In the small, tightly laid-out, Scottish coastal village of Burghead, January 11, every year, (unless it falls on a Sunday, in which case it’s the previous day) sees something of a pagan tradition played out.


Image: Burning the Clavie.

The date is New Year on the Julian calender and the event is a celebration of the New Year, involving setting fire to a barrel painted in tar, walking it around the streets of Burghead, and then becoming pyromaniacs on a hill at the end of the town.

Tradition has it that the barrel is used to set light to and then deliver burning embers to the houses of the village in order to light the first new fire of the year. It seems the tradition remains alive.

Burghead is fairly remote from anywhere. It juts out into the Moray Firth north east of Elgin. Its streets are laid out in a strict grid pattern, with the central street the highest point. This means, on the central street, at a place where it intersects with two streets running down to the sea, you can see the sea from both directions.

There’s little by way of amenities, apart from a couple of corner shops, a hairdresser, two pubs and a cafe cum gift shop. On Saturday, January 11, 2014, it was also quite cold and, if you were not sheltered by the houses in the central streets, very windy.

The evening’s events start at about 5pm in the village cafe. The proprietors clear the tables and open up space for those of the few thousand or so gathered who want to sample some of their lentil soup, hog roast, curry or stovies.   Image

Then at 6pm, everyone gathers in the street to see the lighting of the Clavie (above). The Clavie consists of a barrel painted into tar integrated into a structure so that it can be carried around the village.

ImageAccording to a well-known crowd sourced online encyclopedia, the Clavie is made from two cask split in two. One of the casks is joined together again by a huge nail (Latin clavis; hence the term, it may also be from Scottish Gaelic cliabh, a basket used for holding combustibles). It is filled with tar, lit and carried round the village and finally up to a headland.

ImageTraditionally, the clavie is lit using peat from the hearth of an old Burghead Provost and from there carried by the elected Clavie King (

ImageAccording to, each of 10 or so men in the clavie crew (traditionally fishermen) take it in turn to carry the burning clavie clockwise around the streets of Burghead, occasionally stopping at the houses of former eminent citizens to present a smouldering faggot of the clavie in the doorway to bring the household good luck for the year ahead.

ImageMany of the crowds follow the Clavie around the village. The rest (above) gather at the foot of a hill, called Doorie Hill (below), at the top of the town (also the headland), waiting for its arrival and installment on a stone plinth (the remnants of a former fort), where it will be burned even more.

ImageAnd, at about 6.40pm, finally the Clavie arrives.

ImageThe Clavie is installed on a stone plinth, with further sections added and set slight to.

ImageThey then add additional sticks (“staves”) to the fire. And then they throw oil at it!

ImageAccording to the Burghead Headland Trust (, the significance of the 11th January dates back to the 1750’s, when the Julian calendar was reformed in Britain. The new Gregorian calendar was introduced. People rioted, demanding back their 11 days – but not in Burghead. Brochers decided to have the best of both worlds, by celebrating New Year twice – on January 1 and the January.

ImageAccording to Morayhols, the origins of the festival have been linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain. There are also various theories linking its origins to the Picts (who once had a fort at Burghead) and the Romans. However, contrary views suggest that there is not enough evidence to prove that the Romans came this far North. The festival also has many similarities with ancient Norse culture, it says.

ImageFor the tourists, the night ends at around 7.30pm, as the fire starts to die down and folk make their way into the (very) local pubs, as well as the cafe, which had a license to 2am. From the experience of others, it’s just about drinking and mostly locals, tho might be one to try one year. Burghead does have B&Bs!

ImageBurghead is nearly 2hrs drive from the centre of Aberdeen. It was about an hour and a half from Inverurie. The nearest train station is Elgin, with limited buses from Elgin to Burghead (a taxi would only take c20 minutes).

Camera: Canon D600 with 2 kit lenses and a Sigma wide angle.

