Keeping the fires burning

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Members of the Clavie Crew carry the burning clavie through the streets of Burghead, Scotland, on January 11 2018. The ‘Burning of the Clavie’ marks the ‘new year’, according to the ancient Julian calendar. 

January is possibly my least favourite month of the year. It’s at this time that I experience a slump in my mood because all the festivities of Christmas and New Year are over, the decorations have come down, and the weather outside is mostly dark and damp. And having checked the long-range forecast for January, it doesn’t look like anything exciting will be happening on the weather front any time soon. I apologise to all those who are not fond of snow, but I’m still a bit of a kid at heart, getting ridiculously giddy when I see big fat white flakes floating down from above.

So I do feel a wee bit jealous of those lucky people who live in Burghead, a fishing port in Morayshire, Scotland, which my dad mentions in his column from 12th January 1980. The villagers are lucky because they celebrate New Year’s Eve twice over, once on 31st December, and again on 11th January. So they know they still have one more celebration to look forward to, which must surely help get them through the mid-January funk that people like me experience.

The 11th January is known as Old New Year’s Eve, or Old Hogmanay, created when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar. Although the new calendar was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory, it was not adopted fully by Great Britain until 1752. Eleven days were ‘lost’ in order to make our dates align with the rest of Europe, which had adopted the new system many years earlier. It meant that September 2nd 1752 was immediately followed by September 14th.

Although many people were dissatisfied with the new calendar, they did adapt to the new date to mark the start of the year. The villagers of Burghead, known as Brochers, embraced the ‘new’ New Year, but they also decided to celebrate twice instead of just the once, refusing to let their traditional festivities, normally held 11 days later, disappear.

This celebration is known as the Burning of the Clavie, and continues to this day, remaining exactly the same as it always has done. Its origins are unclear, but it is similar to Scandinavian fire festivals and is likely to have its roots in pagan folklore.

The clavie is an oak barrel that has been cut in half and mounted on a pole. The staves from the other half of the barrel are placed inside, along with wood chips and tar. The outside of the barrel is also coated in tar.

Then, villagers gather at the home of the Clavie King for a wee dram, before he ceremoniously sets the whole thing alight, after which it is hoisted aloft by his 20-strong Clavie Crew made up of men born and bred in Burghead. The current Clavie King has held the post for 32 years, having been elected after the previous king died. He leads the Clavie Crew and the flaming barrel, along with the rest of the villagers and spectators, in a procession through the streets. Along the way they throw burning staves onto the doorsteps of certain villagers to bring them good luck for the coming 12 months.

The parade then heads up the nearby Doorie Hill and places the Clavie upon the ruins of a Pictish fort where it is stoked up with more wood and creosote or tar to ensure a huge spectacle of smoke and flames. Eventually it starts to burn itself out, and embers tumble down the hill, which are eagerly gathered up by residents who take them home to light the first fire of the new year, and hopefully benefit from the luck that the clavie is said to bring. Blackened embers are also sent away to Brochers who no longer live in the village.

It must be quite unusual that such a celebration still exists, especially in today’s health and safety-conscious society. And yet there is something heartwarming about the fact that this long-held tradition prevails, thanks to the determination and persistence of one small village. I know there are a number of North Yorkshire villages that have their own quirky traditions, such as scarecrow festivals, maypole dancing and morris dancing, but I’ve not come across anything in our region that is as unique, or that has lasted unchanged as long as the Burning of the Clavie seems to have done.

Can anyone tell me any different?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 10th Jan and the Gazette & Herald on 8th Jan 2020

2 thoughts on “Keeping the fires burning”

  1. I so love learning of old traditions. It’s wonderful when people keep them active and alive in the modern world. The British Isles seem particularly attentive to recalling history and ritual.

    Like

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