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Winter Market in the Grassmarket
(Picture from Facebook)

I was sitting in a pub in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, listening to some live fiddle music, when I came across a rather bewildered couple from America who’d just dropped into the Hogmanay celebrations. “You mean Scotland is thinking of breaking away from the UK?” they asked.

This is the year when we vote!

This is the year when we vote!

“Exactly so,” I said, using the Mad Hatter’s phrase from Alice in Wonderland. “Well, what’s going to happen?” the couple ventured to ask. “Suppose we change the subject,” I replied, quoting the March Hare’s wise suggestion.

We have spent the first few days of the new year trying to get away from that word “Referendum” but alas without success. We’ve tried to point out that 2014 will be the year of many other things – the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup, the John Muir centenary, the seventh centenary of Bannockburn, the other 400 events of the Year of Homecoming. But all to no avail.

Would an independent Scotland be richer or poorer?

Would an independent Scotland be richer or poorer?

So the newspapers and airwaves are full of “Yes” and “No” campaigners making their new year pitch. Their arguments seems to focus on the economy… would Scotland be wealthier or poorer as a result of independence? But to me that is not the heart of the matter. I’m sure the issue will be decided by feelings. Do we feel part of one British culture? What sort of country do we want to be? So far the Yes campaigners are the only ones to have moved onto this sort of territory but even they say the economic case will be decisive.

The economists have been popping their heads out of their ivory towers to mention that the economy appears to be growing again. Employment is up, unemployment is down. Some of the big stores have reported a good Christmas – House of Fraser and John Lewis did well. Others, like Debenhams, did not so well. But the report which stopped me in my tracks was a shocker from the Prince’s Trust. A survey it carried out among unemployed young people ( now running at about 20 per cent remember) found that nearly a third felt depressed, had nothing to live for and had contemplated suicide.

Hogmanay Fireworks 'Forget austerity! Let us make merry!'

Hogmanay Fireworks
‘Forget austerity! Let us make merry!’

I hope they were cheered up a little by the Hogmanay celebrations. To me they always have a defiant ring to them. The fireworks, the ceilidhs, visits to friends, all say “forget our troubles, out with austerity, let us make merry !” The public events went well this year. Over 70,000 people turned out for the traditional Edinburgh fireworks and there were simultaneous shows in Inverness and Stirling. The crowds behaved well and so did the weather….if briefly. We have since been battered by strong winds, rain and high tides.

One of the most unfortunate accidents over Hogmanay was in the wilds of Lochailort, west of Fort William, where a party of revellers were making their way from the local inn to a nearby house for a late night music session when they disturbed a stag in the garden. He charged out through the group and struck a woman straight in the throat. She’s very seriously ill in hospital in Glasgow.

Rail fares up again

Rail fares up again

With the new year comes the usual increase in rail fares. Scotrail are putting up their prices by an average of 1.9 per cent, much lower than the average across the UK of 2.8 per cent. But it includes a sharp rise of over 3 per cent for commuters between Edinburgh and Glasgow. A peak time return will now cost £22.50. And so it should. These trains are usually full to capacity and beyond. Perhaps it will encourage more people to travel at off-peak times, when the fare remains at just £12.60, a real bargain in my view.

I want to end with a rather painful tribute to the bane of my youth, logarithms. The 400th anniversary of their invention, by Edinburgh citizen John Napier, is yet another of those Homecoming events, this time at the National Museum. It was difficult enough using logarithm tables (I still have a set somewhere to remind me) in the maths class at school. But they were also used in the punishment class after school when we were forced to work out each logarithm in turn until the hour of detention was over. My brain has never quite recovered.

The Torchlight Procession on the Mound

They came marching out of the old year bearing flaming torches. There were 10,000 of them, citizens and visitors, led by a band of Vikings, and accompanied by the heavy beat of rock music. If I was the New Year, I’d be very frightened indeed, they obviously mean to set me alight.

The Procession ended on Calton Hill

The Procession ended on Calton Hill

There was something defiant and patriotic about the torchlight procession that launched Edinburgh’s famous Hogmanay celebrations. By the time the march made its way along Princes Street to Calton Hill, there were over 30,000 people there. Mercifully, the rain held off. Indeed there was a starry sky above us, with Jupiter clearly visible and Orion beginning his tumble across the dark stage overhead.

