Marketing for Hogmanay festivities should be accompanied with the caveat, “Must like crowds.” Or tolerate masses of humanity, at the very least.
Hot on the heels of a memorable Xmas in Vienna, with barely a day to drop off my gear and launder unmentionables, I’d packed my bag anew and set off for the wilds of King’s Cross and a date with a train aimed north, towards the cobbled alleyways of Edinburgh.
Even before my personal 2015 went off the rails, I hadn’t heard of Hogmanay. Earlier that year, however, when I was at the peak of post-breakup mental tomfuckery, I’d chanced across an organised meetup of fellow Canucks in the city. While I’d been reluctant at first – afterall, it seemed counterproductive to have moved across an ocean only to hang out with other expats – the need for new social circles won out and I gave it a shot.
Turns out the meetups were full of plenty of awesome people.
A few oddballs made it into the mix, for sure; the sort of folks who, upon meeting, one wonders whether they relocated to a new continent out of necessity, rather than choice. However, I managed to avoid them and fell in with a mishmashed group of Canucks, both born-n-raised as well as honourary. I quickly found myself pulled in to pub crawls, Halloween shenanigans, and various outings with fellow immigrants, both new and seasoned.
It was at one of these outings that someone mentioned Hogmanay – Scottish New Year celebrations – and the crazy pile of fun that it can be. They spoke of streets full of music, markets, tours, whiskey, and enough fireworks to float even the most codgerly of kilts. Not only did it sound like an absolute blast, the last place I wanted to be over the holidays was stuck in London. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.
Before any minds could be changed – although several would later, for … umm … various reasons – tickets were purchased and bnbs were locked-in. This was happening!
Since arriving in the UK and surprisingly finding myself single, I’d begun to thoroughly enjoy solo travel. It’s something I’d rarely had the chance to try my hand at before, even less so outside of my comfort zone. Schlepping to Vienna on a whim had already proved to be a magical experience and I was keen to keep that magic going, this time by rail.
There’s something cathartic about solo travel. There’s nobody else to worry about. You’re entirely reliant on yourself for everything between destination and home. It can be lonely, but solo travel manages to capture an inkling of je ne sais quois. The romantic in me exagerrates the adventure in the experience … he sees something akin to stepping off a platform in a foreign city with no clear destination in mind. You don’t need to be social, although it’s a great opportunity for it. You can kick back, pop in your headphones, crack a book, and simply watch the scenery glide past.
Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling with friends. I especially love travelling with my partner. At this time in 2015, however, Adam was still
reeling revelling in the single life and slowly rediscovering himself. The prospect of discovery and solo adventure inspired something in him that he was keen to explore.
At this point in time, the bridges of Newcastle had slipped past and the countryside of Scotland now presented itself in all of its overcast glory! To be honest, I was already in love with it.
Unbeknownst to me, the plans of my fellow travellers had changed and the makeup of the trip would be altered. However, this would lead to some unexpected adventure and, likely, somewhat less drinking overall. We probably walked away from the week with slightly sharper recollections, as a result.
The inciting couple had, to their benefit, gone their separate ways in the months between the trip’s inception and execution. This cut our number by one. Another had stumbled upon a new love interest – now husband-to-be – and subsequently altered her plans to surprise him, not far outside of Edinburgh, as luck would have it.
Regardless of party changes, the week proved to be memorable in a lot of fantastic ways.
For starters, the Xmas markets in Edinburgh are among the largest in the UK. They begin in a garden in the shadow of the castle, wind up a hill to the street above, and stretch through the bustling centre of town. These sorts of markets were new to me and I found myself lost in amidst stalls offering everything from European treats and mulled wine, to kitschy trinkets and artisanal crafts.
It’s worth noting that, while placing a bar on a carousel seems fun, a person should keep an eye on how much they drink while on board. We watched a number of people narrowly avoid hilarity in their unflattering attempts to disembark.
Edinburgh is absolutely magical through the holidays.
In spite of what a person thinks about crowds and revelry, Hogmanay is worth experiencing at least once. Edinburgh’s streets are full of seasonal cheer. Travellers from all over the world mill about while enjoying the city’s sights, sounds, and tastes. Christmassy charm drifts along with carols from the markets and I’d swear the entire place smells of cloves and nutmeg.
Without going in to detail, there’s plenty to see and do during this time.
Aside from the obvious New Year’s Eve fireworks and street party, I’d recommend not missing the torch parade.
A word of warning … tickets for all Hogmanay events disappear early. Sometimes 6-8 months early. It’s worth grabbing them as soon as possible, otherwise you’ll find yourself missing out.
