Greetings from the New Year/Hogmanay capital of the world, Edinburgh, Scotland/Embra Scawtland.
Hogmanay used to be a community festival in Scotland. Christmas was not celebrated by the Presbyterians as it was too Papist and New Year was the time to bring out drink and dancing in those long, dark winters. Folk would spend a week or so going to each other’s houses with whisky and be given food. A friend of mine who lived in a small town in the north-west of Scotland said that he didn’t see the inside of his house for a week, though he walked past it often enough. He was dropping into someone else’s house to drink whisky and eat hot soup. In a small town setting that kind of celebration worked well. Add on a ceilidh, where everyone from grannies to wee ones can join in the dancing and that’s a real community occasion.
Now Christmas has caught up with Scotland as the Church of Scotland has lost sway and the Scots party and indulge at that time like everyone else. Then it’s time for Hogmanay – and I do remember years ago walking about the streets in Edinburgh looking for this great Scottish event that wasn’t happening. We’d gather sadly in front of the Tron church, which didn’t even chime at midnight. Then it was midnight, you’d be snogged by random strangers – from some by their looks, age and smell the only chance they’d get a snog all year – and go forlornly home. The pubs shut early, and there was nowhere to go. Older folk would reminisce about the kinder, more local Hogmanays of their youth, when you would save all year for this big blow-out – “But now every Saturday night is a party.”
This has changed now and like evertyhing else, has gone commercial. Edinburgh Council likes to lure visitors to the city. No sane being would visit Edinburgh in mid winter. It only gets tolerable for a tourist in April. But say Hogmanay! and people come flocking from all over. So events are laid on. Outdoor concerts! – which have to be cancelled now and then because of violent storms. Street parties! Free bus services to take the revellers home. (A friend of mine is a bus driver and says it’s a fairly horrible shift to do.) And fireworks. And the pubs stay open till all hours. We’ve got the cultural capital – and let no-one ever say we don’t know how to exploit it.
Though not at all a Christmas Scrooge I turn into one at New Year. It’s a young person’s game. In the traditional New Year the old ones would see a stream of visitors passing through a house where they’d parked themselves. People now over a certain age in the cities say “they’re staying in” – as they would any night of the year. Only a young person wants to head out in the streets on a winter’s night – and has the stamina to nurse the following day’s hangover.
So yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite pub where folk musos were playing guitars and in the corner the owner of the pub had arranged a private whisky tasting and bagpipe workshop for a couple of tourists. Most there were wearing tartan. The folk musos on guitars did some Joni Mitchell and Mike Heron- but “since it’s Hogmanay” chucked in some Scottish songs and we joined where we could. Some Spanish (I think – there are loads in Edinburgh) came in with a guitar and a couple of fiddles, which they played brilliantly, to much applause. Then I went for a meal with a friend and home. And asleep at 11pm. Those damned fireworks woke me up – though I live 2 miles away from the epicentre.
It’d be a toss up between the Irish and Scottish among small nations who have managed to most successfully export their culture – and turn it into an economic asset. I’ll give the edge to the Scottish who with their supreme cultural cunning have managed to own New Year. So here are a couple of songs fi yi.
To those whose hearts are broken, may they be healed this year.
Happy New Year!