Edinburgh's winter festivals to go ahead after Underbelly scales back Christmas and Hogmanay events

Edinburgh’s winter festivals are set to go ahead with a revamped programme which will see Christmas markets and attractions spread across the city centre and several days of spectacular light shows across the city to mark Hogmanay.

Edinburgh's winter festivals are planned to go ahead in a scale-back form this year. Picture: Fraser Cameron

Organisers Underbelly have reached agreement with city council officials to stage a six-week programme of events which will see the Star Flyer and Big Wheel attractions return to Princes Street Gardens, although there will be ban on markets and bars there to protect the historic park.

Heritage groups had led calls for a rethink of the Christmas market before the pandemic struck earlier this year due to the prolonged flooding problems in the aftermath of last year’s winter festivals.

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The bottom section of the gardens, which was relandscaped as part of a multi-million overhaul of the Scottish National Gallery building, was only reopened in July.

Under the company’s contract with the city council, which is thought to be worth £813,000, a “city centre trail” of festive stalls will be spread around the Royal Mile, the Mound Precinct, Castle Street and George Street.

The latter has also been earmarked for a return for Edinburgh’s iconic Christmas ice rink, which was controversially ousted from St Andrew Square last year.

Access may be strictly controlled at key sites to ensure social distancing, while the annual fire parade, which traditionally starts the city’s Hogmanay festival, will become a static torchlight event honouring the city’s key workers for their efforts during the pandemic.

Along with the council’s funding being kept in place this year, the Scottish Government has agreed to maintain more than £200,000 worth of support for the winter festivals to ensure they can go ahead.

The two festivals could be the first major events to be held in the city since the coronavirus outbreak, which led to all of the August festivals being called off.

Underbelly was charged with producing a Christmas programme which would “produce a festive celebration for Edinburgh” which would disperse attractions away from Princes Street Gardens while helping to attract people to the city centre to support the business sector.

The long-running Hogmanay street party, which has had a capacity of 75,000 in recent years, was called off last month.

However the arrival of 2021 is set to be marked with what is described as “a series of visually spectacular moments across the city,” which will Scottish artists will be working on.

The council said it would be working with other agencies to “discourage unofficial mass gatherings”, such as on Hogmanay, when no major public events are due to be held.

As part of the proposed deal with the local authority, which is expected to be discussed by councillors next week, Underbelly is hoping to ensure that half of the stall-holders are drawn from Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood said: “We have enjoyed working collaboratively to ensure the council’s vision for the winter festivals can become a reality.

"Working together, our absolute priority is public safety and our aim for both events is to put Edinburgh first.

“Once agreed by the council, we are confident these will be events the city will be proud of, which will support the community and preserve the city’s global status as a destination for Christmas and Hogmanay.

In his report for councillors, place director Paul Lawrence said: “The programme outlined will be adapted in line with the latest public health guidance from the Scottish Government.

"Any changes in this guidance, especially any increase in restrictions, will be observed and implemented.

"With the exception of those events where physical distancing can be implemented, the council and its partners are working to discourage unofficial mass gatherings or spectator points and will communicate this through the official Hogmanay and Christmas channels.

"Visitors to Edinburgh’s Christmas may be required to pre-register for specific times to ensure that site capacities in certain areas are not exceeded and that physical distancing can be maintained.

"Where appropriate at both events, track and trace’ measures will be implemented and strict hygiene measures observed across all sites.”

Paul Bush, director of events at Scottish Government agency VisitScotland, said: “Like all events, Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay is having to adapt to operating in a new norm.

The council and Underbelly are developing a programme that maintains the spirit and reputation Hogmanay and Christmas in the city while adhering to Scottish Government guidelines.

“Events are an important part of our communities as they not only bring us great entertainment, they also sustain livelihoods and bring social and economic change. We look forward to working with the council and Underbelly to develop plans for this year’s event.”

Council leader Adam McVey said: “It’s clear that this year’s Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay have to change in light of the Covid-19 restrictions.

"These are unprecedented conditions and any public health requirements and guidance will be met in every eventuality. The safety of the public remains our priority and no events or activities will go ahead unless it is deemed safe for them to do so.

“I feel positive that we’ve found a safe way to celebrate Christmas at the end of what has been a challenging and for many, a life-changing year.

"By adapting this year’s event we’ll be able to keep numbers lower in each location while also spreading people further out to help support local businesses.

"If events are able to go ahead, they will not only be safe but also reflect the comments and feedback from residents on how Christmas and Hogmanay looks and feels in Edinburgh - with a strong emphasis on local year-round business and moving away from using green space to use hardstanding locations.”

Cammy Day, depute council leader, added: “Whilst Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay will look very different from recent years, I know the exciting plans being considered will continue to show Edinburgh as the best place to enjoy the Christmas festivities and welcome in our New Year celebrations.

“I would like to thank the teams involved for their work so far and if the approach is approved, we will continue to work together with Underbelly and partners to develop these further and hold some amazing events for all the family where we can celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay.

"Everyone involved recognises the uncertainty of the situation and we are all committed to meeting the significant requirements for anything Edinburgh hosts to meet appropriate public health guidance.”

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