The bagpipe must have been invented on a cold, dark night.
Its first sound, a long-drawn pitch of melodic invitation conceived out of silence, clenched my eyelids and had me secluded in blankness. The courtyard was exposed, high up one of the tallest hills in Edinburgh, so the lone bagpipe sang most clamourously only over the howler of the wind – and over perhaps the creaking of my bones, buckling under the December chill of Edinburgh Castle.
The following notes slice through the air like a thousand hands, sliding into my pockets and inner fabrics under my skin, as though massaging and wrestling the cold out of me with heated oil.
Then, ebbing warmth advanced on to my cheeks; glow pierced through my eyelids, smothering an orange hue that eclipsed the shade of midnight blue. I opened my eyes again – a singular torch, slotted on the stone stockade before the footbridge, flared behind the bagpiper, its flame drawing ever closer to my face.
Could, as in mythological imaginations, the voice of bagpipes have the power to summon fire?
The evening after was just as bone-brittling.
Bodily warmth was huddling around me like a blanket, deep inside a congregation crowding on the pavement, leaning against the invisible barrier and eager to spill onto North Bank Street. I wasn’t yet cursing myself for upholding the Scottish tradition of wearing a kilt – I’ll come back to that – but that conspicuous breeze in my under-department, despite the human radiators around me, had already set me on mild-shiver mode.
There it was again. It began as a background whisper, barbed and viscous as it funnelled into my ear, before it crescendoed, a spell cast not by one but cohorts of bagpipes accompanied by snaring percussions, looming in sound before coming in view over a sea of heads.
Answering the summoning charm wasn’t a meagre dancing flicker – but enough fire to drown the city.
Behind the parade of pipers and drummers, pursued the performers dressed in Viking costumes; there was no Nordic belligerence about these warlike fellows, as though, like the flames they carried, they were hexed under the bagpipers’ celestial puppeteering, prancing and merrymaking at the head of the procession.
Like the paganish element that lent origin to the Torchlight Procession, a fantastical conception cohered the bagpipes and Up Helly Aa Vikings and festive masses – and pulled me into the thick of it.
It was unsurprisingly warmer, once I was enveloped in torchlight – even when the bagpipes had ceased playing.
I could’ve perhaps used their pyrokinesis, because my own torch remained bare on its tip.
Slipping away from my group, I approach the nearest torchbearer to ‘borrow a light’. There was no rebuke of “get your own lighter”, as I would sometimes receive while poking at a forlornly unlit cigarette, only the willing lending of flame – a fleeting touch of two spires, a passage of ignition, an expression of gratitude.
With the combustion now closer to my nostrils, the scent of burning hessian and beeswax was even more intoxicating still.
All around me, clusters of torches formed and gravitated around flaming nuclei, circulating in blaze and in kindling of community spirit. Jokes bounced, laughters discharged; and as the halted stance of this congregation waited until the procession gathered momentum, people shared warmth in caresses, some in passionate kisses, I wondered if human bonds could bind more tightly and affectionately than at that very moment.
Then, footsteps shuffled ahead and reverberated towards mine – a torchlight procession, shifting some ten-thousand flames and human souls numbering 30,000, was finally on the move.
As we descended the hill, the first leg of a journey of fire, I took one gaze behind me. The Mound was like speckles of lava glissading down a volcanic gradient, spilling onto Princes Street where I’d turned my head back.
By the time we reached the skirt’s hem of Calton Hill, scorches had withered to smouldering hilts.
Whereas topography hiked, and the torch-bearing pedestrians scaled, temperature walked off in the opposite direction and plunged, leaving only gusty attrition on the unsheltered hilltop; whatever fuel from the adrenaline ascent was burning out, so I was stomping my feet on the spot – the brumal circulation wasn’t just tickling, it was gnawing my thighs.
Why the heck did I decide to wear a bloody kilt?
I sought sensory distractions. How about the effigies combusting in the horizon? Though by now its fiery disposition was merely a diminished glimmer, having burned since the procession commenced – and besides, our position right before the unlit ‘2014’ numeric sculpture, its heat wouldn’t transfer as far –
Stop reminding yourself that you’re cold.
Smell something; taste something – only that crystallisation was clogging my nostrils, and was that icicle on my tongue?
My muscles spasmed again. That should keep me going for the next five minutes.
Another song ended, and as it faded the cacophony of agitated anticipation rose again. Could this be it?
Another tune began pulsing through the stereos and asphyxiated vocality. There was no end of wait in sight of clocks’ hands striking any given minute – only the loose foresight that the organisers would eventually push the button when Calton Hill had absorbed enough people from further back of the procession.
I may have let out a low grunt, but that too was muffled by James Blunt’s voice.
I’d lost the magic of body-inflaming instruments; recorded tracks of squeaking bagpipes weren’t possessing the same charm as a live performance – the way they quake air and ground, churning decibels in hallowed projection. Yet something was stirring inside me, out of hypothermia, out of one of the songs I was least impressed with in 2013, as I rocked to its rhythm and anchored my attention to its lyrics:
Days like these lead to –
Nights like this lead to –
Love like ours;
You light the spark in my bonfire heart.
People like us, we don’t –
Need that much, just some-
One that starts,
Starts the spark in our bonfire hearts.
Then it did resonate, arouse that languid warmth inside me, until it expelled through my mouth and joined in the chorus, a Calton chanting in unison for the love of bonfire hearts.
Before long, crackling sizzles glistened in the wind from the towering Nelson Monument; behind, fountains of fireworks sprinkled in the columnar National Monument. Then, the most eye-grabbing out of the peripheral challenge, the heavens above the dome of City Observatory sparked under Adele’s lyrical cues to “set fire to the rain”.
For under the few minutes of dazzlement could memories of frigid expectance evaporate – and so were the past doubts, uncertainties for the future, forgotten along with the cold.
And so, as quickly as Edinburgh ignited, extinguishing were the effigies, the torches, the final echoes of bagpipes, the penultimate evening of the year – yet some would linger, preserved like negatives on my senses, like memories that won’t easily fade.
The Hogmanay Torchlight Procession by A Dangerous Business
Fire Sweeps through the Streets of Edinburgh for Hogmanay by The Expert Vagabond
Runaway Photo: Torchlight Procession of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay 2013/14 by Runaway Juno
#Blogmanay is brought to you by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and is supported by ETAG, EventScotland, Homecoming Scotland, VisitScotland, Edinburgh Festivals, Marketing Edinburgh and co-creators Haggis Adventures. Created and produced by Unique Events.
As always, all opinions, expressions, self-defined eloquence, excessive verbosity, story structure and decision to don a kilt are entirely, shamelessly my own. Especially the kilt bit – somehow I reckon I’m destined for a penchant for wearing skirts.