There is the main event, with several tiers of options, depending on where you want to be and what you want access to. A general street pass gets you access to, well, the street, as well as a selection of stages. Another will get you access to a VIP tent and stage, which tends to feature a big name headliner. Other events include the torch parade, access to pre-event fireworks atop the monument, special celebrations, whiskey tastings, and even a polar dip in the Firth to ring in New Year’s Day. All of these were well sold out long before we arrived.
Two of us managed to book tickets to the torch parade, and it was easily the highlight of the event. Imagine … tens of thousands of revellers, stood in hushed conversation, while torch lighters quickly make their way along the lines, lighting thousands upon thousands of waxed torches. Once lit, the parade is lead through the city, winding down from the castle, around the market, out through the city streets, and ending atop the Nelson Monument. Flames stretch ahead and behind like a river of fire, lighting Edinburgh in a festive glow. It was damn near magical. The entire walk lasts maybe 30-60 minutes, ending with the frontmost paraders summiting Calton Hill and being treated to a fireworks display.
Not to be ignored, tours are available in the castle through this time. I’ve been to my share of castles in Europe since then, and Edinburgh Castle still tops the list. It’s huge. While castles in Germany outshine it as far as style and fairytale wonder are concerned, few can boast being actual, tried-and-tested, castles. Edinburgh Castle is ancient, weather worn, and ugly and imposing as anything I’ve seen. As far as castles are concerned. It’s majestic.
It has withstood sieges, revolutions, served as the seat of power in the north, and still inspires awe after centuries overlooking the city. The tour is more than worth the price of admission. Also more than worth it is the extra cost to check out the crown jewels, with both the tour and the jewels outshining even their counterparts in the Tower of London.
Not far from the castle, just off the Royal Mile, is a somewhat poorly kept secret gem in the city. It’s also a tour I would recommend, without hesitation. Mary King’s Close will take you into the bowels and cellars of the medieval city. The tour winds through the ancient streets and gives a glimpse of what life would’ve been like for its residents. Loose urban planning allowed many buildings to stretch well above their initial limits, plunging the alleys between into perpetual twilight. While it’s possible to find evidence of this era elsewhere around the castle, Mary King’s Close provides what I would consider to be the best window into this time.
It’s also shameful to visit Scotland and not at least look into a whisky room. It’s really difficult to go wrong, in that regard. Even the most touristy of stops stock a great selection of local scotches the whet any taste profile.
What else can I say?
Edinburgh provided the perfect cap to an already stellar holiday. Much of my time there was spent simply wandering the city and taking in festive sights, drinking select beverages, and buying souvenirs. And honestly, that’s exactly what I wanted.
On top of that, there was Hogmanay. I don’t want to go into too much detail… Imagine the biggest street party you’ve been to. Multiply that. Add in 3 more bandstands of varied music. And chuck in 10,000 extra people. That’s pretty much captures the vibe.
Central Edinburgh, from the base of the castle, along the Royal Mile, the Christmas Market, and the bustling centre, completely transforms into a pedestrian-only street extravaganza. Half the time you’ll spend pressed against strangers, jumping excitedly in the general vicinity of a stage. The remaining time will be split between the quest for refills and searching for toilets – something that’s made a little easier for fellas with the proliferation of outdoor urinals, for those who don’t mind a bit of near-public urination.
While outside drink is strictly forbidden, we did learn from some seasoned veterans that there are easy ways around this, if you’re feeling a little creative. I’ve filed that away for future use.
Of the night, I recall signing out of tune, cheering with strangers, sharing drinks with said strangers, watching the castle seemingly explode with fireworks … and being mistaken for Simon Pegg at least once … which may have lead to a signature or two. I was assured by the recipient’s boyfriend that my handiwork would become a source of hilarity once sobriety returned.
When all was said and done, our group managed to get through NYE relatively unscathed. The following day proved to be quite laid back. Hangovers were nursed with traditional Scottish breakfast, complete with my first taste of real haggis (which I’ve since become hooked on, thanks very much, Scotland).
With the final bit of free time I found myself with, I broke off on my own for a bit of exploring. Leaning on recommendations from Atlas Obscura, I wound my way to Greyfriars Kirkyard. It’s a quiet cemetery in the heart of the city which houses, among several truly famous people, the inspiration for a pantheon of J.K. Rowlings creations … from a certain Tom Riddle, to the look and feel of her notorious school, itself.
While the group of us spent nearly a week in Edinburgh, it seemed to pass in a whirlwind. I loved every minute of it, however, and have been eager to return, ever since. Someday again soon, Edinburgh…