Torchlight Procession: Edinburgh 2016

“I’m going to take a shot and label it One Hour Later,” I joked as I lifted my camera over the chattering, shuffling crowd. I nervously glanced at my friend, an international student studying in Glasgow, to see if my wry humour was helping break up the wait. I knew we’d have to stand around a bit between getting our ticket, then our torch and finding a good spot in the torchlight procession… but I’d imagined an hour of relaxed banter interluded by munching savoury, greasy food in the comfort of a booth in one of the many pubs lining the Royal Mile of Edinburgh. Like last year. As a newly minted veteran I’d felt prepared. But this event was a whole different beast altogether.

First off, here! A fun video to bring you into the spirit of the event!

Now the commentary

Growing up I frequently attended events that were run annually. I’ve seen these occasions evolve: I’ve seen them dig up space to expand parking, I’ve seen them revamp ticketing techniques to smooth entry and I’ve seen them change location to fit growing crowds.

Growth happens and it’s good! It’s nice for places to want to include all their new visitors. It’s great they take pride in their events!

However, I’ve also been squeezed into horrifically overrun events and let me tell you, it’s no fun for anyone. In Chang Mai for example, I attended the largely promoted, mystical Yeepeng International event which features floating lanterns. Was it amazing to see? YES. Did I wish I’d learned a lot more about other’s previous experiences of the aftermath? HECK YES. I’d have packed a picnic.

When it was all over and the twinkling lights were fading from our eyes the crowd found itself thrown back to earth and pointed to a narrow channel labeled the exit. As you may well have experienced yourself, when you have thousands of impatient people shuffling down a narrow canal road things get tight fast.

“There was one point where I was literally mashed in a group and I feared my camera was going to be crushed by the weight,” I previously wrote of the Yeepeng event.

I never thought I’d find myself in such a hard-pressed position ever again. I’d become largely allergic to massive crowds. And yet. There we were in Edinburgh, navigating a choke-point in the gates to go from the ticket office, around the tail of the slotted procession, to the torch booths. Wide eyes abounded as people looked at each other’s noses in romantically close proximity. Tango-lines of friends and families wiggled their way back and forth across the crowd. My friend and I were short so J was the beacon in a mass of beacons.

During last year’s torchlight procession J and I documented our running commentary of the experience. We talked about our delicious late lunch between picking up our tickets and getting our torches. We commented on the “very long windy, windy line” for the torches, but were in high spirits upon receiving them. Then we joked our way through the (also long) wait, set off and amazingly found ourselves winding up Calton (Ccchhutttlllee) Hill. We later discovered we’d joined the line relatively early and made it into the first section. When we descended Calton Hill later we were greeted by a sea of people who hadn’t been allowed up due to numbers.

This time we came early to ensure an equally good spot and found ourselves drowning in people, settled in the middle-front area of the procession, an hour and a half late to start, stuck at the bottom of Calton Hill (still a good view though) and barely walking up before the fireworks began. I’m pretty sure the fireworks were set off later than scheduled, but a good chunk of the tail-end of the procession still missed them.

Change can be good, but this wasn’t

A few things appeared to be different this year:

  • More people were picking up their reserved tickets that evening (us among them since last year went so smoothly)
  • The parade pen (where people were being channeled and held for the start) was set up between the ticket office and the torch booths
  • The parade pen was not a zig-zag, but instead a long line

The first problem — the mass of people trying to pick up their tickets — was a situation my posse could have avoided by picking up our tickets days earlier, fair enough. That’s not the event’s fault-ish. Despite being long the line for tickets kept trudging along and we got through relatively quickly and smoothly. I personally think they should email or mail the tickets (and newly added wristbands) to participants in the future to avoid shoving people through the ticket office though.

J’s comment was that the dropping-through-in-person technique was to ensure participants had authentic wristbands and tickets, but people cut through the barriers and joined the procession at random points anyway so this wasn’t really a dissuasion in my opinion. Another point from J was that the organisers were avoiding possible post strikes. Does the UK post strike with such frequency????

The second problem — the river of people to wade across for the torches — was goofy. Why would you have one-half of a requirement for this event positioned on the other side of a mass of people???? I have no idea what the organisers were thinking there when setting up, though I did get the impression that they were building the pen as they went. Yeah, they were expanding it as people showed up, literally moving barriers through massive crowds. Considering how many people had reserved their tickets in advance I’m amazed they didn’t have a proper space marked off for the crowd they largely KNEW was coming.

Also, why not have the torch booths next to the ticket office?

Ticket, torch, walk into the parade pen, BOOM done.

“Well what about the people who dilligently picked up their tickets days before?”

A seperate booth or two elsewhere?????

After so many years of running this event I can’t imagine the organisers don’t have a good idea of how large a percentage of the participants usually pick up tickets in advance.

The final problem — sending us allllll the way down the road — was what put the biggest damper on the event for me. Last year the crowd was (from what I saw) largely nestled between the music speakers. There was music, lights and the mayor chattering in the background. Everything felt festive. Despite the wait we were entertained. Admittedly, one issue was people lighting the torches too quickly. The fire spread sideways instead of down the line, which meant people were lit well before they could start walking.

I think the organisers were trying to address that this year with the single line, but holy moly it was a dull wait. We moved our first INCH and the crowd roared in approval, then we stopped and people were silent, we moved another inch people cheered, we stopped, moved another inch, optimistic mumbling, another inch, quiet frustration and so on.

Thankfully, it was a gorgeous night… Warm.

When at last we moved into the sphere of the speakers we grew excited again. When we caught a glimpse of the torches (or rather recieved a report from J that the lit torches were in sight) we became more excited and when we finally broke free of the parade pen we were riding on euphoria. The crowd broke up and descended from the Old Town in a loose flow. I remembered why I loved the event so much last year. The river of fire flowing before my eyes. People’s faces flickering in the firelight. The torch happily gurgling wax like a baby dribbling spit with a smile. The heat of the small flames coming together. The magic of the fairground lights sparkling over a raw tradition dating back to the vikings.

I do hope these organisers learned a few lessons from this year’s torchlight procession. Though I want them to find an arrangement that works for the growing masses of people attending Hogmanay in Edinburgh I think they may have to sit back and consider restricting access.

If you go to an event and it’s lost in the crowds what’s the point in going?

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Torchlight Procession Tips

Budget: £12 for a torch and wristband. Additional wristbands are £3 each.

Age group: 7+ or so. Last year I saw people with strollers. This year I did not and you have to stand a long time.

Clothes: Waterproof layers, hats, gloves and good shoes. Since this event is outside in December it can be wet and cold. Old clothes are recommended since the torches do leak wax.

Culture: Relaxed, but arguably athletic since you do have to stand for hours.

Food: Lots of pubs around. I would recommend eating an early dinner and then bringing a snack to keep your energy up. A mug of hot chocolate or mull cider works wonders.

Transport: The Waverly Train Station is right by the end so I’d recommend the train if you can afford it, but they don’t run very late. Parking a car would be horrendously difficult though.

Time: If you get your ticket before the event: ~3 hours with fireworks. Pick up your ticket on the day: ~5 hours.

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2 thoughts on “Torchlight Procession: Edinburgh 2016

  1. For me as a German it was very interesting to learn about this torchlight event in Edinburgh! Hope the security guys have learned the lesson. Anyway, navigating such an unexpected big crowd is a quite tough job I guess… Take care!

    1. Hello! Yeah getting through a crowd is hectic, especially if you are short and carrying slightly expensive equipment. I’m glad I had all my stuff zippered away and could still use my people-plowing skills effectively haha. I suppose some holidays are like this in Germany too?

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