UK's biggest New Year celebrations get under way in torchlit procession - in pictures

Thousands of revellers took part in the Edinburgh procession signalling the start of the country's biggest New Year celebrations, known in Scotland as Hogmanay

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Around 40,000 people took to the streets of Scotland’s capital last night kick-starting the UK’s largest New Year celebrations.

The annual Edinburgh torchlight procession launched three days of New Year festivities across Scotland. Fire-throwing artists, drummers, pipers and face-painted dancers accompanied thousands of torchbearers through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

The long running tradition stems from Hogmanay festivals from hundreds of years ago. Back then, celebrations would include bonfires, torch tossing and blazing tar barrels with fire considered a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.

A sign of friendship

Participants and spectators gathered in Holyrood Park in central Edinburgh as part of the procession on Monday, December 30, 2019.

Torchbearers formed the shape of two figures shaking hands - a symbol of extending friendship at a time when the country is gearing up to be taken out of Europe against the will of the majority of its people.

The directors of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay said the scene was: “An image to be proud of, of warmth, welcome and friendship set against the beautiful backdrop of Edinburgh.”

What is Hogmanay?

Scotland's capital is home to the UK's largest New Year celebrations. Last year, 183,857 people attended Edinburgh's Hogmanay. Courtesy Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam

The sold-out torchlight procession marks the start of three days of Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh, but Hogmanay festivities take place across the whole of Scotland. They reach a pinnacle on New Year's eve and often continue on through to January 1 or 2.

Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year. The origins of the word are unconfirmed, but it is widely believed to be derived from the country’s Norse and Gaelic roots.

How is it celebrated?

The Bairns Afore concert in Edinburgh lets children see the Hogmanay fireworks before late-night celebrations get underway. Courtesy Edinburgh's Hogmanay 2019.

Several parties take place throughout Scotland on New Year and the biggest is in Edinburgh where thousands of visitors descend on the capital.

In 2018, 183,857 people attended Edinburgh Hogmanay making it the UK’s largest New Year celebration.

The party takes place throughout the city and, on New Year's Eve, there is an annual street party, fireworks display and concert in Princess Street Gardens. This year it’s being headlined by Mark Ronson.

A classical Hogmanay concert in Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral. Courtesy Edinburgh Hogmanay / Underbelly events

This year there is also a classic candlelit concert in St Giles Cathedral featuring the music of Bach and a Bairns Afore (children before) concert where fireworks will light up the sky early so that children can be taken home before late-night revelling begins.

A silent disco and a ceilidh (traditional Scottish music and dancing) will take place under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.

Why is it such a big deal?

A classic Scottish ceilidh is one way to celebrate Hogmanay in Scotland. Courtesy ROBERTO RICCIUTI PHOTOGRAPHY / Edinburgh's Hogmanay 2019

Hogmanay has been a time of celebration for centuries. Many believe it dates back to the 8th century when the Vikings invaded Scotland. These raiders would celebrate the winter solstice with huge fire-burning parties. In Scotland's northern Shetland Isles, the annual Up Helly Ah fire festivals continue this tradition but across the rest of the country it has evolved into Hogmanay.

The celebration also gained prominence when religious leaders expelled Christmas across Scotland due to religious divides. With Christmas banned for nearly 400 years, many people simply made Hogmanay the bigger celebration.

Midnight traditions

Away from the street parties, Scots have several other Hogmanay traditions. Many gather for house parties with friends and family where meals, music and dancing are the order of the evening.

Typical party snacks include steaming bowls of vinegar-soaked mushy peas, cock-a-leekie soup, shortbread and black buns.

When the clock strikes midnight people greet each other with traditional toasts such as "Lang may yer lum reek”. This is Scots for long will your chimney smoke, and is a wish for good fortune.

Auld Lang Syne, a poem by Scotland's most famous poet Robert Burns, has become became the soundtrack for New Year around the world. At every Scottish ceilidh or Hogmanay party people gather in a circle to link arms and belt out the lyrics after the clock strikes midnight.

Other traditions involve banging pots and pans in the street to chase away evil spirits – and first-footing.

What is first-footing?

First-footing isn’t as widely practiced now as it used to be but it still happens in various places in Scotland, more typically in the north of the country.

The practice involves neighbors going next door in an attempt to be the first to wish each other a Happy Hogmanay.

People used to believe that the first person to cross the threshold in the New Year would dictate the fortune for that household for the coming year. The most desirable visitors then were tall, dark strangers who came bearing gifts. This is likely to stem from the fact that most Viking invaders were light-haired – thus a dark-haired stranger was typically less of a threat than a blonde one. Today, first-footers still always bring a gift.

What happens on January 1? 

The Loony Dook on New Year's Day in South Queensferry

January 1 and 2 are public holidays in Scotland so celebrations typically roll on after December 31.

Many Scots take part in Edinburgh’s Loony Dook on New Year’s Day. People don fancy dress or strip to their underwear and run into the freezing cold water of the Firth of Forth. The event sells out months in advance but spectators are always welcome to cheer the Dookers on from the shoreline.

New Year’s Day is also when Scottish families gather to have dinner together. Many years ago, the first of January was not a holiday in Scotland so people, short on time, would buy ready-made steak pies from their local butchers. This tradition continues today with many families purchasing large steak pies from supermarkets to eat with their family on January 1.

Is it a good time to visit Scotland?

Scotland is dark and cold in winter. Thanks to its northern location, days are short with the sun setting before 4pm. The weather is also often wet, with snow falling in the north.

But winter is also when Scotland is at its most celebratory.

From toasting the Scottish patron St Andrew on November 30 to celebrating Robert Burns with haggis, neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes) on January 25 and Hogmanay and Christmas in between - Scotland’s winter season is full of festivity. It's also the best time to see the Northern Lights.