The Loony Dook – or the Baptism of the Bams, if you prefer – is a charity event that’s been held in South Queensferry every New Year’s Day since 1986. From a starting point of three local nutcases, the event has grown in size, scope and stature to the point where it is now considered an official part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay/New Year’s celebrations, and attracts many thousands of participants and spectators, from the local to the international. Up to a thousand brave souls don fancy dress – or shed as many layers of clothing as sanity and decency permit – and dive, paddle, shriek and waddle into the freezing winter waters of the Firth of Forth. The Scottish participants are the bravest: a nation of people with bad hearts plunging into sub-zero temperatures after a night of heavy drinking. It takes balls – something the male participants will no longer possess after 15 seconds in the water.
My partner and I took our two kids along to see the Loony Dook this year. It’s always a good policy to expose your offspring to as many unconventional events, places and rituals as possible, to get their burgeoning, ever-stitching brains accustomed to variety, possibility and diversity. For instance, we’d love to take them to the Stonehaven Fireball Festival; to Shetland’s Up Helly Aa; to the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake in Gloucester; to East Renfrewshire, to point out all the vile fucking reprobates who voted Tory. But the Dook is on our doorstep, and I thought a bracing trip to the sort-of-sea-side would be better than just sitting in our jammies watching movies on the couch, even if my partner didn’t necessarily agree (actually, there’s no necessarily about it – she just didn’t agree).
We stood along the stone pier and watched the dookers dooking. There were life-boats in the water, camera crews all around, drones and seagulls in the sky, and a succession of people dressed as hot-air-balloonists, bears and bath-tubs sploshing into the water, but still my eldest son, Jack (who is 3 and a wee bit), said: ‘This is boring. Let’s go somewhere else.’ My partner gave me a look as if to say, ‘If you wanted to see balloonists, we could’ve just stayed on the couch and watched ‘Up’, you arsehole. No matter. Jack and I had great fun skating on the film of sludgey moss and sea-weed that covered the ground at our feet. I guess it was strange and out-of-the-ordinary watching people get dried, undressed and dressed again in broad daylight on a busy high-street (“Daddy… why are all of these people naked?”) and it must’ve given him a kick to see these two chirpy alcoholics:
Not to mention people dressed as bananas. Check out the picture below this short paragrarph. It looks like two banana lovers re-uniting on the first armistice day after the Great Banana War (but don’t ever ask Daddy Banana to talk about what he did at the Battle of Fyffes).
If not for the Loony Dook South Queensferry would be a ghost town on New Year’s Day, but what shop, café or restaurant owner would be foolish enough to keep the shutters down when an unseasonable swarm of thousands of people is moving up and down the high street, especially when a high percentage of the swarm’s members are cold and wet, and in dire need of piping hot sustenance. That’s just basic supply and demand, but where The Loony Dook provides capitalism with the confidence to bolt out of the New Year starting gate with its head – and boot – held high is through the wonder of greed.
The eatery owners are more than happy to charge prices so disgustingly exorbitant that they’d make a Mafioso blush with shame. I know they’re open and working on a public holiday, and quite possibly having to pay their staff holiday rates, but they’re taking advantage of a lucrative business opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise have been afforded to them, not being forced at gunpoint to throw open their doors. Why punish the pockets of the people who’ve assembled to celebrate the twin pillars of charity and insanity? Maybe I’m just being a miserable bastard; maybe this is a sign that I’ll never be ruthless enough to run a successful business. I’ll let you decide. Guess how much one café was charging for a cup of coffee and a bacon roll?
If I’m paying six pounds for a coffee and a bacon roll I want documented proof that I’m eating the dough-swaddled flesh of Babe, Peppa and Miss Piggy, and drinking coffee that’s been filtered through Pablo Escobar’s string-vest. If the event organisers ever decide to change tack, but still retain the shock value of the dook, they’d do well simply to lead thousands of Scots into that café to show them the menu. They’d probably need a lot more ambulance crews on stand-by.
Most terrifying of all, that’s probably just the price of a bacon roll and a coffee in South Queensferry all year round. It’s a small town with cobbled streets, bistros and a book shop. Of course a drink and a snack is six quid. I’m used to living in the Grangemouth and Falkirk area where three quid will buy you a full breakfast and an evening with a prostitute.
Anyway, how delightfully Scottish of me. I’m describing attendance at a popular fringe event where a thousand people dress in outlandish costumes and hurl themselves into the sea, and I’ve spent a significant portion of the word-count moaning about how expensive everything is.
As we were exiting the high street on our way back to the car, a half-naked husky-voiced man stood on the top tier of the walkway above us, raised his towel aloft and shouted a gravelly-voiced HAPPY NEW YEAR! If this were America, he’d have just kicked off a firework display and a ‘wooooooooooooooooooooooooo’ that lasted twelve days. Because this is Central Scotland he merely elicited the sort of half-hearted response you usually get from kids forced to say ‘Amen’ at the end of school assembly. He zoomed off down some steps, behind the church, and into a bookstore, which I presume he owned, else he was just really into reading, and wanted to get the most out of Moby Dick.
We went to the local chippie and sat on a bench overlooking the water as we ate fried-food smothered in brown sauce. We’d probably have been safer jumping head-first into the Firth.
Happy New Year.