On the ground, a carpet of lighted torches stretched across the hillside. At the west end, a huge bonfire blazed in the wind. Then the crowd was blown away by a son-et-lumiere show which began with purple lights playing on the pillars of the National Monument and the Trafalgar Tower and ended with great crackles and bangs from a five-minute firework display.

And the torchlight procession was just the beginning of the Hogmanay celebrations. The famous fireworks party marking the midnight hour in Princes Street is catering for its usual 80,000 spectators. A concert in the gardens featuring the Pet Shop Boys and Nina Nesbitt is a sell-out. So too is the outdoor Keilidh at the Mound. And, for those who enjoy their music a little more quietly, there’s a candlelit concert in St Giles Cathedral.

The rest of the country is joining in the fun with fire-work parties in Inverness, Stirling, Stonehaven, Biggar and, no doubt, a string of other towns and villages less well-known for their fire festivals. Glasgow’s George Square will be alight till 10pm but Glaswegians will all be tucked up in bed by midnight by order of the city fathers who fear the drunken revelry of Edinburgh will spread to their more godly city.

This rather special year of 2014 is to be marked by a linked son-et-lumiere show in Inverness, Stirling and Edinburgh earlier in the evening, at exactly 20.14. It’s one of the 430 events of the Year of Homecoming when Scots abroad will hopefully be coming home to watch the Bannockburn re-enactment, the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and, of course, the excitements of the Referendum.

The sparks from the Hogmanay fireworks have fallen on a quiet first week of the New Year. It’s as if everyone knows 2013 is going to be a tough year. We are drawing breath and are reluctant to get started.

The Edinburgh fireworks were their usual sparking selves, putting my own wee city on the same stage as Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, seen by a billion television viewers across the world. I joined the rest of the family, and about 200 others, on the top of Blackford Hill to watch the pyrotechnics from a safe distance. Down in Princes Street, some 75,000 people gathered for the Hogmanay hoedown and, apparently, everyone was very well behaved. It was mild night, by Edinburgh standards, and there was an unusually clear dark sky.

The £1m invested by the city council in staging the event is amply repaid by the £30m estimated to come back into the local economy from the visitors attracted by “the biggest Hogmanay party in the world.” I met one such visitor later that day at a concert in the Usher Hall, a student from India currently doing a post-graduate degree in Oxford. “I just had to come and see what all the fuss was about,” he told me.

But the fireworks etc was the only bright moment in an otherwise dull week. Dark clouds hung over the sky and the economy. It didn’t quite rain, at least not like it did back in bad old December. In fact, we were all shocked to be told that last year was not the wettest Scotland had ever experienced – even though it felt like it. We had 25mm less rain than average in 2012, in contrast to England which had 240mm more than average. In both cases, though, the rain came in heavier downpours, due to the southerly shift in the global jet-stream and the effects of climate change. We are told to expect more of the same this year.

On the economy too, it looks like more of the same – negative or low growth, unemployment hovering around 8 per cent, house prices stagnating, consumer spending down, businesses cautious, governments cutting. In Scotland, we have already fallen over the “fiscal cliff”.

According to the accountancy firm PKF, Scotland has a personal insolvency rate twice that of the UK, with 60 Scots going bust every day. In Aberdeen, street begging has become so common that the Labour-led Council is trying to have the practice made illegal, meaning that beggers could be arrested, fined or imprisoned. The SNP have condemned the plan as “Dickensian”.

In addition to becoming poorer, Scots we are also getting sicker. We are going through the worst outbreak of whooping cough since the 1980s. And one in five of us – according to Health Protection Scotland – can expect to contract the winter vomiting virus over the next few months. Eighteen wards in 14 hospitals have been closed this week because of the so-called norovirus.

About the only person who can cheer us up is Billy Connolly who has been telling us: “ Don’t be boring, don’t be beige, grow old disgracefully, be a nuisance, stay alive.” He’s been promoting his latest film, “Quartet” directed by Distin Hoffman, said to be a gentle comedy about a retirement home for opera singers. It sounds as if it might be more Mikado than Ring Cycle.

