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Flames flickered in all directions as thousands upon thousands of people baring burning torches paraded through the streets of the old town. Tonight marked the beginning of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, perhaps the best place to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the world, thanks to the three days of traditions, parities and events laid on in the Scottish capital.
I might have been working, my final stint of the year doing video work for the Festival City, but even sober and solo, I was having a fantastic time!
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay traditions date back through the ages, and Hogmanay is simply the Scottish name for New Year’s Eve. While the exact history of the name is unconfirmed, it’s believed to stem from a similar French word for a gala and was introduced by Mary Queen of Scots, who spent time in France.
The actual fire and fanfare of the torchlight celebrations, however, are tied to the traditional parties from way back, when bonfires and flame-throwing were linked to the idea of rebirth. I’m pretty sure there’s a Viking connection in their too.
So, if you’re looking for the low down on what to expect at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebration, where the New Years Ever party actually spans three days, from the 30th December through to the 1st January, here is what you can expect, and how to sign up!
The start of the torchlight procession in Edinburgh
The Torchlight Procession
When: 30th December from 19:00
Where: Starts on the Royal Mile, ends in Holyrood Park
Costs and tickets: Free to watch, cost attached to a ticket with a torch – more info here
If there was a moment at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay I had been waiting years for, this was it. The Torchlight Procession was a major bucket list tick for me, more so than the actual bells and fireworks of the official New Years Eve celebrations.
If I’m honest, I was wrong and believed that the Torchlight Procession was the main event, and took place on the evening of the 31st, but infact, it occurs the day before.
With lots of Viking vibes and dramatic fire displays, the Torchlight Procession starts on the famous Royal Mile, in the heart of Edinburgh’s old town.
The streets are lined for miles with onlookers as the 27,000 strong crowd parades all the way down to Holyrood Park. Each participant in the procession will have a torch, but it’s equally exciting just to watch the night unfold from the sides and join the free party later on in the evening.
Being in the media pool, I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat with the other photographers as we ran ahead of the procession, turning to snap and film whenever the fire wasn’t fast approaching us.
The parade is led by drummers and pyro-artists, creating a dramatic head to the procession as flame wheels and torches were juggled and thrown around, and the parade leader kept the drummers moving.
Mixed amongst the procession are bagpipe groups, and more drummers, adding an authentic set of beats to the evening. Starting off at 19:00, the leaders’ torches are light, and the drums start playing.
By 21:00, Holyrood Park is packed with torchbearers, although the lights are glistening down the streets of the old-town continue for some time, given the sheer numbers of participants.
The crowds gather in Holyrood Park to create the image from above
Every year, an image from above is created in Holyrood Park by the torchbearers, and this year it was that of two people holding/shaking hands, the international sign of friendliness. At 21:00 on the dot, a hovering helicopter captured the moment, and you could see the defined image on the screens, which just looked like a jumble of flames from ground level.
After this, Holyrood Park, in all its muddy glory, turned into a massive party with live bands on the stage, and everyone getting into the spirit of the evening. Although I was there on my own, I certainly think it would be suitable for kids, with plenty of places to slide off to, such as sitting on the hills around Arthurs Seat for some excellent views.
The music continues for a few hours, and a firework display went off around 10 pm, but if you’re sensible, you won’t overdo it tonight as tomorrow is the main event!
The party carries on in the park for a few hours after
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party
When: 31st December from 19:30 (earlier events happen for families with younger children, also with fireworks
Where: The main party is in Princes Street Gardens, but the ‘arena’ area spills out to the street, up the mound, and even onto the Royal Mile
The street party at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is a bit of an understatement, as it covers a vast area called the ‘arena’ and although it varies in size year to year, there are many stages and different parts of the event you can enjoy, and many ticket types to reflect that.
While most people will start with a dinner in town, and reservations and patience are likely needed given the popularity of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, for those with younger families, there are children friendly events and entertainment in the gardens from 17:30, including an early-hours firework show for the little ones.
The central part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay takes place in Princes Street Gardens, where the main stage is on the left, and the Ceilidh under the Castle on the right.
The Ceilidh under the Castle is the more traditional part of the evening, where local bands, bagpipes and fiddles are up on stage, and everyone else jigs and dances with great laughter in front of them. Which the Castle illuminated up above, it’s a great place to enjoy if you want a more traditional evening, with slightly less of the crowds to the street party.
