Top 7 Scottish Fire Festivals
On or around November 5th every year, the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament is commemorated with bonfires and firework displays throughout Britain. For some Scots, one bonfire a year is not enough.
Perhaps Scotland’s fire ceremonies are a throwback to the Celtic past, when all the quarter days - Samhuinn, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh - were celebrated with fires. Seen as a symbol of the sun, fire cleansed and purified.
Here is a selection of the oldest, best loved and most exciting Scottish fire festivals.
Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh
One fire festival is a recent re-creation and development of ancient Celtic rites. On the evening of 30th April, the Beltane Fire Society’s wonderfully costumed blend of theatre and ritual takes place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. The word Beltane probably means ‘blazing fire.’ Torches and a bonfire certainly do blaze during this celebration of the fertility of the land. About 12,000 people usually attend the ticket-only event.
The Burning of the Clavie, Burghead, Moray
The Burning of the Clavie, by contrast, is a small local fire festival that is definitely hundreds of years old, possibly dating back to Pictish times. It remains hugely important to the people of Burghead, a wee town on the coast of the Moray Firth in Scotland’s northeast. The clavie is half a whisky barrel filled with creosote and staves, which is set alight and carried in procession through the streets on 11th January. Carrying the clavie is akin to a rite of passage for the young men, who usually come from four of the local families. The final act of the ceremony takes place on the earthworks of the old Pictish fort, when the clavie is set on a stone altar and sprayed with flammable liquid to send flames shooting up into the night sky. Pieces of the burnt clavie are regarded as tokens of good luck.
January 11th on our current Gregorian calendar is Hogmanay on the old Julian calendar, so the original purpose of taking the clavie round the town was to provide householders with a burning brand, with which to light a new fire for the new year.
The Biggar Bonfire, South Lanarkshire
The Biggar Bonfire burns in Biggar High Street, which is also the A702, the main east-west road through the Southern Uplands. Building the bonfire starts early in December. Wooden pallets, tree trunks, brushwood, broken gates, unwanted furniture, old shelves and cardboard boxes are piled up on a section of the street usually used as a car park. By 31st December, the windows of nearby houses are boarded up and the lampposts are carefully wrapped to protect them from the heat.
Once the traffic has been diverted off the A702, the festivities begin with a torchlight procession led by a pipe band. At 9.30pm, one of the town’s oldest residents has the privilege of setting the first torch to the massive bonfire. Then the rest of the torches are thrown on to the pile, and once the fire is blazing merrily, the partying really begins.
Useful links: Hotels in Biggar
The Flambeaux Procession, Comrie, Perthshire
In Comrie, a village in Perthshire, preparations for the Flambeaux Procession also start well before Hogmanay. In the autumn some birch trees are felled. Their branches are tightly wrapped, often in potato sacks, and soaked in paraffin to make the flambeaux.
At midnight on December 31st, the flambeaux are lit. Strong young men carry them round the village in procession with the pipe band and people in fancy dress. At the end of the parade, the flambeaux are thrown over the Dalginross Bridge into the River Earn, in a symbolic casting out of evil spirits.
Fireballs, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire
The Biggar Bonfire and the Flambeaux Procession are both hundreds of years old, whereas the first record of Stonehaven’s Fireballs appeared in the local newspaper in 1908. In most years since then, at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, around 50 kilted swingers have appeared on the High Street. To the skirling of the bagpipes and the beat of the drums, they parade up and down whirling 16-pound fireballs on wire ropes. As a finale to the dramatic display, the fireballs are tossed into the sea.
The fireballs are chicken wire containers, into which the swingers put an assortment of things like coal, wood, rags, paper and pinecones, according to their personal recipes.
Up Helly Aa, Shetland Isles
Up Helly Aa celebrates the Viking, rather than Celtic, past of the Shetland Isles. Held on the last Tuesday in January, it has developed into its current form since the 1870s.
The main events of Up Helly Aa take place in Lerwick, the main town on Shetland. For the master of ceremonies, known as the Guizer Jarl, and his Jarl Squad, it is a 24-hour marathon of parades and socialising.
The highlight is the torchlight procession in the evening. About 1000 guizers, carrying torches and dressed in Viking costumes that they have designed and made over the previous year, parade a specially built replica of a galley round the town.
As the climax to the procession, all the torches are thrown into the galley so that it burns. The Guizer Jarl and his band spend the rest of the night going from party to party.
Wickerman Festival, Dumfries & Galloway
Primarily an independent music and arts festival, the Wickerman Festival takes place in July in southwest Scotland, close to where many scenes of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man, were shot.
The highlight of the festival is the burning of a willow figure, three to four times the height of a person, echoing the cult classic’s finale.
Useful links: a guide to Dumfries
The days when Celts burnt people in their purifying fires are long gone, and policemen are as welcome as everyone else to enjoy Scottish fire festivals.