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Up Helly Aa

January 31, 2013


On the windswept northern most group of islands in the UK – the Shetland Isles – something of a mania takes over once a year.
The townsfolk of Lerwick, the administrative centre of Shetland, gets taken over by horde of Vikings who parade around the town pulling their hand-built galley then lighting torches of fire as night draws in before burning the heck out of their galley.
And it does not end there – in fact, that is just the start.
After burning their galley the horde, which splits into 40+ squads of by then alcohol-fuelled men, goes on to perform acts and take part in dances right through the night until at least 8am.
Even then, some carry on into the next day – a local public holiday for obvious alcohol related reasons – for that evening there is then ‘the hop’. At a smaller number of venues bands play music and everyone gets involved in yet more dancing.
This is Up Helly Aa. There is nothing else like it!
For the townsfolk of Lerwick this is the biggest event in their year – men who have left the island don’t come back for Christmas or New Year, they come back for Up Helly Aa.
The preparation for it is also telling – the head of the leading squad, called the Jarl, is given 15 years notice that he will be a Jarl. I’m told this then sparks the man taking out a bond or insurance to help him pay for the expensive Viking suits specially made for them – as well as everything else they have to buy and prepare for.
So what is all this malarky all about?
Well, it’s actually not the ancient Nordic festival you might assume, although it has pagan routes.
There had been a tradition of rolling burning barrels of tar around as a bit of a New Year celebration. BUt this – aided with alcohol (a theme here) – got a bit out of hand so it was banned. But that sparked a bit of a riot so they decided they had to do something. This, in the late 1880s, turned into an early version of Up Helly Aa, which has pretty much evolved into what it is today (according to what I read about it anyway!).
So, what happens? While when you look up Up Helly Aa all the pcitures and chat is about the main event – the burning of the galley – actually there’s a lot more going on.
It all starts early in the morning. The Jarl’s squad gathers, dressed in their viking finery, and parade through the town from about 9.30am, pulling along a wooden hand built galley they have spent the last c4 months building.
Masses of crowds line the streets – mostly locals looking out for people they know in the squad (you have to have lived in Lerwick at least 5 years to be in a squad and abviously longer in the Jarl’s squad, it being such an honour) and tourists.
They are led by a marching band and another is waiting for them at a quay where the galley is finally parked up for people to get a good look at and the squad gets their photo taken as a group.
The Jarl’s squad then goes off to tour around schools, retirement homes etc.
Now the Jarl’s squad – of about 30 people – is only one of this year 47 squads. While the Jarl’s squad is touring the rest of the squads are getting dressed into their outfits – each has to declare a theme, to which they create an act or dance and dress up to. This ranges from local politics to disney films.
At 7pm, they all gather near the town hall. The Jarl’s squad light up their torches first and then the rest of the squads, lining the pavements of one long street in the centre of town, light their torches. Formed and ready, the Jarl’s squad marches up the centre of the rest and then lead a procession along with the pipe band of two columns of men through the town’s streets, forming what feels like a ring of fire – despite the driving freezing rain we were stood in!

Finally they converge on a park in the town centre, where the galley has been brought to, and circle it, forming a massive ring of blazing torches around it.
After more piped music they then all throw their torches into the galley, setting it alight – burning to cinders their four months of hard work!
Next they break off and gather in their groups to find buses and shipping containers on the backs of lorries that will be their transport around 12 halls. Each of the 47 squads has a bus or shipping container!
The visitors/audience go to their halls – one of 12 (I was in the town hall) – and await the arrival of the squads. Each takes it in turn to perform their skit/act/dance before then having a bit of a dance with the audience to the music of a ceilidh band on the stage of that hall.
I tried to take a photo and remember each act but I think by 3am I’d lost track!!! And there are pictures of skits on my camera I can’t remember taking! I did do a good job of learning a bit of the Boston Twostep from a number of squad members tho!
Now, when I talk about these skits/acts and the dressing up these squads do, it cannot be underestimated the effort these people go to (even when it’s 7am and half the audience has given in and gone to bed and they’ve drank lord only knows how much booze on their travels.
As a flavour of the skits, here are a few described.
The first, also one of my favourite, saw snow white arrive, dance around the room and then pass out into a coma on the floor (full proper snow white costume, hair done and make up). In come the seven dwarves and one tries to give her cpr to ‘Staying Alive’ (a little joke referring to the advert with Vinnie Jones showing how you give cpr). The dwarf is pretty much failing and then in comes Darth VAder and a bunch of storm troopers- all in full regalia. Darth brings snow white back to life and then they get married – with Luke Skywalker handing Darth a suitcase on which is written a message about a dowry to George Lucas. This whole skit is a parody about Disney taking over George Lucas’ films!
Another sees a group of aliens playing with beach balls and taking photos like tourists until a warning sounds and they hide under brown blankets. In comes the Mars Rover with two NASA astronauts. It drives around and, not seeing anything but ‘brown boulders’, leaves the room. The aliens then come back out and perform a dance happy they’ve not been found.

