A FIRST TIMER’S GUIDE TO HOGMANAY IN EDINBURGH
Normally not one for huge New Years parties, in years past, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve with close friends. Especially in my late 20s and now, if given the choice to attend a party or celebrate with a small group in a low key environment, I always go with the latter.
That said, it’s easy to understand my initial apprehension with attending Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebration.
Three days of parties and celebrations? A street party touted as one of the world’s best New Year’s celebrations? It sounded fun, but way more intense than what I’m used to.
Thankfully, a few friends convinced me otherwise and encouraged me to join them in their Hogmanay fun.
I’m so, so glad I did. Hogmanay ended up being one of my favourite New Years celebrations to date.
But, what exactly is Hogmanay?
I had the same question when my friends first invited me.
It’s the Scottish celebration for welcoming the new year. People celebrate in a number of ways- some through parties, others dance the night away, and in Edinburgh, one of the world’s most famous New Year’s parties happens on Princes Street with the castle serving as the backdrop.
Hogmanay is more than a one night party, it’s really a marathon of events.
And, it’s regarded as one of the most important Scottish holidays. Many think that the term comes from French but there are also theories that it may have Gaelic, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon origins.
But, what exactly does it mean and when did celebrations start?
From Edinburgh’s Hogmanay website-
“The answer dates back to the 16th century, when Parliament, under Oliver Cromwell, banned any Christmas celebrations in 1647. Even though the ban was uplifted 13 years later, celebrating Christmas wasn’t seen with good eyes in Scotland and so Christmas day remained a normal working day until as late as 1958. Hogmanay is longer than any other New Year’s celebrations, with the 2nd January also being a public holiday in Scotland. It’s celebrated with passion and revelry, as Scots consider Hogmanay an opportunity to bring friends and strangers together to welcome the New Year with good cheer.”
Throughout Scotland, people celebrate Hogmanay with food, drink, music and dancing. Gatherings often end with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, which is a poem by Robert Burns.
The more I read about Hogmanay’s roots and the present day celebrations, the more interested I became in attending.
And, the more I wished I had a guide to Hogmanay so I knew what to expect on this multi-day celebration.
Fortunately, I was able to join a large group of friends who had already (back in February/March) rented three homes in New Town and Stockbridge. I ended up staying at one of the homes in Stockbridge, which made it so easy to walk everywhere.
Even though they started planning almost a full year in advance, I didn’t buy tickets for the events until September when I decided to join them.
At that time, I looked up hotels (just to see what they were running three months before the event), and not only were prices insane, but availability was also sparse. My friends equate planning for Hogmanay to Oktoberfest- the earlier, the better for choice and cost.
Once I was set on joining them, I started counting down to New Years and crossed my fingers the weather would swing in our favour.
So many of Hogmanay’s events are outdoors- if the weather isn’t great, it can make them less enjoyable. Luck was on our side though, we had two and a half days of mild temperatures and even some sunshine.
What made Hogmanay so great?
A Guide to Hogmanay: Five Things I Loved About Hogmanay
The Torchlight Processional
On our first night in Edinburgh, we walked the Royal Mile with thousands of other torchbearers. The torchlight processional is rooted in Viking history and officially kicks off Hogmanay. No other words, aside from magic, feel right for describing the processional- a seemingly endless parade of flickering torches set against old stone buildings with the sound of bagpipes floating through the air.
There were so many participants, I’ve heard up to 40,000, it took us almost two hours to walk from our starting point to the ending festival where a bonfire roared, and fireworks sparkled overhead. The route ended almost an hour walk from our home in Stockbridge, but excited to keep up the festivities, we pub crawled back.
To participate, you need to buy a ticket for a torch, but it’s not too expensive- £9 per person.
I never expected to find one of my favourite Christmas markets in Edinburgh- I thought Germany, Vienna and France did the best ones in Europe. But, Edinburgh’s Christmas market was fantastic. Fun rides, hardly any queues, mulled wine and lots of snacks.
Touted as the world’s largest street party, it’s serious business. The party starts early, usually 7 pm. From time time it kicks off until midnight, there’s entertainment at numerous stages (dancing, singing, torch dancing and so much more), street performers, bars and snack stands. It happens around the Christmas Market, so you also have your choice of the rides, food and drink there.
When we arrived at 10 pm, the party was already in full swing. Prior to arriving, we pub hopped around Old Town- Jolly Judge, The Bow Bar, The Last Drop and Deacon Brodie’s. You’re allowed to bring certain quantities of alcohol with you to the party, which we opted to do. Although, I didn’t think the prices for wine/beer/cocktails were too outrageous inside the party.
We wandered around the different parts of the street party for a bit before settling in an area with a good view of the castle, eagerly anticipating the fireworks to come.
Only complaint about the street party: Queues for the toilets were outrageous- think 30-40+ minutes. And, it was complete and total chaos- people shoving and pushing, and in some instances even fighting in line. Definitely detracted a tad from the festive vibes.
Fireworks Over the Castle
Every hour from 9 pm to midnight, fireworks pop off over the castle to countdown to the new year. And, at midnight, the show is truly spectacular. Eight minutes of insanely beautiful and bright fireworks. A tremendous way to start the new year.
Lively Pub Culture
After the fireworks, the party is by no means over- many of the local bars stay open till 4 or 5 am. We hit up one of our favourite speakeasies for cocktails until 3 am. All the celebrating meant two of us almost missed our morning trains to London (myself included).
A Guide to Hogmanay: Additional Hogmanay Festivities
Not everyone had to rush back to London though, and a few people participated in the Loony Dook- a New Year’s day Hogmanay event where people delve into the water at South Queensferry, usually dressed in costume.
We had a large group, and people chose to split up at times to attend different events. It being my first year, I decided to keep it simple, only purchasing tickets for the torchlight processional and the street party.
The Candlelit Concert at St. Giles Cathedral, Concert in the Garden and Hogmanay Ceilidh (traditional music and dance) all sounded fun, but I’m glad we chose to take it easy and only buy tickets to a few things. It meant we had time to relax in pubs, cheers with locals and genuinely enjoy the atmosphere around us. You can find more about the events being planned for 2019/2020 and future Hogmanay’s on the official website.
Tickets for Hogmanay can be purchased online and picked up in person. We were warned queues could be up to an hour long if we waited until 30 December to collect, but since we didn’t arrive until then, we didn’t have another option. Fortunately, we only waited five minutes, which left time for tacos and margaritas at El Cartel’s new location in Old Town.
Would I go back to Hogmanay?
Viking and Loony Dook photos from Hogmanay website.
What do you do to celebrate New Years? Have you attended any festivals or parties around the world that you loved? Did you find this guide to Hogmanay helpful?
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