows which at this time of year sprout among the city's venerable memorials, churches and museums like brightly coloured mushrooms.

This being December 30, the focus of activity was George St, where the Night Afore festivities - this year with a German theme - were in full swing.

On the corner a group of bagpipers were trilling away. Inside the Assembly Rooms the Schnicklefritz band from Falkirk were pumping out oompah music. In the packed street outside the ceilidh music was under way and caller Wilma Henderson promptly bullied visitors like us into trying to dance the Gay Gordon.

Through the watching, dancing crowds strode the giant figures of a band of stiltwalkers looking like gaily dressed praying mantises. On a stage further down the street a team of hairdressers were producing bizarre styles on anyone foolish enough to volunteer. All was delightful chaos. And then came the attempt on the Strip the Willow record and chaos descended into glorious, hilarious bedlam.

And this, mind you, was just a foretaste of the real thing, the Royal Bank Street Party, to be held in Princes St on New Year's Eve. The party is a ticket-only affair for 100,000 people, with three stages in the street itself featuring live bands "from indie to folk", a concert in one part of the adjacent gardens with top groups like Paolo Nutini and the Pet Shop Boys and a ceilidh in another area of the gardens with half-a-dozen top traditional groups.

Tickets had sold out months before - we had two of them and were hot to trot. But, sadly, it was not to be.

During the day the wind steadily increased. Before long rubbish bins were full of broken umbrellas. Then it got so strong that signs, chairs and even Portaloos were rolling down the streets. Shortly before the fun was due to get under way at 10pm the organisers called it off.

Disappointing, but we managed to have fun regardless. Our hotel, The Borough, had a fantastic menu, a fine selection of single malt whiskies and music playing all night.

And shortly before midnight my wife and I sneaked up to our room to watch the remnants of the festivities being broadcast from the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle.

When the old year morphed into the new we joined the television crowd in singing Auld Lang Syne and watched out of the hotel window as a slight fall in the wind made it possible for some of the eight tonnes of fireworks to be set off at the top of Edinburgh's seven hills.

It's probably just as well there were fewer hangovers than usual the next day because on New Year's Day Edinburgh leaps into an orgy of physical activity with a run down the Royal Mile, a triathlon around the famous hill of Arthur's Seat, a kid's duathlon and ... the Loony Dook.

The what? Well the name says it all, really. It involves a large crowd of cheerful lunatics dressed in strange costumes assembling in the suburb of South Queensferry and jumping into the icy waters of the River Forth.

According to the Loony Dook website, this custom originated with a casual conversation at the bar of The Moorings pub in 1986 when Andy Kerr said to his pal Jim Kilcullen, "How about doing something different to celebrate the New Year?" Jim replied, "Ach, let's jump in the Forth on New Year's Day, maybe it'll clear the hangovers." Andy agreed, saying, "If you will, I will." Others agreed to join in and the event was born.

The Loony Dook is now a major event, involving hundreds of participants from all round the world, watched by thousands of astounded bystanders and supervised by both the Royal Naval Lifeboat Institute and Coastguard Search and Rescue.

This year there must have been 600-700 bathers with everything from long nightshirts and candlesticks to superman costumes, from tuxedoes to ball gowns, from fairy costumes to nurses' uniforms, from bras and panties to giant cats, parading down the road to the river led by a pipe band.

I was wearing five layers of clothing and I was frozen just standing there, so goodness knows what it was like for the scantily clad participants - the rules say "no wimpy wetsuits allowed" - but down to the water they marched and in they jumped.

Some gasped in shock as the cold hit them and got out as fast as they could; most tried unsuccessfully to look nonchalant as their skins turned red and then purple.

But one guy in speedoes and a mauve wig stood waist deep in water for about half an hour seemingly unaffected by it all.

I've seen some mad things in my time - and even taken part in a mid-winter swim or two - but this was really crazy. It was even crazier than a mile-long Strip the Willow.

You have to admit, those Scots don't hold back when it comes to celebrating the birth of a new year.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies three times a day from Auckland to Dubai, and from Dubai to several British airports including Glasgow. Call 0508 364 728.

Further information: See visitbritain.com and visitscotland.com.

Details of the Hogmanay festivities and other Edinburgh events can be found at edinburghfestivals.co.uk.

The Loony Dook website is at theloonydook.co.uk.

Jim Eagles visited Edinburgh as guest of Visit Britain and Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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