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Scottish Traditions

Scotland's New Year Fire Festivals

Fire festivals have a long history in Scotland. The idea of fire scaring evil away is ancient and there is a long tradition of bonfires in the middle of winter. The Samhuinn festival which takes place on 31st October in Edinburgh gives a modern re-telling of the battle between summer and winter, dark and light. Many ceremonies have died out but a few spectacular ones have remained. In Shetland, the world-famous Up Helly Aa festival takes place in late January. In Lerwick, participants dress as Vikings and surround a long-boat which is set ablaze. They use up to 1000 torches to theatrical effect. Here is a selection of other events around Scotland.

The Stonehaven Fireball Ceremony

This is a unique Hogmanay festival. At midnight, about sixty strong enthusiasts make their way through the town. They parade up the main street swinging the blazing balls above their heads. Each enthusiast has a secret recipe for helping to keep the ball alight. Many of the participants live locally. The balls weigh a massive 16 pounds on average. Pipes and drums accompany the spectacle and they finish off at the harbour where the balls are thrown into the sea. Thousands come to see this event on the North Sea coast, south of Aberdeen. Some suggest that it has pre-Christian origins with the fireballs being used to ward off evil spirits, but documentary evidence only exists from 1910. It went into decline in the 1960s but it is thriving again with participants from a much wider area.

Bonfire at Biggar

The Lanarkshire town has celebrated Hogmanay with a huge bonfire for hundreds of years. It is lit by the oldest resident in Biggar and then there is a torchlight procession through the town. During the time of blackouts in the Second World War the bonfire was replaced by a candle in a tin. Recently, traditional music and dancing have been added into the mix and they enrich the party! Photographers have recorded the event over recent years and you can see their work here

The Burning of the Clavie

The Burning of the Clavie is a ceremony which takes place on January 11th in Burghead near Elgin. Churchmen in the 18th century condemned it as heathenish and tried to stamp it out. The clavie is a half barrel filled with wood shavings and tar. On the night of the 11th January, it is nailed to a post. The same nail is used year after year. It is taken to the house of one of the oldest residents in Burghead and the clavie is lit at the hearth. An elected Clavie King carries the burning clavie round the town. Several other men accompany the King. Finally it is carried to an ancient altar in a stone fort on Doorie Hill.

Comrie Flambeaux Procession

In Comrie, a village in Perthshire, the locals set fire to fully grown birch trees. These trees have been soaked for weeks in paraffin. The event is accompanied by music and fancy dress parades. On the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay, eight flambeaux or fiery torches are carried through the village and thrown ceremonially into the river Earn. I hope you manage to connect with the traditions of these diverse fire festivals and enjoy the spectacle when you visit Scotland.