And speaking of cycling, the transport minister Keith Brown has been trying to cheer us up with the announcement that 2013 is to be the year of “pedal power”. He’s set the wheels rolling with a £3.9m saddle bag of money for new cycle-paths and bike-parking facilities at schools. Among the paths to benefit will be the Great Glen route from Oban to Inverness. It’s all part of the government’s effort to make us a fitter, healthier, happier nation. All we have to do is get through 2013, somehow.

caledonian mercuryA very happy new year to you all. Everyone at The Caledonian Mercury wishes you a’ the best for 2012.

This year is a crucial one for Scotland. And a crucial one for the Caley Merc.

First we have to overcome the kind of hangover that can only be described with frequent reference to scarier bits of the Old Testament.

Second, we face a year of enormous stories: from the Arab spring turning into its summer to the apparent meltdown of late model capitalism, from the Euroturmoil to the ongoing circus of the Westminster coalition.

Third, while the independence referendum will not happen this year, the debate will get more serious. There is much heat and very little light being shed on the facts of what is Scotland’s most important constitutional decision in 300 years.

However, the Scottish media is in a parlous state and not fit for purpose for the challenges ahead, as shown by Iain “Happy” Hepburn’s gloomy tour d’horizon in The Drum. In this piece he takes his customary swipe at our own august organ, pointing out the lack of a print edition and the reality of our situation compared to our bullish launch predictions.

Fair enough.

Since 25 January, 2010, we (and more specifically and accurately I) have made enough mistakes to write a book about how not to start a newspaper. (In fact, I have started work on one. It’s called Situation Excellent after Ferdinand Foch’s famous bulletin from the battle of the Marne: “Hard pressed on my right; center is yielding; impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent, I shall attack!”)

It has not been an easy two years. We are an independent publication, owned by the people who work for it. We have no rich backers. We are not owned by a large corporation. We are not a millionaire’s plaything. We have no major advertisers.

We have something that we feel is far more valuable than any of that: a close relationship with our readers. It is thanks to them – and especially our donors – that our experiment in finding an online future for Scottish quality journalism continues.

And continue it will.

Early next year:

  • We will unveil a redesign that better delivers that journalism.
  • We will publish stories in a more structured way and to a clearer timetable.
  • We will introduce a better comment system.
  • We will endeavour to give back more to our donors than simply the knowledge that they have been generous.
  • We want to start carrying out investigations – funded by our readers.

The Caledonian Mercury still stands for independent, investigative Scottish journalism. It aims to bring facts to bear on – and be an honest broker for – the debate over Scotland’s future. It is a platform for the voices of Scotland not heard in the media and we want it to be a place to discover emerging journalists.

As I wrote on 25 January, 2010:

This newspaper is an experiment in the evolution of media. It is a statement of belief in a better public life. It does not fear the possibility of failure and instead relishes the prospect of change. Most importantly, it holds dear the pledge of its antecedent: “To assert no falsehood and to hide no truth.”

Thank you all for reading and a happy new year.

Stewart Kirkpatrick
Editor, The Caledonian Mercury

<em>Picture: ben hanbury</em>

Picture: ben hanbury

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Like Christmas, Hogmanay is associated with eating and drinking, although not usually now in that order of importance. Formerly, though, Hogmanay was more associated with eating, particularly if you were a child. It was the custom for children to go round the houses asking for a gift, usually a cake or something sweet, giving the festival the name of Cake Day.

Incidentally, the giving of gifts on Hogmanay is thought by many people to have a bearing on the origin of the word Hogmanay, although the etymology is uncertain. The most widely accepted suggested origin is that Hogmanay is based on the French word aguillanneuf, meaning first a gift given at New Year and then the festival of New Year itself. The clue is in the second part of the French word which reads l’an neuf, French for New Year.

Nowadays, Hogmanay is still associated with the giving of gifts and it is thought to bring ill-luck to a household if a visitor crosses the threshold in the early hours of New Year without some form of gift. This is particularly true if the empty-handed visitor is the first foot, first fit in Scots, the first person to cross a threshold after midnight has struck.