On the street, which comes down from The Mound and on to Princes Street, there are various podiums set up where different acts, bands and dancers perform throughout the night. In the midst of this, street performers are also coming through the crowds, from jugglers to gigantic robots, getting everyone fired up.
The midnight fireworks are a huge affair around the castle
When I arrived shortly after 19:30, it was still relatively quiet, but by 21:00 the streets were getting bustling. For those without tickets to the gardens, and only the street party, this is a popular place to watch the huge midnight fireworks.
Alongside the street party, there are a few different stages set up on side streets and up toward the Royal Mile. Bands are performing here, as well as the main stage, so wherever you spend your Hogmanay, you’re sure to have some good tunes and great company to celebrate with. This year there was even a whole street closed off for a silent disco, allowing those attendees to pick their own tunes to party the night away too.
Down on the main stage of Princes Gardens is where the more famous acts will perform, building up throughout the night until the main act at 23:00, who will also usher in the New Year with a soundtrack to the fireworks. This year, 2019, acts including Rudimental and then Mark Ronson for the main show, and he even brought Daniel Merriweather along for the ride.
At midnight, a huge firework show begins from the Castle, and it’s a genuinely epic performance set to the beats and soundtrack of the performers below. The fireworks performance last’s a substantial amount of time, and as with everything Edinburgh Festivals do, it’s show-stopping!
The party in the gardens continues until around 1:00 in the morning when things start slowing down. After this, there are plenty of after-parties or clubs around town, but be sure to have got your tickets in advance, or check when last entrances are.
One thing that amazed me is walking home around 2:00 the amount of trash and litter everywhere was insane, but by the time I left my hotel the next morning, it was all cleaned up and spotless, and even half of the stages were already packed away.
Traditional bands and dance takes place in a separate part of the gardens
There are rightly concerns about the environmental impact these huge festivals bring to Edinburgh, and how they change the dynamic of the UNESCO listed city, and while I agree they don’t get everything perfect (the damage from the Christmas Market to the gardens this year, for example) – I was pleased with how efficient and hard working the team were throughout the night to collect all the rubbish.
The Loony Dook takes place on the beautiful streets of South Queensferry
The Loony Dook Dip
When: 1st January from 14:00 (times can vary)
Where: South Queensferry, a gorgeous place outside the city centre
Costs and tickets: Free to watch, £12 to take part (which I find criminally high) – more info here closer to the date
If you are feeling mad, brave, or just want a way to kick the hangover, then drag yourself out of bed and head down to South Queensferry for a traditional Scottish start to the New Year.
South Queensferry is a little out of Edinburgh, but it’s a really beautiful village, and somewhere all visitors to the city should try and see at any time of year. With adorable old colourful houses and fantastic views of the iconic Forth Bridge, it’s a fantastic setting for the Loony Dook.
This parade of people in fancy dress goes all down the high-street, before the Dookers head down to the rocky beach for their drip in the cold waters. While it’s a charity fundraising event, the current organisers are changing £12 to take part, and capping the number of attendees, which is a shame, given the water wasn’t exactly full up and it’s meant to be a fun and community-focused event.
If you don’t want to take part, as many (wise) people prefer to stay warm, you can grab a coffee (in your reusable cup) and enjoy the madness from the sidelines.
Over the hour or so, all these people charge into the water in their crazy costumes, and hopefully, it’s all worth it as the cold water washes the hangover away!
Every year, on the 1st January, the ‘Message from the Skies’ projections start popping up across Edinburgh and last for nearly the whole month of January.
If you’re looking for a brisk walk to clear your hangover, and are only in town for a few days over Hogmanay, then from dusk on New Years Day, they can be enjoyed.
Projected onto various different landmarks and historic buildings across the city, each year, the words and projections are related to a different theme. This year, the ones I saw were related to race, history and colonialism, and as always I am glad to see Scotland not shying away from this discussion, ones that the UK should be having more in my opinion.
Edinburgh isn’t just dishing out the festivities on New Year’s Eve though, there are actually eleven different festivals throughout the year, from the world-famous Fringe to lesser-known ones such as the awesome Jazz and Blues Festival, complete with a carnival, and the traditional storytelling festival.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (August) is one of the eleven festivals in Edinburgh