If you really want to enjoy New Year’s, head up to Edinburgh where snogging strangers is a key part of the celebrations. WORDS: Robin McKelvie
A decade or so ago, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay was a wildly disorganised snogfest that rumbled through the Scottish capital pretty much ignored by the rest of the world. These days all that has changed and the New Year celebrations have metamorphosed into a huge international street party complete with a whole week of weird and wonderful events, such as a hungover triathlon and an insane dip in Edinburgh’s chilly waters.
The big street party on the night of December 31 attracts more than 100,000 revellers into a city centre that’s strictly off-bounds to those without a pass. As the minutes count down the music cranks up in Princes Street Gardens, just below the castle ramparts, where last year the Scissor Sisters and Blondie headlined. As millions of litres of booze – only glass bottles are banned – are glugged down and countless new friendships spring up, midnight arrives in an orgy of fireworks, and that age-old Edinburgh Hogmanay tradition ensues of snogging the nearest stranger. The party continues on in pubs, clubs and flats across the city as many locals keep going until dawn.
Despite the overindulgence there is no let up on New Year’s Day. In the city there is a triathlon where serious adrenaline junkies battle their hangovers by taking on one of Britain’s most hilly and challenging cities on a day when many Scots are inside keeping cosy with their friends and families.
Out in the zany seaside suburb of South Queensferry things get more bizarre still with the ‘Loony Dook’. With a skirl of the bagpipes, deranged locals and welcome visitors plunge down the historic High Street and are furnished with a free dram while they await their fate. Wet and dry suits are banned though fancy dress is nigh compulsory and soon the two or three hundred ‘swimmers’ make a mad dash for the icy winter waters of the Firth of Forth, accompanied by thousands of onlookers and journalists from all over the world. The reward for a Scotsman is well worth the effort with a free bowl of hearty soup and warming glass of the ‘water of life’ at a local bar.
Many visitors only spend a few days in the city over Hogmanay, but those making the effort to arrive a bit earlier can indulge in another two massive events. On December 29 there is the ‘Torchlight Procession’ where you can buy a torch and join the wax dripping pagan frenzy through the old town to atmospheric Calton Hill where views of the city and rampant symbolic boat burning await. A night later is the ‘Night Afore’, as it sounds, a bit of a drunken rehearsal for the big night with live music and a carnival atmosphere.
If you don’t fancy another New Year in London or want to try something genuinely different then head north for Hogmanay in Edinburgh. This old pagan festival has, these days, become a week long extravaganza up there with the world’s great travel experiences.
If Skara Brae was just off the M25 it would probably be Britain’s most visited tourist attraction. Deep in Scotland’s north on the island of Orkney is this 3000-year-old village. When a freak storm blew the protective sands away in 1850 they revealed how man lived here even before the building of the Egyptian Pyramids. Strolling around the village from above you can clearly make out beds, stoves, fireplaces and cupboards. Taking in the view as you gaze over the sandy beaches you can easily imagine Neolithic people trying to eke out a living from farming and fishing in this striking spot. See www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae.
This remote corner of Scotland is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses with few people lucky enough to ever make it out here. The only way in is on a converted fishing boat from the Highland fishing port of Mallaig, which handily drops you off by Britain’s most remote pub, the Old Forge, and Knoydart’s only hotel/restaurant, the Pier House. There are no trains, buses or planes on the Knoydart Peninsula, which leaves walking as the main way of getting around. Knoydart’s hiking trails are first class with low-level mountain passes for the inexperienced and a sprinkling of ‘munros’ (mountains over 915m) for serious adventure types. See www.knoydart-foundation.com.
Up over Britain’s highest road lies a true travel secret. The name Applecross may not hit the headlines south of the border, but if you are looking to really get away from it in a land tour buses literally cannot reach, head to this peninsula which feels miles away from the middle of nowhere. The wild road to Applecross takes nerves of steel to negotiate, but the effort is worth it when you arrive at the Applecross Inn where plump fresh-off-the-boat langoustines await. They have a couple of rooms upstairs as well as sweeping views of the mountains of Skye across the water. See www.applecross.uk.com.
For those unable to spend the two weeks you really need to cover the Outer Hebrides, Barra offers the best of the archipelago on one island. The most exciting way to arrive is by plane on a unique flight, said to be the only scheduled service in the world that takes off and lands on a beach, subject, of course, to tides. Packed into this easily navigable island (you can cycle around it in a day) are sweeping white sand Atlantic beaches, heart-pumping mountains, the world’s most bizarre golf course (complete with fences around the greens to keep out cows) and a raucous local pub, the Castlebay Hotel. See www.isleofbarra.com.
Until 1930 a whole community lived out on these ridiculously exposed volcanic islands, which are cast adrift in the Atlantic Ocean 60km west of Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides. They did not use money, had no government or taxes and the men had enlarged feet as a result of their days ferreting amongst the voluminous sea cliffs for prized birds’ eggs to feed their families. Today it is possible to spend a week sea kayaking around a land where dolphins and whales outnumber people. With hundreds of thousands of birds and no permanent inhabitants St Kilda has become something of a Holy Grail for adventurous Scots. See www.adventurehebrides.com.