This whole Christmas caper really is still a novelty north of the border. It is, after all, only 49 years since it became a public holiday in Scotland. For centuries after the Reformation of 1560 cast Catholicism aside, the marking of Yule was frowned upon at best and illegal at worst as the austere Church of Scotland sought to stamp out ‘popish superstition’, ‘filthy carols’ and ‘extraordinary drinking’.
It’s no small irony, then, that the Kirk turned a blind eye to Hogmanay, with its pagan traditions, peculiar songs and ample refreshments that turned 31 December into Scotland’s foremost annual festivity.
The blockbusting, commercialised modern-day celebration of ‘Edinburgh’s Hogmanay’ is, of course, cancelled this year, so we’re embarking on a road trip to discover some of the older, simpler ways in which we might welcome a new – and, fingers crossed, better – year.
We’ll make three day-long loops from Edinburgh, including a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Robert Burns, whose Auld Lang Syne has become the global anthem for New Year. It’s arguably also Burns’ most effective weapon in his crusade to preserve the Scots tongue – the expressive language inherent to Scottish culture, rooted in English but seasoned by Scandinavian, French and Flemish influences. We’ll do our bit too, and, as did Burns, we’ve provided a glossary.
But what to drive? Well, like the ploughman poet himself, we need something that is as comfortable mixing with the city set as it is tramping the wilds that lie ahead. Step forward the new Land Rover Defender 110: reborn, reinvented and – so say our road testers – replete.
The Defender’s gleaming LEDs cut through a shuggie Edinburgh morn as we get a first taste of its greatest leap: the serene ride. Having endured its predecessor over these same cobbles and potholes, it’s almost good enough to tempt tears of relief.
We point north to span Fife then Perthshire at a comfortable cruise, with just a hint of on-throttle drone from the 237bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine and muted buffeting for company. The mist cracks at Blair Atholl, leaching through the autumnal hillsides, then bright sunshine turns the windswept Cairngorms a glowing bronze.
After 115 easy miles, we peel off for a short B-road weemple an’ wample to our first stop at Inshriach Estate. We’re here to collect some booze, which is one of three gifts presented when ‘first-footing’ – visiting your neighbours after the stroke of midnight at Hogmanay. But for reasons to emerge later, it’s not whisky we’re after but gin.
Set designer turned estate manager and distiller Walter Micklethwait greets us with his wellused 1994 Defender. Before we’re let loose on the estate, he wants to see how our young pretender handles the rough and has marked out a challenging little circuit over grassy drums and heuchs.