Brian Ferguson: Calton Hill Hogmanay ban should be lifted

SCROOGE seems to be alive and well at Hogmanay, writes Brian Ferguson

Safety concerns about the hill being unlit and having an uneven surface are simply not credible. Picture: TSPL

EDINBURGH’S literary history is long, illustrious and full of delightful, but little-known, nuggets of curiosity.

Of the thousands who flocked to the spectacular light show on the Royal Mile in recent weeks, how many knew the origins of one of the most famous festive stories could be traced to a graveyard just a few hundred yards away?

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It was in the grounds of the Canongate Kirk in 1842 that Charles Dickens found the inspiration for A Christmas Carol when he came across a tombstone dedicated to “Alexander Lennox Scroggie - meal man.”

Unfortunately Dickens misread the tombstone as “mean man” and turned the successful corn merchant into the mean-spirited Christmas legend.

It was an unfortunate turn of events for Scroggie, who won the catering contract for the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 and was the first supplier of whisky to the Royal Navy, as he was a seemingly generous and jovial character.

It was the fictional figure of Ebenezer Scrooge that sprung to mind as I read over some of the reactions to the unprecedented ban on Hogmanay revellers gathering on Calton Hill.

As mean-spirited decisions from the City of Edinburgh Council go in modern times, this one is right up there.

I was as baffled as anyone at the official explanation. Safety concerns about the hill being unlit and having an uneven surface are simply not credible when you consider that more than 10,000 people will be allowed on there for the torchlight procession on 30 December, with a similar number gathering for the annual Beltane Fire Festival in April.

If, as the council suggests, there have been growing numbers of people heading up Calton Hill on Hogmanay then that is surely something to be welcomed and accommodated.

Reading between the lines of last week’s announcement, it was hard to avoid the conclusion the closure was a cost-cutting measure.

Producers Unique Events does not want to lose any of its budget for the festival on safety measures for an area that is well outside their event arena.

Police Scotland landed the city council with a bill of more than £100,000 for last year’s Hogmanay – money that the council, which has provided stewards on Calton Hill over the years, simply does not have going spare.

The council has signalled it is prepared to target the winter festivals for potential cuts – proposing to slash £500,000 from the £1.3 million annual budget – for events which generate £240 million for the economy.

It may not be the intention of anyone involved in the Hogmanay festival, which will generate vast global publicity for the city for the next few days, but the Calton Hill decision sends a message out to many people that they are not welcome to celebrate in the city centre unless they are prepared to pay for the privilege.

If the police, the council and Unique Events are capable of looking after more than 70,000 people on and around Princes Street on Hogmanay, then there is no reason why those who wish to go to Calton Hill cannot also be catered for.

If that means consideration of a ballot or ticketing system, and the introduction of a modest fee to meet the cost of making the hill safer, then so be it. But only after a period of consultation to gauge public support.

In the meantime, and in keeping with the spirit of Mr Scroggie, rather than his fictional counterpart, the Calton Hill ban should be lifted.