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New Year Fire Festivals
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As midnight strikes on Hogmanay in Comrie a strange, time-honoured
ceremony takes place - the lighting of the Flambeaux, to herald in the
New Year. It is a ceremony that goes back far beyond the memory of folk
and when questioned about its origin, they say "There have aye been
flambeaux, in my father's time and my granfather's".
The flambeaux are great tall torches, some ten feet in length, swathed for
about two feet on top. The poles are usually smallish birch trees which
are cut around October. The swathing is of canvas formly bound to the
shaft with wire, and is subjected to being soaked in a large barrel of
paraffin for several weeks.
On Hogmanay night they are brought out and laid against the dyke at the northeast corner of the Auld Kirkyaird, and when the clock strikes at midnight they are set alight. The torches are then seized by the strongest young men and hoisted shoulder high. Preceded by the Comrie Pipe band followed by a procession of people gathered in the village square they are paraded down Drummond Street, back over the Dalginross Bridge and down Strowan Road to the Square, then along Dunira Street to the Public Hall in Burrell street and finally returning to the Square. Once there they are ceremoniously thrown into the river Earn. It takes strong men to complete the circuit and no shortage of volunteers.
A motley collection of guisers and people in fancy dress add to the
ambiance and there is dancing and laughter. Prizes are awarded for the
Therafter people first foot their family, friends and neighbours. It is
important that a dark - haired "stranger" be allowed into your house
before a fair haired one - this may have something to do with Viking
raids - invariably Vikings were fair haired. The "stranger" may carry
a lump of coal signifying warmth or heat, or a piece of cake signifying
food or Scotch signifying liquid. A good time is then had by all and
sundry. No-one is turned away at the door.
The ceremony may be Druid - to exorcise the witches because people until
very recently believed in witches or it may have something to do with
protecting the village from marauding Vikings or it may have something
to do with the Flems who came there 200 years ago and taught the local
folk how to weave. (Flambeaux = beautiful flames)
The fire festivals are typical of those which used to be held in many
communities in Scotland, but which were largely stamped out
by the Church of Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. A few survived, such as the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead (Moray), and the fireball whirling at Stonehaven. These days they are often an excuse for the public to consume various quantities of appropriate alcoholic beverages. The Clavie fire ceremony is conducted under strict accordance with tradition and takes place around January 1st by the old calendar, which equates to January 10th/11th.
The Clavie is dated back to pre-Christian times and is held in the
highest regard by the people of Burghead, more than Xmas and
January 1st itself. A position in the Clavie crew (the organisers)
is hereditary, and has been handed down from father to son for many
generations. (I wonder if any women have ever wanted to take part?)
A barrel is halved and filled with tar and faggots, mounted on a pole and
carried round the streets of the town, with burning bits of wood tossed
into doorways where they are snapped up by the joyous householders and
preserved to bring good fortune throughout the year. They used to take
the clavie round ships in the harbour, but after a few accidents this
practice ceased. The clavie is finally mounted in a special pillar on a
mound within the Pictish fort, where it burns itself out. Similar
ceremonies used to occur at other Moray fishing villages, including
Findhorn and Lossiemouth, but this was stamped out by the church in the
17th century. Burghead didn't have a church until the mid-19th century,
so it survived there.
Shetland has a similar fire festival in January "Up helly aa" - this is a
series of fire festivals. The biggest takes place on the last Tuesday in
January and is a procession of flaming torches, carried through the streets
of Lerwick by 'guizers' and led by the Jarl Squad in full Viking costume,
before setting alight a specially built full-size replica longship.
Smaller festivals are held throughout Shetland from January to March, these
are more accessible but still very spectacular.
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