Though it is less well-known than some other parts of Scotland, it would be quite ironic to describe Burghead as one of Scotland’s hidden gems.
Set on a peninsula that juts out into the Moray Firth, Burghead visible for miles around.
Thousands of visitors to the Findhorn Foundation have seen it in the distance at the eastern end of Findhorn Bay. Among Scotland’s historical and cultural treasures, Burghead is worth more than a mere sighting.
It can be reached via the six-mile walk along the beach from Findhorn, or less strenuously by car or bus.
On clear days, the views are stunning, particularly from the headland, where there is always the chance of spotting dolphins, seals, Minke whales, seabirds, oil platforms and in the summer cruise liners.
Visiting Burghead is one of the many fantastic things to do in the Highlands.
Every year, the town’s past and present meet in the ceremony called the Burning of the Clavie, described in more detail later.
Burghead has a long history, elements of which remain clearly visible. The map made by the Romans after they sailed round Britain’s coast in 86AD shows a settlement on the easily fortified peninsula.
It was either a Roman camp or a Celtic village. Around 400, the Picts built a huge fort, the largest yet discovered in Scotland, which extended beyond the banks and ditches still evident on the grassy headland.
The Picts are renowned for their elaborate stone carvings, and the Pictish occupants of Burghead carved images of bulls, perhaps as a symbol of strength. Although 30 bull carvings were found in Victorian times, only six remain.
Four are on view locally, one is in the National Museum of Scotland, one is in the British Museum, and the rest may have been used to build the harbour walls.
Also called the Roman Well, St Aethan’s Well was probably Pictish in origin. Cleared in 1809 and now the property of Historic Scotland, the chambered well is hidden behind stone walls.
Visitors who manage to collect the key from the key holder enter a grassy enclosure with stone steps leading down to the square water tank. Whether or not the well had ritual uses, it is, like the carved bulls, unique to Burghead.
Sigurd, the Viking Jarl of Orkney, captured the fort in 884 and profited from the export of local peat to Norway. Torfness, as it was then called, remained a Viking stronghold in an area contested by Picts, Scots and Vikings.
The Scots were finally victorious around the time Macbeth was born in the vicinity of Burghead. In MacBeth (sic) the King, novelist Nigel Tranter makes Burghead the site of the Battle of Torfness between his hero and Duncan in 1040, although the battle’s actual location is as warmly debated as most facts about the real Macbeth.
Wherever it occurred, victory at Torfness won the Scottish throne for Macbeth and he ruled until 1057.
Early in the 1800s, the new town of Burghead was built in a neat grid pattern. Thomas Telford designed the harbour and the granaries. Not only was Burghead a thriving fishing port, it also became a popular destination for Victorian tourists.
Recently, the Burghead Headland Trust has converted the old coastguard watchtower into a visitor and heritage centre.
Important though the past is, Burghead is not trapped in it. About 1650 people live there, and locals refer to themselves as Brochers. While visitors are very welcome, the town’s economy is not reliant on the tourist industry.
Since the ‘60s, the townscape has been dominated by a large, ugly mass of concrete. This is the Burghead Maltings, where every year enough barley is soaked and dried to make 100 million bottles, about 20% of Scotland’s annual production of whisky.
The harbour is still used by a small fleet of fishing boats, cargo boats and yachts. Hardy souls swim across it on Boxing Day to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and other charities.
Summer days are sunny enough for a grapevine to flourish in a Burghead greenhouse, and around midsummer, the evenings are so long that it is possible to read by natural light at 11pm.
The winter days are correspondingly short. The yearning for light in the darkness in December and January may in part explain the durability of Burghead’s annual fire festival, the Burning of the Clavie.
Nobody knows how old the ceremony is, but certainly its roots go back into the pagan past, when fire was regarded as cleansing and purifying.
The clavie is burnt on January 11th. Out of respect for the Church, which in former times condemned the “abominable and heathenish practice,” the ceremony is held on Saturday 10th in years when the 11th falls on a Sunday. January 11th in the current Gregorian calendar is New Year’s Eve in the old Julian calendar, officially abandoned in Britain in 1752, so Brochers celebrate every new year twice.
The clavie used to be a wooden herring barrel filled with tar and staves. These days it is a half a whisky cask filled with creosote and staves. About 6pm, the provost - the civic leader or mayor - lights the clavie and it is carried though the streets by men usually surnamed Davidson, Main, More or Ralph.
Burning staves from the clavie are offered to certain households along the route. When open fires were the only source of heat, householders extinguished the old year’s fire and used the brands from the clavie to light the new year’s fire.
Eventually, the procession reaches the headland, where the clavie is placed on a stone altar. More fuel is squirted on to the fire to send flames high into the dark sky. The crowd watches. The mood is almost reverential until the fire has died down. Then the party starts.
Friendly people, rich history, fabulous views, plentiful wildlife, a long sandy beach, forest walks, a dry and, by Scottish standards, mild climate – all these and more await visitors in Burghead.
Fortunately, that scourge of the Highlands, the midge, does not.