Sometimes New Year gifts still take the form of sweet things such as shortbread or the immensely calorific black bun, a kind of cake consisting of a pastry case surrounding an extremely rich fruitcake mixture. Sometimes the gift will be a piece of coal, traditionally given to ensure a steady source of warmth throughout the year, although this could be a vain hope in these days of soaring fuel costs.

Mostly nowadays, though, visitors at New Year will be clutching a bottle of whisky. Unless they are exceptionally generous or exceptionally drunk, the bottle of whisky is not actually a gift. The gift for the host is just a glass poured from the bottle which is hastily put back in the visitor’s pocket.

And at last I get to the reason for the title of this article! Forget the cake and even the shortbread and black bun. Hogmanay and New Year are now largely drinking festivals, a time when what Burns described in Tam o’ Shanter as “drouthy neebors” meet to see in the New Year in an alcoholic haze.

Drouthy, also commonly spelt droothy, means thirsty, although the thirst involved is usually a desire for strong drink rather than for water or other beverage. (In the quotation from Burns, neebors is Scots for neighbours.) Often the desire for such a drink is not just a thirst but an addiction. A drouthy neebor may well be an alcoholic one. Those of Tam o’ Shanter were almost certainly so.

Originally, drouthy referred to the weather and meant dry or exceptionally dry. I seem to remember that we used occasionally to have drouthy summers, but recently these have largely disappeared. They still have these in the south, although not so called, but they have become part of the north/south divide, leaving us with several inches of rain while our southern neighbours complain of a drought.

Originally, drought meant simply dryness and it is etymologically connected with Scots drouth, from which drouthy is formed. Both drought and drouth have their roots in Old English drugath.

Drouth can also mean thirst, and Hogmanay revellers are likely to have a great drouth on them. If they regularly give in to such a drouth too often, they may themselves grow into drouths, in other words habitual drinkers or alcoholics. Eventually, they may end up literally dying for a drink.

But away with such a depressing and sobering thought. It’s Hogmanay! Slainte! All the best for 2012!

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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The masthead of The Caledonian Mercury's last paper edition

The masthead of The Caledonian Mercury's last paper edition

Happy New Year, all.

2011 promises much: with a Scottish General Election looming and a decidedly unpopular and unScottish (in policy if not personnel) coalition running the show in Westminster. The economy and environment appear to be competing to see which can be the most disruptive.

In short, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

And as the year twists and turns, The Caledonian Mercury will bring you even more of the key stories, the finest writing and the best insights. Thanks to you, 2010 was a great success for this reborn publication. 2011 will be even better.

Our staff are nursing their hangovers engaged in in-depth research on 1 and 2 January, 2011, but normal service will be resumed on 3 January. In the meantime, Here are the stories you enjoyed most from The Caledonian Mercury in 2010.

Thank you for reading,

Stewart Kirkpatrick
Editor, The Caledonian Mercury

1. Couple who met at university to marry

“Two people who went to university together are to get married, it has emerged. William Windsor (or possibly Wales or possibly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and Kate Middleton, both 28, met at St Andrews University eight years ago. Mr Windsor is a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF – and also a prince.”

The entire Caledonian Mercury newsroom stood to attention as we published the above. Jaded hardened hacks were, in that one time and that one place, joined together with so many across the world in in a universal sense of “meh”.

We are already preparing our breathless Royal Wedding coverage for that special day in April: “Couple who met at university get married.”

2. Six things Malcolm McLaren thought of before you did
The great rock’n’roll swindler passed on in April. John McKie’s tribute pointed out why – love him or hate him – Malcolm McLaren was unique.

3. Welcome to The Caledonian Mercury
This was the article that told the world what we are all about.

We seek to revive Scottish journalism by using the internet rather than railing against it. The Caledonian Mercury stands for intelligent reporting, informed analysis and raising the standard of debate in Scottish life. It also seeks to return journalism to journalists and is a platform to display the work of selected specialist writers – freed from the demands of filling space, toeing the line and “feeding the beast”.

Not a week goes by without someone referring to this article: usually to say how much we have betrayed it because we’ve published something with which they disagree…

4. Less healthy women prefer more masculine men
Ah, vive la différence. Stories about desire and its many secrets are of interest to us all. This piece discussed research which showed that women who lived in communities where poor health was the norm were attracted to more masculine-looking men.

