IT was a mercy killing. As

master of ceremonies, Cameron Stout learned what it must have been like to play bottom of the bill at the Empire with no material. When Deacon Blue's Ricky Ross

bounded on stage with his cohorts and a cheery: ''How does it feel to be at the only party in Scotland that's still alive?'', the cheery

Orcadian and a chubby bloke called Gos were bundled unceremoniously into the wings so that we could all stop booing and get on with the celebrations.

Party-rescuer Ross might have been exaggerating a tad but, boy, was he revelling in it. Hey, we've got a castle, snow, terrific fireworks to come and a set packed full of hits. Proclaiming the ancient capital of Scotland as the new one and his own Fergus Sings The Blues as the new national anthem might have been pushing his luck (and citing the authority of Jack McConnell possibly actionable), but there was no dissent audible on the esplanade.

Leaving aside a brief hiatus when driving rain threatened to make the stage electrics unsafe - which, again winningly, seemed to irritate Ross out of all proportion to its duration - Stirling's bash proved that even sophisticated music-making was possible in the face of challenging conditions. Match fit after two nights of warm-up gigs at Glasgow's Carling Academy, Deacon Blue were as slick an outfit as you could wish for, with the Vipond/Vernal rhythm section on particularly fine and funky form. The woo-hoo bits on Real Gone Kid apart, the band's repertoire does not really lend itself to audience participation, but the performances of familiar favourites like Raintown and Dignity were well worth the attentive hearing they got. Better still, the choice of the title track of their 2001 comeback album, Homesick, as the pre-bells set closed, was as affectingly poignant as Ross clearly intended

and the after-midnight rendition of Auld Lang Syne displayed signs of thoughtful rehearsal. No mere going through the motions here, and a crisp, clear sound mix to do it justice, too.

That exemplary sonic clarity was of even greater importance to the opening set by Shetland's Fiddler's Bid, where the tonal difference between each member of the four-fiddle front line was remarkably audible. Leader Chris Stout (no relation, I'm sure) had the honour of being the first to report the extent of the disaster elsewhere and reveal the true Caledonian nature of the concept of Schadenfreude, but we would have loved the band's breathtaking dexterity and lovely tunes anyway.

Which is more than can be said for how we felt about his more famous namesake. I had gone along optimistic that the inevitable ned element in any Hogmanay crowd were sure to give the Big Brother victor an amusingly hard time. Gloriously, however, the derision came from absolutely everyone, regardless of age or fondness for Burberry-check baseball caps. With no more to tell us than the latest dull exploits of his chums from the TV series, it quickly became apparent that, just like me, most folk did not know who these people were and cared less. What a life-affirming way to enter the New Year.