One skit saw the squad paint a face on their bellies with the mouth around their belly buttons, which they made move by sucking in their stomachs!
Some skits were local comment – one taking the mickey out of the chap who makes the torches, insinuating he’d spent too much time on his garden (what seemed like a mini canabis farm) instead of making the torches good.
Another was about Shetland’s schools being sold off but then a massive brand new one being built.
Others were just simple, like a squad dressed as the characters of the animated movie Madagascar, a squad who did a scene from Dad’s Army and another dressed as Mexicans performing 1980s music (like the El Paso advert).
There were 47 of these in various shapes and forms through the night!
Everyone is fantastically friendly – the squad members, other tourists and locals – it is such an amazing night. I nearly fell asleep on the loo at about 6am and made use of the supper room – where there was a buffet (with lovely salt beef on bannocks, mmmmm, as well as a load of other stuff) and tea and coffee being served.
You bring your own alcohol, which is stored in a room and given a number. You take your number through each time you want some more drink and they get it out for you.
By the end of the night they recognise you and what you’re drinking so there’s no need for your ticket! The squads are happy to let you have a look on their bus/in their shipping container and seem to be having such an amazing time.
I finally got to my B&B at 8am and was very ready for sleep. I then flew home that night – but for the rest there’s another night of partying, called the hop. This, apparently, is in just six halls and has bands playing music. At 5pm when I was getting the bus to the airport there were still squad members walking about in their fancy dress from the night before!!! And I saw a mini torch procession going through some houses on the edge of Lerwick.
They’re all crazy mad and have a massively fun time.
I should add that Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa is just one of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa events – each of the main towns has its own one and they are on through January and February.
At the Lerwick one the galley is burned on land but at at least one of the others it is burned as it floats off on the sea.

From May 30…

May 20, 2011

I am going to be energy reporter for the Aberdeen Press & Journal based at their Aberdeen office.
Exciting times! More to come when I’m up there and settled.

Time flies…

May 11, 2011

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was here writing about getting a new job, as deputy business editor at the EDP.
Not so long after that I was made acting business editor. Now, 13 months later, I’m on the move again.
Read the BOSIET post below and it will give you a clue as to where I’m heading. No, not offshore! Well, maybe. But only if I manage to get out on an assignment.
More of that for another post. For now I’m still at the EDP. My last date is May 20 – drinks from 5pm in the Woolpack in Norwich (traditional leaving drinks venue for EDP journos).

It’s BOSIET time!

November 24, 2010

Today I learned a new dance move – it’s called the ‘get out of a pitch black smoke filled room safely and efficiently’ Chicago’s special.
It was kindly peformed by a very nice chap called Andy who was one of our instructors on Petans BOSIET course.
For those of you asking who’s Petans and what’s BOSIET…
Petans is, oddly, a charity which offers specialist training courses for offshore workers, mostly those in the oil and gas sectors but also renewables.
BOSIET is the basic offshore safety induction and emergency training course (lasting three days).
What was I doing on it? Good question. My big mouth telling the chaps at CLS Offshore in Great Yarmouth that I’d always fancied visiting a gas rig and them getting EEEGR’s John Best involved (East of England Energy Group).
Which meant doing an offshore medical (week or so ago) and this week the BOSIET.
It’s the course where you get dunked in a helicopter simulator, get to put fires out and feel your way out of the blacked out smoke filled room – which is where the dance moves come in.
There was some serious stuff (in fact it’s all pretty serious but fun nonetheless – unless you’re Andy having to do it day in day out).
In the classroom we had an overview of the industry (the oil’s up north and the gas is down here), the principles and reasons for some of the safety procedures (the likes of Piper Alpha) and the main hazards and issues (blow outs, H2S gas – horrible stuff -pipes and machinery, chemicals etc).
Then it was all the regulation to stop the above and first aid (with dummies Annie and Preston – he had flashing lights…).
And then the more fun stuff started (as long as you didn’t think too much about the real life situations these scenarious led to).
Petans, just north of Norwich airport, has a variety of simulators. One is part of a rig where you climb in to a TEMPSC (totally enclosed motor propelled survival craft). It’s orange (to be seen easily) but felt a lot like a mini-submarine inside. From the rig a winch lowered the raft into a pool then back up again. So there we go – controlled evacuation from a dying rig. There was another simulator of a helipad with a decommissioned chopper we climbed in to.
The main one people will have heard of is the pool with the helicopter module. We climb in in full immersion suits and life jackets we buckle ourselves in, get lowered into the water, take a breath, get fully submerged and then have to climb out.
This scenario gets repeated, each time a bit more difficult until the last one – the sixth (unless you get it wrong and have to do it again – a free ride) where you have to use a breathing system, are turned upside down with the unit and then have to unlock and push away a window and get out. It actually felt easier that it looked – if you did what they told you to do. Rule one – never take your hand off your exit.
The harder activity, for me, was working our way through the blacked out smokey building.
But that was because of the nasty horrible respiration hood thing we had to wear. I found it hard to breath through it, which made everything difficult.
And then on the last task, which saw one person lead three others through the building (including going up some stairs) I got taken from the back and put at the front!
This was where the disco dancing came in. A sweep round of the left foot of the floor you’re about to walk on followed by a sweep of a left hand to check the space you’re walk in to (head to nuts) was Andy’s strictly come dancing winning move (especially the comedy situation which saw it speeded up to get away from an abandoned colleague quick step pace). I’d buy him a drink to see him do that actually in a night club…
Once you got the hang of it, however, it made you feel more confident of moving forward – certainly more so than the alternative, stuttering forward with no co-ordination.
Then we got to put out fires – except the great fire ball that came out of the chip pan fire (not sure any of us were expecting that).
What did we learn? A heck of a lot. The above is scratching the surface of three days of constant information and training.
Who is responsible for your safety? You are.
When are you safe? Not until you get back to the beach (land).
When are you allowed to drink in the liferaft? After 24 hours.
How long does it take a liferaft to inflate? 60 seconds.
Muster points, PPE, everyone having responsibility to flag up safety issues, the permit to work system, PFEER fire regs, getting winched out of the water…
And I’ve not even mentioned some of the other people on the course from Mark, currently serving time and hoping to get back working offshore, to the marine who has reached the end of his service in the marines (23 years) and wants to move into marine security.
More, perhaps, for another day.
I will be writing a feature about this and other adventures I’ll be having as part of a series on the offshore sector, if you’re interested!

