Scotland – it’s all about the stories.
Explosives bang overhead, and a lurid pall of smoke drifts out from the castle perched high on the fragment of a volcano. Whoever controls the castle controls the city — the reason why this beautiful, severe edifice was almost continually under siege from its construction in the 12th Century until the second Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Tonight it’s wreathed in explosions once more. People hug each other, exchanging muffled congratulations through wool, Gore-tex, eVent, Neoprene, fleece and every other modern fabric designed to keep humans pink & happy at this time of year.
The sky above Edinburgh is exploding.
Everybody is delighted.
Later, after I accidentally lose sight of my friends in the crowd (impossible to track in the heaving scrum of happy, swaying people) I head away from the concert in the park, up the grass slope and onto Princes Street.
There are New Year stories everywhere. There are the arguing couples. There are the over-effusive Happy New Yearers who grab you as if you’re a Pokémon they haven’t bagged. There is the guy laid face-down in the road who I’m really worried about until I get near enough to understand he’s laughing so hard he can’t get up. There are many, many group photos being taken, wild gurning and arm-windmilling at cameras, photos that used to go to developers, to return as prints to be slotted into books, or into slides to be aired in a darkened room when friends came round, until Facebook, Instagram and Flickr changed everything. There are the revellers who catch sight of someone in a dayglo-yellow jacket and realise that the reason they’re having fun is because other people are still at work, and so they lean across the barriers, shaking hands with policemen and volunteers. There are many, many laughing people, and a few teary faces.
Everyone is having their very own New Year, alone and together, all at once.
Cans, bottles, hot-dog cartons underfoot, for almost the full mile of Princes Street. Archaeologists can identify places of great feasting by the scattered detritus they leave — bones, smashed pottery, the remnants of luxury foodstuffs unlikely to signify an everyday meal. Any future archaeologists interested in mapping out Hogmanay’s material culture will be out of luck – in a feat of magic worthy of Merlin (who may have been Scottish by literary origin), this street will be pristine by morning. Not only are people working incredibly hard to make this event a night to remember, some of them will be up at the crack of dawn to make sure the city doesn’t look like it has a hangover the next day. It’s an amazing effort.
I wander down Rose Street, the crowd thinning as people peel off into bars and takeaways. I’m drifting, partly to enjoy the sights, but partly because I can’t get in contact with anyone I know. My phone’s Internet signal is painfully slow (most of Edinburgh is phoning, texting and tweeting right now) and so I haven’t a hope of finding my friends. (What did people do before mobile phones? How did they *meet*?)
I’m heading back to my hotel. It seems my Hogmanay night is…
I turn round and sprint back up the street.
In Scotland, stories have a way of staying alive.
You know it as “New Year”. To the Scots, it’s “Hogmanay”, a word with a murky etymology, although Gaelic, French and even Nordic roots have been offered as explanations. Having a New Year knees-up is as old as the Northern European winter solstice celebrations, including those of the Norse — and since everyone loves the sight of a hairy Viking, the modern festivities feature as many of them as possible. (Having lived in York, I’m well-accustomed to Viking mania. In an ironic turnaround, it seems modern Britons cannot get enough of them).
The Edinburgh Torchlight Procession on the 30th December begins with 26 warriors in well-polished armour lifting their torches and roaring at the crowd to get them in the mood — a little incongruously, because the Norsemen never plundered Edinburgh, probably taking one look at the town’s defensive centrepiece before deciding terrorizing monks was a better way to spend the holidays. These shiny Vikings are from the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland.
I’m here as a guest of Hogmanay itself — or more specifically, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, VisitScotland, ETAG, Edinburgh Festivals, Haggis Adventures and Skyscanner. Twenty-one of us gathered together, fed haggis and then let loose on the city over the New Year period before being bussed around the Highlands on a 3-day tour of some of the country’s most iconic sights.
As Brian Ferguson notes in The Scotsman, “Blogmanay” (inevitable, yes) was a big risk for the event’s organisers, not because travel bloggers are irresponsible hedonists — although I’m sure some people still cling to that view — but because of the weather. Ever been to England? Was it raining? Yes, it does that. It rains a lot. (David Hasselhoff once said “there are two seasons in England – Winter and July.”)
However, England is the Caribbean compared to Scotland. When the Scottish weather really wallops down, it is apocalyptic – which is part of its charm, because the only thing more thrilling than a sunlit Scottish mountain is that mountain dimly-glimpsed through siling rain and capped with boiling thunderclouds. Scotland is the Shire or Scotland is Mordor, and there’s no way to predict which one you’ll get when you open your front door.
It turns out we are astonishingly lucky. The Torchlight Procession? No rain. The Hogmanay Street Party? A thin gauze of sleet, barely felt. The day after? Blue skies. Our tour of the Highlands? Clear, misty, grey, blue — but little more than a splatter of rain, the whole three days we were out and about. A thousand years ago this might have been seen as supernatural. A thousand years ago we would either have been proclaimed as blessed in the eyes of Scotland, or thrown off the castle battlements one by one, under suspicion of witchery.
You can’t see Edinburgh in 3 days. You certainly can’t get more than a glimpse of Scotland in 3 days. I’m part-Scottish and I’ve spent a lot of time north of Edinburgh, as a grandson of relatives on the Black Isle, as an archaeologist heading to Orkney – yet I’ve still seen precious little of it. It’s vast, with an astonishingly deep history. And even if you could get round it all in record time, the weather will have changed the next time you visit, so you’ll be faced with a different Scotland. Hills that feel jaunty and welcoming in the sunshine turn reticent and brooding when the light fades. Stand on a mountainside in a rainstorm and you’ll think nobody could live up there; when the clouds lift you’ll wonder how much money it would cost to build your own croft, just over yonder, by those trees.
It’s one of the most excitingly changeable environments in the world — and one of the most beautiful.
But what really draws me to Scotland is the stories.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
CHORUS: For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.
- Robert Burns, 1788
I‘m walking down the path that loops behind the stage in the concert gardens. The smoke from the fireworks has almost dissipated but there’s still enough to absorb the city’s lights, and the sky glows. I stop to tweet this observation — and when I look up, my friends are in front of the stage, in the crowd, and they’ve all joined hands.
“Should auld acquantances be forgot, and never brought to mind?”
A hundred people, happily singing their hearts out . . . and getting the dance wrong. Look at the last verse:
“And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! and gie’s a hand o’thine . . . “
Only the most stony-hearted pedant (hi there) would point this out, but the tradition is prompted by the lyrics — and you only join hands in the last verse. In 2000 the Queen caused a minor stir by refusing to link arms with Tony Blair until the very end, respectfully adhering to tradition but curling a few lips in England. (Sometimes you just cannae win, Liz). Tonight, though, there is no last verse – everyone undulates through the first verse and chorus only, before erupting in toasting and wild hugging. I tweet “Happy new Year everyone!” with cold-clumsy fingers — and when I look up again , the crowd is fragmenting and my friends are gone.
Auld lang syne translates as “old long since” or “long long ago”. We have a modern English derivation of this phrase, known to everyone in the Anglophonic world, and every other language has its own version. It’s one of the first phrases a child will learn, and they hear it every time someone reads them a story. It’s one of the great starting-points for how we learn about the world and about our place in it. It’s a magical phrase, filled with mystery and promise, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time . . .
Scotland’s most famous song begins all its stories.