Lesley Riddoch: Edinburgh has become a hostage to over-tourism

“Edinburgh Hogmanay cancelled. Underbelly now looking at ways to charge folk for staying in the house.”

Edinburgh Council beware – this comment has been retweeted more than 5,000 times. Omicron may have cancelled the street party but it hasn’t lowered the temperature. Many residents are still furious about the annual takeover of streets by Edinburgh’s Torchlit Procession (£16), the Loony Dook (£12.50) and the very idea that their cancellation means Hogmanay’s written off in Scotland’s capital.

How could it? A tradition, a cultural ritual, an idea, a night shared with friends is not the private possession of any corporate entity, no matter how badly we’ve neglected collective ownership.

So, this year’s Omicron interruption might be a blessing in disguise – a chance to rethink the importance of tradition and neighbourliness, the alienating effects of over-tourism and the need for Scots to reclaim the original, essential intimacy of Hogmanay. Not with more, big, fancy gigs, but with the humble first-foot.

Of course, restrictions make this a tough time to re-start. But Scotland’s thousand-year-old first-footing tradition is the ideal antidote for our shaken, isolated times – informal, intimate, self-starting, free and pleasingly counter-cultural since every other event in our modern lives has become distant, passive, commercial, organised and generally performed by somebody else. Somebody better.

Hogmanay is now the same – a city-centre, crowded, anonymous and rather expensive thing – and the splendid, local ceremonies at Comrie, Findhorn, Stonehaven and Newburgh are being overwhelmed by visitors. It’s time for a change.

And that’s before you consider the ethics of a private company (albeit one sanctioned by the council) that effectively bans locals from their own city streets – unless they pay up.

Yes, we all realise that tourism supports jobs. And yes, we understand the huge scale means huge costs to provide A-list acts and security. But it’s a circuitous argument. Huge costs arise from the fact that promoters Underbelly encourage 100,000 folk to traipse the chilly streets of Edinburgh. Before 1993, when several hundred people gathered at the Tron Kirk for the bells, locals mostly policed themselves. There’s nothing so spontaneous now and perhaps it’s naïve to think there ever will be again.

Edinburgh is a mega visitor magnet – so dramatically overhyped that probably every adult on these islands has half-planned a stay and visitor numbers are bound to increase as staycations by train become more climate and Covid friendly than plane trips abroad.

Of course, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay does have great performers that I’d happily pay to watch at other times of year. Just not Hogmanay – a time to re-build valuable stores of personal connection for the long winter, in the same way we load up protective Vitamin D during the summer.

So here’s where first-footing comes in. For the uninitiated (and sadly that’s almost everyone younger than 40) first-footing is the gentle art of politely gate-crashing your nearest neighbour’s flat or house around midnight on the 31st, clutching black bun or a lump of coal, a carry-out and the vital ingredient – a story, song or poem.

Yip – an actual performance. Some folk will feel stressed about the very idea of doing a turn in front of real people, not a smartphone camera. But the whole beauty of Hogmanay is the variety of cultures and generations that can be assembled in one well-ventilated room. A unique contribution is all that’s needed – not a pitch perfect performance. And it can be absolutely anything – a story about missing a ferry, the first verse of Wonderwall, a Burns poem, My Way, a Gaelic song, Michael Marra’s Hermless, an electric guitar solo, an imitation of an owl… the list is literally endless so long as the atmosphere is right.

What’s needed is an invitation to neighbours, an outside light left on before the bells and one brave soul to switch off the TV.

Although friends have been pulling rabbits out of hats to make the big Edinburgh gig work over long years, I must confess I’ve never been. My ideal Hogmanay contains marvellous moments of spontaneity when strangers drop their guard and the room can suddenly be full of talent, memories and connections.

First footing, household ceilidhs, bothy ballads are bits of Scotland’s collective culture which worked in the days before sound systems because they were small-scale. Musical folk developed more than musical skills – without a stage or a large audience they learned to tell stories between songs and retuning instruments. As a result, the craic is the most distinctive aspect of Celtic performance and musicianship. Yet the contemporary emphasis on commercial events with huge scale and awe-inspiring electronic delivery has almost swept Scotland’s precious acoustic heritage away. Almost – but not quite.

This is daft. Our public world is too often a distancing, anonymising and faceless bureaucracy when people need exactly the opposite in a world of automation, social media and endless zoom meetings. We need engagement, comfort and connection – and that happens best in folk’s homes and small local venues.

Event organiser William Thomson has suggested that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations could be run by a social enterprise with profits funding other community ventures. It’s an idea Edinburgh council would be wise not to dismiss out of hand.

Before the cancellation, some Edinburgh residents were organising a free loony dook yards from the paid one, others were planning to gate-crash the street party and almost everyone is fed up with a decade-long, free-for-all, where Air BNB have forced key workers from city flats, private companies have trashed publicly owned gardens and “the heart of the city is gouged out several times a year” according to one local. Enough.

As vinyl makes a comeback, the time for reassessing human formats has also arrived, and Scotland is perfectly positioned to rediscover the power of cultural intimacy. So Edinburgh’s Hogmanay has not been cancelled – it’s just been handed back to the people for one glorious night. Perhaps it’ll be habit-forming.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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