HOGMANAY Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
Now officially the biggest New Year Party in the world, Edinburgh's Hogmanay Festival just grows and grows. Featuring more than 50 arts, music and sporting events in just four days, after only three years this extravaganza is now firmly established on the international stage. Despite local mutterings about the effect this essentially commercial, popular celebration has had on the traditional Hogmanay of yesteryear, not to mention block bookings of functions such as the Revels on behalf of tourist groups, the whole atmosphere of the thing and the sheer sense of occasion are irresistible.

The only real problem is that there is just far, far too much to see and do: from the weird and wonderful goings-on at the Futurama, a "mystic psychic assembly" in the High Street, through such delights as the "Loony Dook" (Edinburgh's own demented New Year swim in the Firth of Forth), steam train outings, Highland Games, classical jazz and pop concerts, art exhibitions, street theatre and, of course, the epic street party on Hogmanay night itself, the order of the day is hotfoot pursuit of the next event, subsiding inevitably into fatalistic submission to the spirit of genial anarchy as the pace quickens, the crowds grow, and everyone gets more and more tired and emotional.

Highlights for this particular reveller included the opening torchlight procession and fire festival on Calton Hill and a memorable concert on Monday at the High Kirk of St Giles. There the somewhat inelegantly-named BT Scottish Ensemble gave elegant and eloquent performances of Grieg's Holberg Suite and Poulenc's Organ Concerto (with the soloist Michael Harris), finishing off with glorious playing from the leading traditional fiddler Aly Bain in the haunting Follow the Moonstone by the Norwegian composer Henning Sommero. Concert-goers leaving St Giles were greeted by the amazing spectacle of the French street theatre group Compagnie Transe Express performing their "music of angels" - an aerial consort of bells and percussion suspended from a huge moving metal "spider", dangling 100 feet or so in the air amid the swirling snowflakes.

On the Night itself, imagine four stages along the sweep of Princes Street: in Castle Street, Radio 1's Dance Party grooving away complete with giant video screen (one of several); in the Gardens, fiendish Canadian fiddler Ashley McIsaac hitting the stratosphere, followed by the contemporary Gaelic rock of Runrig; while at the Mound immense crowds were wowed by Babybird and Ocean Colour Scene.

In the meantime, as 400,000 or so increasingly excited party-goers were worked up to fever pitch by the drumming of the Edinburgh Samba School, pipe bands, and a myriad street theatre groups such as Picto Facto, with their "large-scale, non-competitive activity games" (involving parachutes, I seem to remember). It hardly needed the countdown to midnight to produce an explosion of joy, as the intense barrage of fireworks in all directions heralded a mass hug-in and probably the most protracted rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" in history. Even then the party had only just got started, and hordes slithered through the slush, braving the dangers of broken glass and imminent concussion (Edinburgh pavements are hard), off to the New Year Revels, "Tartan Tear Up" at the old GPO building, and many another knees-up, while people danced into 1997 to the sound of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra beneath a snow-clad castle. So there you have it (or some of it, anyway). Book now for the Millennium!