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Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party: Why scrapping this world-renowned event would be a dangerous step

Safety concerns were one of the main reasons why Edinburgh’s original Hogmanay street party was set up 30 years ago

Happy New Year to you. Here's my first Scotsman column of 2024, published in today's Scotsman (9th Jan).

With the crush barriers stacked away, you would have thought that Christmas festival organisers would be taking a break. Not so, for, as local council budgets are being drawn up, breath is being held. Will there be any money to finance public events next time?

Our councils have endured a torrid few years. Death by a thousand budget cuts would be a fair description and Edinburgh, with its myriad responsibilities as the capital, has probably fared worse than most, which brings me neatly to its Hogmanay celebrations. Having just enjoyed its 30th anniversary, the world-renowned street party is facing a funding crisis.

Before this hugely successful event joins Scotland's scrapyard of good ideas, it may be worth reflecting on why the street party originally came about. Since time immemorial, the citizens of Edinburgh celebrated Hogmanay at the Old Town’s Tron Kirk. Large crowds would gather before midnight when the last of the old year’s bottles were drained and hurled against the kirk’s west wall. A new bottle would then be opened to welcome the new year.

Records show it was a raucous affair. There were riots, and in 1812 a constable of the new Edinburgh City Police was killed trying to prevent a robbery. It wasn’t always that bad, but by the late 1980s the event was getting dangerous.

Large “high-spirited” crowds would gather in a confined area on sloping ground paved with slippery cobbles. It was a haphazard event without adequate safety systems. Even the clock on the kirk’s bell tower didn’t work.

For the police, it was an accident waiting to happen. Change was needed. By happy coincidence, we were not the only ones to think so. Edinburgh Council was then at its most enterprising, and we were lucky to have two of Scotland’s best events organisers, Pete Irvine and Barry Wright, and a forward-looking enterprise company represented by the innovative Bob Downie.

The plan for the Princes Street Hogmanay street party was big and bold, but also made safety sense. Level ground and good surfaces with plenty of room for overflow gave us the chance to intervene if necessary. Entertainment was spread out to avoid crushes.

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle usher in 2024 – but will the recent street party be the last? It was expensive to police and the force never saw any of the cash from the substantial economic benefits.

But the event was a triumph and all was well until 1996 when it almost became a victim of its own success. Drawing a crowd of nearly 300,000, our dispersal plans came unstuck when one of the bands had a hit just before Hogmanay.

Huge numbers flocked to see them and there was some crushing, but thankfully nothing life-threatening. Our safety systems had held up but only just and, as police commander that night, I knew we had been lucky. Since then, the street party has been reduced in size and ticketed but remains one of the world’s top new year events, attracting visitors from across the globe.

As today’s politicians and officials ponder the event’s future, I hope they remember its origins. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay street party was not only developed for economic benefit or for fun, but because it was a lot safer than the alternative.

Tom Wood is a writer and former police officer, who was event commander at the Edinburgh Hogmanay street party for ten years

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