Winter’s a great time to visit Scotland; the weather may not be great and the nights are long and dark, but that just supplies a good excuse for a get-together. And there’s no better excuse for a get-together than Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, the Scots’ big winter festival.
And what a party they throw in the run-up to “the bells”, when the midnight clock rings the old year out and the new year in! Here are some of the best places to celebrate.
City Hogmanay Celebrations
THE big party is in Edinburgh. It lasts three days. There’s a torchlight procession and the Night Afore concert on December 30th; on Hogmanay itself there are concerts and ceilidhs all over town, plus the famous televised street party; and yet more concerts plus the Loony Dook (a chilly charity fancy-dress swim in the Firth of Forth) on New Year’s Day. You’ll need tickets for many of the events and they sell out fast, so if you want one go to https://edinburghshogmanay.com/event-info/box-office and buy it quickly.
If you miss out on tickets, you’ll find plenty of Hogmanay celebrations everywhere you go, though most cities do it a little more quietly than Edinburgh. Glasgow and Oban, indeed, have no civic celebration at all planned for 2016-17 – but that doesn’t stop the pubs and clubs, where the vibe will be as vibrant as ever and the licences usually last until 3 am.
Aberdeen goes all genteel with a Hogmanay Concert of Scottish music at the Music Hall, followed by a firework display at midnight. Further north, Dufftown is the place for whisky lovers at Hogmanay: after a ceilidh at the local hotel, the Glenfiddich distillery hands out free drams and shortbread in the main square to “wet the baby’s head” – the “baby” being the New Year.
Want something a bit more active? Get your dancing shoes on and head for Inverness, which sees out the old year with its famous Red Hot Highland Fling. It’s family-friendly and free – no ticket required. With music, comedy and fireworks, there’s something for everyone who likes a good party. The show starts at 8 pm and finishes at 00:30 – but the pubs will still be open if you want to carry on carousing.
Scottish Winter Fire Festivals
Fire plays a big part in Hogmanay celebrations in many parts of Scotland. Biggar in South Lanarkshire lights a huge bonfire (they take the whole of December to pile it up) to keep residents warm as they count down to “the bells”.
In Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen, they chase out the bad spirits of the old year with a piper-led parade of swinging fireballs. Given that the fireballs weigh 16 lbs each, and they’re being swung around the marchers’ heads, this is quite some spectacle. It’s a very popular one, too, so dress up warm and get there early to find a good vantage point.
Comrie, in Perthshire, gets in on the fire-cleansing act too. The Comrie Flambeaux, torches up to 10 foot high, are carried around the village at midnight by local folk in fancy dress. When the village is “clean” the torches are extinguished in the River Earn and everyone retires to the pub.
January Festivals in Scotland
Not everyone celebrates Hogmanay on December 31st. Well, they probably do, but at Burghead in Moray they also celebrate the pre-Julian-calendar Hogmanay date of 11th January. They carry the Clavie, a wooden barrel filled with more wood, through the town before setting it alight on top of a nearby hill; it’s usually still smouldering the following morning, a physical representation of the hangovers many of the previous night’s revellers will be suffering.
Even later in January comes the biggest and best fire festival of all: Lerwick’s world-famous Up Helly Aa. Shetlanders wait until the last Tuesday in January every year, and take a whole day over their Viking celebration. The Guizer Jarl and his squad march through the town from 8.30 am, stopping off at locally-important places throughout the day. There’s a Junior torch-lit procession starting at 5.30 pm, with a small (“peerie”) galley for burning, and then at 7.30 a maroon goes off and the adults set off again with the main parade, now complete with torches and the Guizer Jarl’s full-sized longship. The whole shebang culminates with the torches being thrown into the ship to set it alight.
Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland if a party didn’t involve quite a lot of booze, so the Wednesday after Up Helly Aa is a public holiday. So are both January 1st and January 2nd all over Scotland: time to sleep in, cure the hangovers and clean up after the revelry. They’re also great days to go for a walk, to blow away the old year’s cobwebs and breathe in the fresh new year, especially if you have one of those lovely crisp, clear winter days when everything sparkles with frost.
So don’t put off coming to Scotland just because it’s winter. It’s a great time to meet the locals, enjoy the warming food, drink and hospitality of a northern climate … and party!