5. The secret of a long and happy sex life
If there’s one word that gets our attention (though we would largely deny it) it’s “sex”. And a story which promises carnal delights into our old age was always going to be widely read.

6. Researchers demand smaller (and bigger) condoms for better sex
Apparently size does matter in some respects…

7. That volcano, from Iceland’s perspective
While we all wondered at April’s empty skies (well, empty apart from ash), this piece took a look at what was happening in Iceland while the planes of Europe were earthbound.

8. The rise of the ’salty penis’ as South Africa bow out
The World Cup threw up many interesting phenomena: the vuvuzela, the North Korean fans, the exit of England. The linguistic curiosity of the “sout piel” was a new one to us.

9. Big cat sighting leaves experienced hillwalker baffled
It’s been quite a year for zoological oddness (what with the reindeer attack story which we broke – though you wouldn’t guess that from the traditional papers that picked it up). This piece gives paws for thought (sorry) about what might be out there.

10. 13 haunted Scottish castles
This entertaining piece of hokum about allegedly supernatural fastnesses attracted interest from around the world, if not from beyond the grave.

We wish all our readers, living or dead, a’ the best for 2011.

<em>Picture: John Haslam</em>

Picture: John Haslam

By Betty Kirkpatrick

In much of the English-speaking world the last night of the year is called, somewhat prosaically, New Year’s Eve. In America this is often shortened to just New Years. Sometimes this has an apostrophe, sometimes not, but, hey, who cares about the apostrophe nowadays?

In Scotland we sometimes look backwards rather than forwards and refer to the last night of the year as Auld Year’s Night. Mostly, we know it as Hogmanay.

Hogmanay is pronounced with the main stress on the last syllable (“nay”). The first syllable is pronounced either “hug” or “hog”. It is not unknown for non-Scots to put the stress on the first syllable.

Hogmanay is the accepted modern spelling, but, as is the case with many Scots words, it has several spelling alternatives. Indeed, Hogmanay has had many alternative spellings in its day. These include hogminay, hogmonay, hoghmanay, hugmenay, hangmanay, hanginay and hogernoany. Poor spellers have no cause to worry.

There has been much controversy about the origin of the word Hogmanay. The safest conclusion to come to is that Hogmanay fits into that large category of words whose origin is uncertain or obscure. However, there have been several suggested derivations put forward.

The proposal that has received the widest acceptance is that Hogmanay is French in origin. It has been suggested that Hogmanay has been derived from hoginane, or hoguinané, a word from a Northern French dialect. This, in turn, was based on the French word aguillanneuf, meaning first a gift given at New Year and then the festival of New Year itself. A careful look at this word reveals that the second part of it reads l’an neuf, French for New Year.

The thinking is that both the festival and the word Hogmanay were borrowed from the French during the Auld Alliance which linked Scotland and France for several hundred years. Certainly, the festival of Hogmanay originally, like aguillanneuf, involved the giving of gifts. People, especially children, would go round the houses knocking on doors and asking for a gift, usually a cake or something sweet. Hogmanay was sometimes known as Cake Day because of the nature of these gifts.

There are other contenders for the origin of Hogmanay. Perhaps the next most popular suggestion is that Hogmanay is derived from an old Scandinavian word. That word is Hoggonott or Hogenat and it was used to refer to the night before the beginning of the feast of Yule. This is not a word for the squeamish, and vegetarians should look away now. Hagg meant to kill or cut and Hoggonott referred to the slaughtering of animals to be eaten at the Yule feast.

There is also a Flemish contender. It has been suggested that Hogmanay is made up of three Flemish words, hoog, meaning high or great, min, meaning love or affection and dag meaning day. This makes hoogmindag, which is not too far away from the word Hogmanay, I suppose, depending on the pronunciation.

The translation of “great day of affection”, however, does not immediately suggest the festival of Hogmanay to me, unless of course we take into consideration the drunken, slobbery kisses routinely bestowed on women at Hogmanay. Could these possibly be construed as a sign of affection?

