Many of the holidays celebrated in the United States are also celebrated in the United Kingdom. With the obvious exception of the 4th of July. In Scotland the most celebrated of the holidays is New Year, or as the Scots call it Hogmanay. In some areas in the North of Scotland the Hogmanay parties can go on for days. With enormous quantities of beer and Scotch being consumed by the populace. I am not meaning to say that the Scots are a nation of alcoholics, they just really enjoy their alcoholic beverages during the New Year celebrations.
My Regiment ( 1st Bn the Queens own Highlanders) were stationed at a small camp about 30 miles to the west of Edinburgh, Scotland. At a place called Kirknewton which is a few miles from the village of Mid Calder. Over the holiday period of Christmas 1979 through the New Year we drew the guard duty for Edinburgh Castle. Now the Castle at Edinburgh can be chilly even in the middle of summer but, in the middle of winter. There we were perched on the top of an extinct volcano, surrounded by cold damp sandstone and granite, with the wind whistling through every orifice that it can find. Man that place is dreary. Plus our duty for my group was to last from the 29th of December through the 1st of January. After 2 days up there it became a case of “ OK, I give up, I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Just send me back to Siberia where it’s warm”.
We were all billeted in the small guard house which is part of the main entrance to the castle. Although warm it can get very claustrophobic with so many warm bodies in such a small space. So, during my off duty hours I would wander round the Castle. Most of the place was closed for the winter but, there were still some interesting places to visit. I have always been fascinated in anything to do with history so there was a lot to occupy my time and relieve the boredom. During one of my exploration trips I met the curator of the castle itself. We sat in the café (which was actually still open for business) while I eagerly listened to his tales of the castle. I found out that there had been some extensive excavations done over the last few months and they have uncovered the original dungeons from the oldest part of the castle called “King Davids Tower”. The curator asked if I would like to see them? I leapt at the chance and we arranged a time and place to meet the following day. I was at the appointed time and place and the curator arrived carrying an enormous bunch of keys, some of them must have measured 6” in length. I followed him down a narrow length of stairs and through what seem a multitude of large locked doors. Some were made of very thick, stout wood and some made of iron of the barred jail cell type. Eventually we came to a final door. The curator unlocked this door and opened it then switched on an electric light. What I saw before me was a large square room with a set of stone steps leading down from where we stood, along the wall to a place about 10 feet above the floor of the room. Leaning out I could see what looked like small hand and foot holes, leading from the floor to about 8 ft from the bottom of the steps we stood upon. The curator explained that prisoners would literally be thrown into this dungeon. The small hand and foot holds leading up the wall were there for the prisoners to climb but, they stopped just short of being able to climb out. Every so often the guard would come into the dungeon and if anyone was trying to climb out the guard would kick them off the wall back into the pit. All this and in total darkness too with the only light being the guards lantern when he came into the dungeon.
Well New Year’s Eve arrived and once again Alan Lewthwaite and myself were paired together. We would normally have had to pull two hour shifts with six hours off but, this night we had all agreed to pull longer six hour shifts so we would be finished in just one shift. Our post was at the foot of the esplanade which is a large area in front of the castle about 150yds long by about 75yds wide which slopes down hill from the castle entrance to the top of the “Royal Mile”. The Royal mile is a long straight road which runs from the castle at the top of castle mount all the way down to Holyrood Palace ( the royal family’s residence when visiting Edinburgh) at the bottom. At the end of the Esplanade was a porta cabin about 30ft long with two rooms. This was where we were to stand our guard shift. Alan and I relieved the previous guard at 10 pm and settled in for our six hour vigil. With it being New Year’s Eve we did not expect anything unusual to happen. What did happen was something neither of us could have imagined. At about 11:30 pm a couple of drunken revelers staggered up towards our post, singing some very off key Scottish tune. As they approached the porta cabin Alan stepped out preparing to halt their progress. As the two saw Alan they both let out a loud “Happy New Year” and thrust an unopened bottle of Scotch into Alan’s hands. Turning away they wished us both a happy new year and telling us to “Have a Wee dram” on them for the New Year. This was the beginning of a steady procession of party goer’s each of them bringing some form of libation to our guard post. They brought bottles of Scotch, Vodka, Brandy, Rum, cases of beer, if it had alcohol in it they brought it. In fact by the end of our shift we had so much alcohol the second room in the cabin was almost packed out. At the end of our shift we enlisted the duty land rover to help transport our booty up to the castle. It took four trips to get it all up to the guard room. We had enough to open our own liquor store. As you can imagine the rest of our guard were more than pleased to see the haul. Needless to say there were no complaints about having to spend New Year’s Eve guarding Edinburgh castle from any of us.