What happens when you set tens of thousands of people armed with torches loose in a city? We wanted an answer to this burning question, and it basically determined the schedule for our whole Britain trip. Rather than doing London and Paris, or London and Wales, we knew we had to see Edinburgh, because of Hogmanay.
Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year festival, but what really sets it apart from other New Years festivals is the torch parade the night of December 30. We left Newcastle fired up and ready to see what all the fuss was about.
I’d heard good things about Edinburgh from pretty much everyone who’d visited, so I would have been excited even without the torches. We arrived in a cold mist and picked up our Hogmanay tickets, then rushed to our AirBnB outside the main town (we were staying East of the city, past the end of the Royal Mile and through the huge Holyrood Park. It was a pretty intense walk and the rain picked up. We caught a bus back into town after the checkin, and from there we walked up the Royal Mile to see Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city’s skyline. Basically the city center is like a doorstop with the castle perched on top and the Royal Mile extending down the slope.
From there, we did some meandering in the direction of the National Museum of Scotland. I think both of us would have preferred to see more of the city, but the rain just kept coming down. We briefly went into Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, an old cemetery with good views of the castle before being forced inside.
I loved the Scottish aesthetic: huge old grey bricks, brown-green grass, rain-swept sky. It felt completely different from England, even though Newcastle was a short train ride away.
After the cemetery we escaped the weather in the Scottish Museum. It’s free and huge, with large sections devoted to Scottish history, world history, natural history, and so on. The Scottish history section was great, but just too big to take in at once.
I think my favorite was the big natural history hall, in which you were surrounded by taxidermied animals and skeletons.
The natural history hall was a good chowcase of both the exhibits and the building itself, which felt both modern and Victorian. The building was big and airy inside, with white metal fencing along the sides and big skylights.
We still had some time to kill after the museum, so after having some Nepalese food, we continued to mosey around town – and then we stumbled on an amazing bookstore, Armchair Books. It was open late and had a nice selection of secondhand books, but what most stood out to me was the selection of antique books, which included a lot of editions from the eighteenth century, tons of Victorian books, and a whole lot more. We actually came back to this place the next day, because it was so cool.
It was getting a little late, so we wrapped back around to the area of the torch parade. We’d decided not to participate in the parade itself, which in the end was definitely the right decision. During the day we’d seen a lot of people out either collecting their torches for the night or carrying them around. Each torch was 2-3 feet of some wax substance with a stick in the middle. There was a small paper waxguard, but you had to accept that whatever you were wearing would almost certainly get wax on it.
We found the start of the parade, just off the Royal Mile on Bank Street. People were penned up waiting as far as we could see. At this point, I still didn’t really know the scale of the whole thing. It looked like a lot of people, but I couldn’t see how many. Nobody had their torches lit just yet, they were just waiting in the cold.
We didn’t wait, but grabbed mulled cider just past the start, then claimed our spot with a good view over the central park where people would be marching. This park seems pretty inconvenient for people who live in Edinburgh, but it was festive, with a huge area of amusement park rides and gardens.
Then the parade started, with bagpipes out front and the first of the people with torches rounded the corner in front of us. These were pretty serious torches, and the people were naturally walking at different speeds, so they naturally spread out – all the roads were closed and fenced off. In total, the walking route was about a mile long, and I don’t doubt that at one point the entire thing was filled with people walking. After about 20 minutes, we worked our way to the starting area.
That’s when I really understood what was going on. We’d seen about 20 minutes of people walking, which is a fair amount of people. But the pens of people were still completely full. I think it was two columns of people, each column 2-4 across; the columns extended for about a fifth of a mile, and everyone was standing, waiting to walk, with their torches lit. We continued past and around the corner, and there were still more people, just waiting to get into the pens to start walking.
After this, we wanted to wrap around, away from the crowds, to the end of the marching route. I think we probably could have taken a much shorter route, but in the end we did a huge loop around the whole city and around the back end of the finishing area (it was finishing on Carlton Hill and we looped around London Road. We were really booking it, wanting to see the fireworks on time. And we just made it – to the back of the firework display!
This meant that we missed the ground displays, but the fireworks in the air were directly above us – bits of cardboard tubing was falling around us. It was a pretty short display, and then we continued on to merge in with the crowd, who were milling around at the end of the parade route. They had some big buckets of water where people were supposed to put out torches, but there was just general confusing and chaos.
We managed to sneak into the parade, so we were surrounded by people with the torches, though we weren’t holding any ourselves. This meant that we’d seen pretty much everything: the start of the parade, people walking, the full extent of people in pens, the line outside the pens, the empty city, the fireworks, and been in the parade itself.
It was a great way to celebrate the end of one year, and the next day would be the last one in 2015.