Happy Hogmanay! What’s Hogmanay?

It will soon be time to say Happy New Year to all our readers, or as they may say in Scotland – Happy Hogmanay! So Hogmanay is just a Scottish word for New Year’s Eve? Far from it! Hogmanay is an entire festival in its own right – and as with many of Scotland’s cultural events it comes with its own array of unique traditions which the Scottish people take very seriously…! Here we thought we’d answer a few questions about this particular Scottish festival…

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay.
Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay.

So there is a big party, right? The evening of Hogmanay is of course celebrated in the way Scots know best – with lots of music, spectacle, dancing and perhaps a nip of whisky. Edinburgh is a focal point for celebration with an organised ticketed street-party taking place in recent years, however previously an unofficial gathering would take place on the Royal Mile around the old Tron Church – with the clock of ancient tower decidedly unreliable chaos would ensue around midnight with various groups celebrating at different times and on different count-downs!

Is Hogmanay just celebrated in Edinburgh? No, celebrations take-place up and down the country and are not immune to local and regional twists. In Stonehaven near Aberdeen, giant balls of mesh filled with flammable material attached to chains are lit upon the tolling of the midnight bells and swung around the heads of the marchers who parade up and down the High Street. Think that’s strange? On the Isle of Orkney it is said there used to be a tradition where the man-folk took turns to don the remains of a burnt out cow’s head – why, no one is quite sure… The Highland city of Inverness and historic Stirling both opted for more traditional festivities and hosted magnificent music concerts this year.

Dancing to Auld Lang Syne on Hogmanay.
Dancing to Auld Lang Syne on Hogmanay.

Is there one thing which is done across Scotland? Wherever the celebrations take place, you can guarantee to hear the familiar tune of Auld Lang Syne! This traditional Scots poem, penned by famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, will be boomed out of every pub and inn throughout Scotland as people link arms to dance and sing-along. And of course this is a tradition not only also adopted in England and Wales but exported across the world! But as the Scots will tell you, it’s only done properly in Scotland.

And after midnight and the singing ends, the festival is over? Not a chance! First-footing is an old custom which remains observed today whereby people go to visit friends and neighbours after midnight. You should of course come bearing gifts and if your first visitor (or first-footer) is a tall, dark man with lump of coal then that is particularly lucky (obviously!).

Dooking in Edinburgh at Hogmanay
Dooking in Edinburgh at Hogmanay

But you can rest on New Year’s Day, right? Erm, not exactly. Unless you consider going for a swim in the sea relaxing – bearing in mind this is January and you’re in Scotland! Recent years have seen a resurrection of this old tradition known as “Dooking” whereby people gather to go for a nice dip in Scotland’s icy coastal waters on New Year’s Day. The aptly named “Looney Dook” in South Queensferry in Edinburgh is now a recognised part of the city’s Hogmanay celebrations and many swear it is the ultimate antidote for the excesses of the previous night – we’ll take their word for it!

New year’s Day is of course a public holiday across the UK, however, uniquely in Scotland, January 2nd is also a public holiday which means most people enjoy an extra day off work. Some people in England and Wales are jealous of this whilst others simply believe, after all that ritual, they deserve it!

Top Five Reasons to Vacation in Scotland!

There are literally hundreds of good reasons to choose to Scotland as your vacation destination so you’ll understand my concern when I was asked to compile just FIVE for this blog post!  Well, you may call it cheating, but I’ll call it creative thinking when below I have listed five categories under each of which there could be dozens of other reasons, but you get the idea…

1. Scottish Festivals and Cultural Events

Edinburgh Military Tattoo - Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Military Tattoo – Edinburgh Castle

Whether it’s a traditional Highland Games event where kilted competitors toss the caber or dance a Highland Fling to the tune of the bagpipes or the stunning celebrations of seeing in the new year at Hogmanay, Scotland knows how to put on a show!  Nowhere is this more apparent than during the month of August at the Edinburgh Festival where the city comes alive with street entertainment, theatre, musical, visual arts and comedy events.  Not forgetting of course the internationally renowned spectacle of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which takes place to the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle itself.

