I read about the cancellation of this year’s Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party with mixed feelings. On the one hand, like many residents, I felt that the whole Christmas/New Year celebration had grown too big and disruptive. It hadn’t helped that the promoters had seemed tone-deaf to local concerns.
But on the other hand I have many fond memories of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. I was involved in policing the official street party for more than ten years from its inception in the early 1990s. I remember the amazing atmosphere of these early years and how it transformed a formless and often dangerous tradition into a major attraction for the city.
For hundreds of years the citizens of Edinburgh celebrated Hogmanay at the junction at the Tron Kirk. Over the years the Tron celebrations had mixed fortunes. In 1811 a group of thugs bent on robbery attacked revellers, killing one. When a constable of the recently formed Edinburgh City Police intervened he was also kicked to death. Retribution was swift – three teenage culprits were publicly hanged near the scene of their crimes.
Though the fortunes of the Tron celebrations waxed and waned over the years, by the 1980s it had grown to unmanageable proportions. With no perimeter, no structure to the event, no entertainment – the clock on the church didn’t even work – it was downright dangerous. On the sloping cobbles of the High Street wet or icy conditions made it lethal underfoot – the sharp whinstone kerbstones added a potentially lethal edge.
So in the early 1990s a partnership of the city council, local enterprise board and the police joined with renowned local event promoters Pete Irvine and Barry Wright to try something new.
To make a virtue from a necessity, a street party was organised on safer ground in Princes Street. It was a huge success, the traditional gathering was given a structure, entertainment and fireworks at “the Bells”. With Edinburgh Castle as a backdrop it was a winner, and with clever promotion Edinburgh’s Hogmanay quickly established itself as the world’s “go to” destination for a New Year’s break.
But celebrity can come at a cost. In 1995, the street party almost became a victim of its own success when nearly 400,000 people turned up. Even with good organisation and a very good-natured crowd it was too much. There were no serious injuries but it was close – from then on barriers, tickets and drastic crowd number reductions were introduced.
In recent years a sprawling commercial Christmas market has grown on the back of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. With higher costs and numerous road closures, folk unfortunate to live in the city centre have suffered increasing disruption and begun to wonder whether the much vaunted economic benefit was worth it. After all, the average inconvenienced citizen seems to get no benefit at all.
Now that the street party and all our other festivals have been cancelled for this year it’s perhaps a good opportunity to reset our thinking and our relationship with all our commercial festivals.
But as the wheel turns fulls circle let’s not be deceived by rose-tinted reminiscences of our traditional Hogmanays. The Tron is still a very bad place for a street party in the dark of a cold winters night.
Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable
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