Torchlit Parades, Bonfires and Fireworks: Scotland Goes Whole Hogmanay to Ring in New Year

Visit Britain

And you thought your New Year’s Eve party was crazy? Hogmanay, Scotland’s own brand of New Year's Eve celebration, can be as wild or as tame as you’d like it to be. Well, it likely won't be tame.

The origins of the word “Hogmanay” are uncertain; but these days, it refers to the last day of the year. Many of the traditions we celebrate on this side of the pond come from Scotland: Scots celebrate the occasion with raucous singing, dancing, drinking and general merriment with friends. The classic New Year’s Eve song, “Auld Lang Syne,” is a traditional poem originally composed by iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns and later set to music. Loosely translated, the phrase “for auld lang sine” means “for old times” or “for days gone by.” Scots often sing the last verse of the song with arms linked to ring in the new year.

Edinburgh is the epicenter of Hogmanay celebrations, with a giant fireworks show and arts and entertainment events ranging from sophisticated to off the wall. But almost every city in Scotland has its own traditions.

Ancient ancestors of today’s Scots, including Norse and Gaelic people, celebrated the winter solstice, and those celebrations later merged with winter festivals of later peoples. Throughout Scotland, new-year traditions have survived for decades, if not centuries. For example, it’s believed that the “first footer” — the first person through a friend’s door after midnight — indicates the kind of luck the household will have during the next year. Therefore, it’s a tradition for the first person into a house after midnight (ideally a man — hey, it’s an old tradition) to carry a useful gift, often food or drink, for the home’s owners.

As is appropriate for a winter event, much of the Hogmanay celebration involves fire. And that doesn’t just mean the fireworks that explode all over Edinburgh at midnight. Some towns have parades lit by torches or even fireballs – homemade balls of rags or paper hung at the end of a rope or chain so they can be swung around for maximum effect.

In Stonehaven, on Scotland’s eastern coast, holds a Fireballs Festival with family-friendly activities early in the evening and a concert late at night (in keeping with the warmth theme, the Red Hot Chili Peppers will be performing there this year).

Similarly, in the village of Burghead on January 11, fishermen carry a flaming barrel around the town before using it to create their own bonfire. According to the very informative website, the townspeople later take the embers home as symbols of good luck.

Up Helly Aa Day in the Shetland Island town of Lerwick boasts the “world’s largest fire festival,” with a big Viking-themed costume parade — by torchlight, of course — and bonfire. It’s held not on New Year’s Eve but on the last Tuesday in January, although in true Viking tradition, rowdy celebrations can happen throughout the Yuletide season (which lasts roughly from November or December to mid-January on the modern calendar). On Up Helly Aa Day, locals throw open their doors to welcome “guizers,” or men in Viking costume, for singing and merriment. Not surprisingly, the next day is always a public holiday in the town.

Other parts of Britain also join in the fun. The closer to Scotland you get, the more outlandish the celebrations.

Allendale, in the far northeastern county of  Northumberland, has the famous (or infamous) “Tar Bar’l” parade, in which well-dressed folks carry burning tar barrels through the streets before finally tossing them onto a bonfire  shouting "Be Damned to He Who Throws Last.” What could possibly go wrong?

A slightly less scary event: the winter carnival in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, just south of the Scotland-England border.

Of course London has its own celebrations. There, you get to ring in the new year with the tolling of perhaps the world’s most famous clock-tower bell: Big Ben.

by Christy Karras

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