2. Scottish Scenery and Wildlife

Puffins on Isle of Mull
Puffins on Isle of Mull

If the aim of your vacation to escape the hum-drum of life then there is nowhere better in the world to get close to nature!  One of Europe’s last remaining wildernesses, the Scottish Highlands, islands and coasts are a landscape lovers haven – rolling hills, unspoilt golden bays, shimmering lochs and heather-strewn glens in abundance.  And these landscapes, the invigorating air and the chilly coastal waters provide perfect unspoilt habitats for some wondrous wildlife from the red squirrel to roaming wild deer, from circling eagles to nesting puffins and from tiny seals to magnificent whales.

3. Scottish Castles

Eilean Donan Castle, Scottish Highlands
Eilean Donan Castle, Scottish Highlands

From castellated baronial manor houses to imposing fortified towers, few countries can offer the vast array of contrasting castles that Scotland has to boast.  Eilean Donan Castle, on a tidal island in the glassy waters of Loch Duich has become a Scottish Icon in itself having appeared in many films, most notably Highlander.  The dramatic ruins of Urquhart Castle near Inverness on the weather-beaten shores of Loch Ness offers an excellent look-out point for some nessie-spotting whilst Dunottar Castle, reputedly Scotland’s most haunted fortress clings to cliffs near Aberdeen overlooking the wild waters of the North Sea.  Possibly most famous however is the stunning Edinburgh Castle, once the royal seat for Scottish Kings and Queens; perched atop a volcanic rock in the heart of the city the castle offers stunning vistas and is still home to the Scottish Crown Jewels to this day.

4. Scottish Food and Drink

Scotch Whisky Dram
Scotch Whisky Dram

With its rich rural and coastal landscapes it is not surprising that Scotland produces its own quality foods such as beef, local game and the freshest of seafood. Traditional Scottish dishes are hearty affairs such as Aberdeen Angus steak, Cullen Skink, (a thick seafood broth), and Abroath Smokies (haddock smoked over woodchips for a distinctive flavour).  Not to mention Haggis, not a wild-animal as some cheeky locals will have you believe, but minced offal and oats cooked with onion and seasoning and served encased in a sheep’s stomach lining – perhaps not everyone’s ideal dish but should be tried at least once during your stay!  And of course if it’s a cold night there is no better a way to warm up by an open fire than with a nip of Scotland’s Water of Life – a “wee dram” of Whisky.

5. History, history and more history

Callanish Standing Stones - Isle of Lewis
Callanish Standing Stones – Isle of Lewis

The castles mentioned above are, of course, a stark reminder of Scotland’s turbulent past but there is so much history besides.  Why not visit the Scottish Borders to see the famous abbey ruins of Melrose Abbey, where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried or the intriguing Rosslyn Chapel whose intricate carvings have been connected to the Knights Templar, freemasonry and the Holy Grail, most notably in Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci Code.  In Stirling you’ll find the towering Wallace Monument and the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, history that was brought alive in the 90s movie Braveheart whilst at Culloden Moor you can remember the infamous battle between Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland armies and the English forces.  And if this centuries-old history isn’t quite old enough for you then you can always travel to the Scottish Isles where you’ll find the beautiful Callanish Stones (Isle of Lewis) dating back to 3000BC or head to the Isle of Orkney to see the Neolithic dwellings of Skara Brae (predating the Egyptian Pyramids) the ancient tomb of Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar all built long before Stonehenge.

Scotland is a truly spectacular destination and the above five pointers are just the tip of iceberg – for further suggestions for your own voyage of discovery through Scotland ask your adeo Travel vacation expert and they’ll be happy to help.

Scotland’s Scenic Rail Journeys

The British invented the steam locomotive, constructed the first subway system in London and just recently we announced plans for a massive new high-speed line connecting the North and South of England.  Due to this long railing history, it’s little wonder that train-spotting is a popular past time and that we have a wealth of picturesque rail routes around our little island, not least in Scotland where the journeys have been rated amongst the most scenic in the world!