There are other suggestions, but I feel that I have taxed your festive brains quite enough. Unless you are in a particularly contemplative mood, you would probably rather be getting on with your Hogmanay drinking, rather than worrying unduly about the origin of the word.

Torchlight processionBy John Knox

Over 20,000 torchlit faces paraded past me as I stood at the top of the Royal Mile. Eager faces, foreign faces, home-grown faces, mostly young faces, all swathed in funny caps and looking up towards the flames of their wax-stick torches. They were marching out of the old year at St Giles’ Cathedral and into the new on Calton Hill.

Welcome to the Edinburgh three-day Hogmanay, largest street party in the world.

The Viking hordes from Shetland’s Up Helly Aa led the fiery procession, followed by a pipe band and then a river of flames which took nearly an hour to flow past me. Fireworks blasted into the sky as the march began and, once it reached Calton Hill, still more fireworks lit the murky heavens. The chill of the winter snow was gone and groups of friends, young families and wide-eyed visitors strolled around the streets as if this was the Athens of the South.

But this was just the beginning of a festival which has become a tradition only in the last few years. Before Edinburgh discovered the tourist trade, Hogmanay was a dark and private affair, confined to hotel dining rooms and home parlours.

Now, the Torchlight Procession is followed by a rock concert, headed this year by Biffy Clyro. On Hogmanay itself, 80,000 people are due to attend the street party in Princes Street, sing Auld Lang Syne and watch the midnight firework display. On New Year’s Day there will be a One O’Clock Run down the Royal Mile and a swim in the Forth for the Loony Dookers. There’ll be an open-air folk concert, then another rock concert with KT Tunstall. And finally, on Sunday, there’s a “Big Bash” clash at Murrayfield between the rugby teams of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Glasgow, of course, is staging its own Hogmanay celebrations in George Square headed by Celtic bands Capercaillie, Skerryvore and Salsa Celtica. Skerryvore will then scurry along the motorway to Stirling to perform again on the castle esplanade later that evening. In Aberdeen there will be a firework display from the roof of His Majesty’s Theatre. In Inverness, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Peatbog Fairies and Blazing Fiddles will give a free concert.

And among the small-town celebrations, my favourites are the whirling fireballs in Stonehaven and the bigger and bigger bonfire in Biggar.

It’s as if Scotland is trying to hold back the darkness of winter especially this year. We have staggered out of the worst snowstorms for 40 years and the worst recession for 70 years. Now we are heading into the New Year with our guttering wax-sticks, defiant fireworks and glowing faces.

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Picture: Scottish Government

Picture: Scottish Government

In response to Diane’s somewhat painful list, I thought I’d find some (mostly)nicer versions, this time from the world of cinema. Auld Lang Syne has appeared in dozens of films over the years – from the 1920s to the present day. Sometimes it’s pivotal to the action, sometimes not, and some are memorable perhaps not for the best reasons. Here’s a small selection, complete with clips where I’ve been able to find them.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) (twice)
Okay, so it’s a bit of a cheat including the same film twice, but there is good reason for it. Auld Lang Syne is particularly important in When Harry Met Sally and, arguably, makes good use of the song as a cultural signifier: it’s shorthand, if you like, for the end of the year, the start of the new year and the automatic celebration this is supposed to bring. It’s also sexy. Auld Lang Syne is used reasonably early on in the film when the eponymous characters are still in the “friend zone” – or are they? A Hogmanay party is the scene and they are dancing together quite the thing, when suddenly there’s a frisson between them. It could go either way but, as the strains of Auld Lang Syne begin, they almost visibly shake it off and kiss – somewhat uncomfortably, maybe, but platonically.

It’s a different story at the end of the film the song comes up again. At this stage, the lyrics even merit a discussion. Harry asks what the words mean, saying he’s been singing it all his life and doesn’t know. How can you remember old acquaintance if you’ve forgotten them, he asks, quite reasonably. Sally, a bit tearful, says that maybe you’re supposed to remember you’ve forgotten them, or something – but that in any case, it’s about old friends. (At that point, presumably, they go home to shag –see the power of this song?). Here is the ending:

Nora Ephron, who wrote When Harry Met Sally, clearly recognises the filmic value of Auld Lang Syne: she also used it to good effect in the lesser Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which itself was reprising its use in the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr classic, An Affair to Remember (1957), and so on.

