Travel: Festivities herald the Daft Days

Charles Godfrey-Faussett gives the lowdown on Edinburgh's party to end all millennium-eve parties

The Scots have always seen in the New Year in style. Traditionally "the Daft Days" begin at Christmas and end on 6 January, with Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) and Ne'er Day (New Year's Day) right in the middle.

The splendid name Hogmanay probably comes from the 16th-century French word aguillanneuf which would have been shouted to request a New Year gift, likely to be an oatcake or a "black bun". The old habit of "first- footing" - when folk nipped in and out of each other's houses with a bottle of whisky and a lump of coal as midnight struck - has sadly declined, but its convivial spirit still survives.

In Edinburgh, up until 1996, everyone used to gather beneath the steeple of the Tron Church on the High Street and wait for the clock's inaudible chimes, the cue for them to kiss each other as politely or as passionately as they cared. Unfortunately, the large number of glass bottles in the crowd would end up in the air, and the atmosphere changed over the years from one of general jollity to one of high risk. In 1996, the crush at the bottom of the Mound was so great that several people nearly suffocated.

As a consequence, the celebrations are now a well-managed, highly packaged six-day event. The 150,000 tickets for the night of New Year's Eve are free, but have to be booked well in advance and are absolutely necessary. (Neither wheedling nor bribery will have any effect without them.)

At about 7pm on 31 December, huge checkpoints go up on streets around an "exclusion zone" which usually includes George Street, Princes Street and its gardens, Waterloo Place, the castle and the High Street. The fortunate ticket-holders are given an adhesive armband that allows re-entry into the zone and marks out the haves from the have-nots.

The build-up to the big moment is formidable: all the off-licences in the city are besieged all day until they close at around 8pm; pubs outside the zone usually close resignedly around 10pm, and those inside are full to bursting.

The regimented nature of the organisation may sound like something out of Orwell's 1984, which in some respects it is, but the positive side of this is that every year the entertainment becomes increasingly sophisticated, and the enthusiasm doesn't seem to abate.

Before the City Council started encouraging shops, restaurants and pubs to open on Ne'er Day itself, the place was a ghost town on the first day of the year. Now the celebrations continue, with concerts, many of which are free, open galleries and festivals taking over the whole city.

Inevitably, accommodation prices are exorbitant, and for this year most good hotels have been booked up since late 1998, but you can always try.

The Millennium Hogmanay promises to be even bigger and better than in years gone past. Events start with a bang at dusk on 27 December with a Spanish firework display, a torchlight procession and a fire festival on Calton Hill. In the build up to New Year's Eve there will be street theatre, events for kids, gala concerts at the Festival Theatre and Beating the Retreat from the 20th Century - a spectacular pageant in the Royal Mile celebrating 1,000 years of Scottish history.

On Hogmanay itself there will be a candlelit concert in St Giles', the world's biggest ceilidh and a huge street party. As the new millennium draws near, a concert in Princes Street Gardens will herald one of the biggest firework displays in the world. When it's all over there'll be an ice rink in the gardens - one way to see off your raging hangover.

Charles Godfrey-Faussett is the author of `The Cadogan Guide to Edinburgh'.

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