The West Highland Line

Glenfinnan Viaduct on the West highland Rail Line.
Glenfinnan Viaduct – West Highland Line.

Awarded “World’s Best Rail Journey” by the Wanderlust Travel Awards in 2009, the West Highland Railway Line in Scotland is undoubtedly one of the most scenic railway journeys in Britain.   Running from Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, to Fort William and then to harbour town Mallaig the train ride takes you from a cosmopolitan cityscape to the stark contrast of some of Britain’s most remote and untamed landscapes in the Scottish Highlands.  With work commencing on the line almost 125 years ago and with little money behind the project to build expensive bridges and tunnels, the line winds its way around sharp turns and along steep gradients as it navigates the dramatic Highland terrain.  The result today is a relaxing ride of awe-inspiring vistas.

The North Highland Line

Highland Train
Highland Train

Another of Scotland’s stunning rail journeys is the North Highland line between Inverness, capital of the Highlands, and the coastal port of the Kyle of Lochalsh.  This line passes even further north through Scotland’s Highland wilderness and has been likened to a three part orchestra passing firstly through gentle, pastoral hills near Inverness, then through the mountain scenery of Achnasheen with views of the Torridon Peaks before dropping to the seascapes of Lochcarron and its coastal villages and ports.  Whilst taking in the scenery keep an eye out for the array of birdlife circling overhead and herds of wild deer which can often be seen from the train.

Fortunately, enjoying rail travel in Britain and these scenic rail routes of Scotland couldn’t be easier for overseas visitors who have access to a range of inclusive rail passes via the excellent Britrail system.  The Explore Scotland by Rail itinerary also takes you along both of the majestic rail journeys mentioned above.  The new high-speed line through England will reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour but is not predicted to be ready to open for another 20 years so in the meantime why not sit back and enjoy the scenery at a more leisurely pace on one these scenic rail journeys!

A Brave Attempt to Recreate Scotland

With the Olympics now over and no longer filling our television screens 24/7 and the Edinburgh Tattoo and festival in full swing, there has been no better timing this week for Disney/Pixar to launch their new Scottish set animation, Brave.

Princess Merida - Brave
Princess Merida – Brave

I am a secret Pixar fan, so with the excuse of entertaining my young niece and nephew, I grabbed the kids and trundled down to our local cinema to watch it on the big screen.  As you would expect from Disney, the film was a solid fantasy adventure story with endearing characters and a good splash of humour – the kids were engrossed.  But having lived in Scotland for 3 years, what I was intrigued to see was how the look and feel of Scotland would be captured in their animation?

The remote and rugged landscapes of the Scottish Highlands have provided an ideal back-drop for storytellers throughout the ages but I was concerned that they might lose their appeal when converted in to animation.  I must say however that Brave didn’t disappoint.  It seems that capturing a genuine look and feel of Scotland was a labour of love for the production team and director Mark Andrews, who actually spent his honeymoon vacation in Scotland.  The animators made a number of visits to Scotland whilst working on the film to experience themselves the Scotland that they were to recreate and immerse themselves quite literally in the Scottish landscapes (reportedly rolling in heather and swimming in

Callanais Standing Stones - Isle of Lewis
Callanais Standing Stones – Isle of Lewis

Highland lochs!).  The result is some enchanting images and sequences which truly capture the colour, texture and atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands.

The film features a number of Scottish traditions and icons including Highland Games, tartan clad clan leaders, ancient castles and mysterious standing stones.  Whilst, it seems, none of the settings and backdrops are based on specific locations in Scotland you can see that the producers drew inspiration from some key landmarks they visited such as Dunottar Castle, Eilean Donan Castle and the Callanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the remote Scottish Islands.

The film impressed and the kids were entertained however it must be said that whilst the stunning animation of Disney is a good taster, there is really no substitute for coming and experiencing the enchanting landscapes of Scotland first-hand.