It is a little-known fact that Christmas was not celebrated in Scotland for around 400 years from the latter end of the 16th Century (after the reign of James 1st England – son of Mary Queen of Scots) right the way through to the middle of the 20th century.
The head of the Church of Scotland regarded the festive celebrations as ‘Popish’ or Catholic in origin and banned any Christmas events in support. He thought that all celebrations were firmly against Christian teachings and as such, if it was not in scripture, it was not down to the people to create their own meanings so there were to be absolutely no celebrations, hymns or carol singing in the Bible. This extreme behaviour did not actually stop the celebrations by those who followed the pagan tradition of using fire to clear out evil spirits.
The Pagan festival of Hogmanay, however, has its roots deep in the history of a wide number of areas around Northern England and Scotland with special pagan festivals being held in Flamborough in North Yorkshire, Biggar in Strathclyde, Allendale in Northumberland and Comrie in Tayside as well as the biggest in the UK in Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire. All the festivals have events which include fires, tar barrel carrying and of course, those flaming balls.
Up in Stonehaven, the procession and celebrations for New Year have garnered interest from around the world and today, the parade brings in visitors of around 10,000 to witness firsthand the spectacle of the swinging fireballs. The balls are wire mesh cages tightly packed with old cloth, newspapers and coal briquets and the cage is then tied with wire before a handle is added to enable it to be swung around the head of the carrier. They are soaked in paraffin to ensure that they stay alight in the bitter winds off the Scottish Harbourside. Crowds gather at 10.30 for the beginning of the parade to take full advantage of the street entertainment which builds up to the Town Hall clock chiming midnight when 40 men and women take to the streets with their flaming balls aloft and they continue to swing them overhead throughout the parade to the waterfront when they are swung (like when they release the hammer in athletics) and released into the harbour. At 12.25 in the morning, once all the cages are extinguished, the fireworks are launched high above the road over the Stonehaven harbour can be seen from miles around.
The event in Allendale is a little different as they carry aloft barrels of Tar (yes, on top of their heads – utter barmpots I know!). This is only carried out by the 45 ‘Hereditary’ Barrel carriers so you have to be related to one of the previous ‘guiser’s’ (from the word disguise).
Whilst the world and its wife agree that ‘fire’ events are Pagan in origin, there are definitely Viking influences as one of the oldest ‘first footing’ rules is that the man who comes to the door has to be tall and dark whereas the majority of the Viking raiders would have been blonde obviously the bringer of troubles.
There is one thing for certain, however, we choose to drive out the bad spirits of the last year in readiness for the good one ahead, they almost all involve fire, fireworks and whisky so long may we continue.