Sex and the City (2008)
I’m “indebted” to a US academic for drawing my attention to this Mairi Campbell version of Auld Lang Syne, as featured in the first movie outing of the Sex and the City girls. Indebted has the sarky quotation marks round it, not because it isn’t a beautiful version – it is, sung hauntingly and not to the usual tune – and not because it isn’t a fabulous sequence (it’s lovely, and apparently it’s the best bit – only good bit? – of the film). The scene shows Carrie deciding to bolt (or waft, rather, with a permanent look of surprise) down to the other side of New York to share the bells with a chum who is going through a hard time. Her race against the clock cuts away at various points to update us on what’s happening with the other characters. Anyway, my sarkiness is because the academic – who was giving a talk on the use of Burns in the movies at a Royal Society of Edinburgh event – treated us to a running commentary of who ended up with whom and who didn’t by the end of the film – with no spoiler alert! I had been planning to watch the DVD the following weekend – guess what, it’s still in its wrapper.

Youtube has it here:

The RSE Burns conference report is here:

Wee Willie Winkie (1939)

Sometimes something can be memorable for the wrong reasons.

A favourite scene in my beloved Chalet School books* involves a charming little girl known as The Robin, singing a Russian folk song called The Red Sarafan at the bedside of the heroine, Joey Bettany, who is thought to be dying after rescuing another girl from an icy lake in the Austrian Tyrol.

Joey survives and it’s thought that the sweet tones of The Robin saved her life.

Surely the opposite must be true in this 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle, directed by John Ford. Temple, whose nickname gives the film its title, sings a couple of verses of Auld Lang Syne while clutching a pith helmet to her breast (lest we forget we’re in Colonial India) at the bedside of a dying soldier. The highlight is her pronunciation of “gie us”. Unlike Joey, the good sergeant – a Scot – passes away as the little songbird trills by his side. One can only imagine it was something of a relief. Judge for yourself in this Youtube clip:

*The Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. This particular episode occurs in The Rivals of the Chalet School, first published in 1939.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Home loans to poorer people under threat, slum landlords abounding, runs on the bank and a good man brought to his knees – it might be a film for our times. Given so much misery, however, why is It’s a Wonderful Life considered such an uplifting Christmas classic? Perhaps that’s summed up not so much by Clarence, the angel seeking his wings, but by the choice of the song which brings the townspeople together. A rousing version of Auld Lang Syne appears to break out spontaneously with – and does this ever actually happen in Scotland these days? – everybody knowing all the words. Youtube has it here:.

Director Frank Capra, incidentally, was quite a fan – using it in other films such as Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper and that other famous James Stewart vehicle Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Thanks due to Wikipedia, by the way, for this piece of Capra information. That source also reveals many other instances of the use of Auld Lang Syne in cinema, although its list isn’t exhaustive. It includes John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929), Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat (1959) (with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis) and The Apartment, where it is the backdrop to the Shirley MacLaine character’s decision to leave her lover.

It’s also played in The Poseidon Adventure – just before the ship begins to sink…..

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Picture: CmdrGravy

Picture: CmdrGravy

As an Englishman living in Ibiza I probably sound as if I am the least qualified of people to criticise the Scots for selling out their birthright. But lack of qualifications has never held me back in the past and, anyway, distance can usefully provide some perspective.

In my lifetime I feel as if I have watched the death of Hogmanay with the final nail being hammered in at the end of 1995. That was the date of the first of the massive Edinburgh tourist-oriented events, the point when the council decided to cash in on tradition.

As for most people, my memories of Hogmanay are misted by nostalgia and alcohol, not necessarily in that order. My first was spent in Stonehaven as I stumbled from 1974 into 1975.

I didn’t know the town, but was staying with a friend from Edinburgh University where I’d started the previous October. The fireballs were an internationally-known event, however, I don’t recall bumping into any tourists although I met an awful lot of people. Everybody in the town, of all ages, seemed to have the stamina to last the night.

