Thursday, 13 January 2011

Old Calendars and Fire

   In some parts of Scotland, holidays are still held according to the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one.  A distance of eleven days and nights sits between New Year's Eve celebrations outside and inside of these towns.  In one such place, the fishing village of Burghead, the new year is brought in shortly after sunset with the burning of the Clavie. 

   The clavie is made from an old whisky cask which is fitted on to a post and filled with tar and wood and other flammable things and then set alight.  In the first photo you can see the Clavie King lighting and adding wood to the Clavie.  Once lit, the clavie is hoisted onto a man's back and carried clockwise through the town.

Other people follow the procession through the tiny streets of the village, while others peer out of windows or stick their heads out through attic trapdoors to watch the spectacle go past.

Frequent stops are made, in front of the houses of notable people.  At each stop a man will reach into the fire and pull out one of the burning embers to present it to the people living in that house.  Embers from the clavie fire bring a year's good luck.  Some say they can be used to light the new year's fire, or are tied to first-footing traditions, others seem to say that they can be kept in the chimney to ward off witches.

   After the clavie has been carried all through the town, it is carried up a hill where it is set into a hole in the centre of a pile of stones that rather looks like a chimney sticking out of the ground.  Next, bucket after bucket full of flammable liquids are thrown over it until the flames reach very high indeed.  A good part of the hill also catches fire.

Can you see the clothes of the men in the photo above smoking?  Standing on another hill nearby I could feel the heat.  I can only imagine how the people near the fire must have been feeling.

I do believe that is the Clavie King hopping about the flames.

Men are always coming and going in and out of the fire, and bringing back embers of the Clavie.  People from the town come up the hill holding dampened dishtowels to carry the embers home in.  Some of the embers will be sent on to family abroad.

    And slowly the flames get lower and finally people start to stamp the last of them out.  Then, one by one, to home or over to the pub to hear the singing and eat a free meal of stovies and pea soup until the countdown at midnight.


  1. Cool... or should I say HOT! Wonderful to have the ancient celebrations alive where you are. We, here are reviving the fire festivals, but it does feel like a break in the chain. I imagine there's an ancient feel there as the chains have never been broken....

  2. It is lovely to have old festivals... in fact I don't think that there are many things I like better than traditional street festivals. Though, it seems to me that they have a way of always feeling modern just the same, both new and old every year.