Wandering from door to door with my bottle of whisky, each living room appeared to have a wall of red cans. So many welcomes, but somehow by daylight I made it back to where I started. I’ve no more idea how I did that, than how I managed to eat and retain the plate of steak pie and stovies that followed too soon after my return.

It was all a stark contrast to my limited experience of English new year. The reason it was limited was that it was an event that seemed relevant only to a small group of people, those old enough to drink and young enough to be single. Everybody else was in bed or raising a glass of Asti Spumante with the White Heather Club on TV. (Little did I know what an influential programme that would turn out to be.)

There were simple cultural distinctions: Hogmany was the Scottish midwinter family event. In England that role was filled by Christmas. In much the same way, south of the border had Guy Fawkes Night while north had Hallowe’en.

I watched over 20 years from the mid-1970s as Christmas in Scotland began to eclipse Hogmanay as a family event. It wasn’t just it became more English, but both country’s Happy Holidays grew increasingly American. Now there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the frantic Yuletide consumer frenzy on either side of the border.

New Year, however, remained a much bigger deal in Scotland. Most conspicuously nothing, except the odd Chinese restaurant, was open on Ne’erday. This meant that most of the population could enjoy their Hogmanay and resulting hangover even if they normally worked in a shop, restaurant, pub or tourist attraction. 1 January was a day of recuperation and football.

That was pretty much the situation until Edinburgh council worked out how it could leverage the Scottish reputation nurtured by the likes of the White Heather Club and create a nice big commercial event. Of course it’s been remarkably successful. It fills hotels, restaurants, clubs and bars, giving an all-round boost to tourism at a time of year which would otherwise be dead.

But the great street party which fills the centre of the capital, along with the others taking place in Scottish cites, is not a family event. The cheerful, raucous, inebriated crowd is aged mainly from 16 to 30. Everybody else is in bed or toasting the new year in front of the television, just as they are south of the Border.

Until I moved to Spain I thought this sort of cultural homogenisation was almost inevitable. Now I’m not so sure. The festive period here is very different and, I feel, that represents something quite profound.

This is the sixth Christmas and New Year I’ve spent in Ibiza. It has changed over that time. There are more decorations in shops and in the streets, but it’s still incredibly low-key commercially in comparison with Scotland. In supermarkets, for instance, there are small seasonal displays from November, but these are made up almost entirely of special mostly almond sweets known as “turon”. Some shop windows are filled entirely with spectacular nativity scenes which exist entirely for show, not for sale.

On Christmas Eve families eat a meal of seafood rather than importing American traditional turkey. Christmas Day is quiet. Our neighbour was not unusual in spending it doing DIY. I drove past a large funfair which was doing a roaring trade in the evening.

New Year’s Eve begins similarly low-key. As I discovered a few years ago, at midnight there’s not a soul on the streets. Everybody is with their families drinking cava and eating 12 grapes for luck as the clock strikes. Then, around 1am. many bars and nightclubs open. The crowds appear, looking slightly unusual. That’s because this is the only night of the year when most local lads wear suits and ties.

But, the big festive night, at least for anybody aged under 15, is 5 January. This marks the arrival of the Three Kings. Throughout Spain there are processions led by floats carrying Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior who throw sweets to children. In Ibiza they arrive by boat before visiting all the island’s towns the following day which is when children receive their present. (And it usually is “present” singular.)

The reason I mention all this is because tradition here seems so much more resilient than it is in Scotland. Of course, inevitably some outside influences are absorbed, given the combination of rising prosperity, the global mass media and the number of northern European immigrants in Spain.

But, for whatever reasons, the Spanish don’t exploit many of their traditions commercially. In Ibiza, for instance, there are village fiestas through the summer months which, if they’re advertised at all, use only Catalan in their posters and flyers. It’s certainly not that tourists are unwelcome, but they’re not the target audience for the event. The aim is for locals to have a good time and they do.

Now, it can be argued that Hogmanay was dying as a family and community-oriented event long before 1996. But, it’s been the success of Edinburgh and other large-scale city-centre street parties that has killed or, perhaps, put it out of its misery. Certainly for a large part of the Scottish population a traditional New Year is now spent with a bottle at an organised event or with a glass watching the same event on TV.

It’s Hogmanay, but not as we knew it.

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