The Playing Around team at the Finish on Sunday, September 5Warning: unedited!

Thank you to those who followed the progress of yacht Playing Around over the past two weeks.
It’s been a hell of a ride ranging from an initial blast up the Channel and North Sea to doldrums and a Force 9 gale.
Between four hour shifts on deck, through night and day, we squeezed into narrow bunks stacked up against each other in our increasingly damp if not dank sleeping bags.
The days when all our clothes and boots were dry were cherished – as were those days, usually after 4 to 5 days, when we could change our base layers and have a wet wipe bunk bath.
We were unfortunate enough to miss a number of tidal gates, which meant on one occasion a particularly gruelling upwind fight up to Muckle Flugga – the northern most point of the course around Britain and Ireland.
We lived on boil in the bag and dehydrated meals, looked forward to crisp days (every other day we got a bag of crisps) and saved our day’s treats for the darkest hours of the night shifts.
Porridge, a little poo pooed on the first day, became a warm treat every other morning.
Those of you who read the blogs probably know more than I do about the overall race as we concentrated on racing our yacht on our shifts – off watch we tried to catch some sleep, sometimes not an easy feat as the boat crashed off waves onto the sea and bodies clunked about on deck changing sails, tacking or putting reefs in.
After my first night in a real bed back home – complete with waking up to feeling like the room was swaying – I’d happily say I would do it all again.
Not just for watching the beautiful Irish coast from offshore, sighting pods of dolphins following and skipping around our boat, seeing bright phosphorescence sparkling in the water as we carved through sea creating surf and watching the magnificent moon turn through its phases against starlit nights.
But also for the nature of existence aboard. We were 10 people squeezed into a 40ft boat relying on and looked after each other and surviving with what we had with us – limited clothes and food and a galley tilting at sometimes more than 45 degrees one way or the other.
We saw sunsets and sunrises and dealt with the wind and sea state conditions nature threw at us, relishing shortbread treats every four days.
The girls on the boat sat and laughed about the description of the heads, the name for loos on a boat, as a ride at Alton Towers.
Think of one of the fastest and most juddery rides and then think of trying to go to the loo on it with three layers of clothes to get through. Add to that little to hold on to and stabilise yourself and the fear of dropping the loo roll into the water (if you can call it that) swilling around your sea boots. Wet wipes and anti-bac wipes became intimate friends.
A defining night was when we suffered a force 9 gale.
Coming off watch at 10pm we knew weather was on its way. We’d changed down to a number 3 sail and put a reef in so the boat was not over powered.
But by 1pm the boat was being blown and thrown around by up to 45kt winds and a very rough sea state.
Those off watch laid in bed wondering how on earth the rigging was coping with the immense thrashing we were feeling shaking through ever inch of the boat.
Those on watch were sent downstairs at 1pm deemed less of a risk holed up safe inside the boat than on deck – despite all being fully geared up in foulies and lifejacket and being hooked to the deck with tethers.
We were literally falling off the tops of waves and crashing back onto the surface of the sea and onto the next wave with loud bangs that shook the entire rigging as the sea washed over the boat.
It felt like our yacht was being punched violently in the side.
Those sent down to their bunks told us who were already holed up that it was not as bad as it sounded, although the concern of one crew member and the fact that everyone but those who were essential on deck belied a situation more serious than we had been in as a crew before.
By daybreak the conditions were still bad, but felt like they had subsided. One of the core crew on deck – the skipper – came down for a rest. Shattered he laid down on a pile of sails still in his wet foulies and life jacket, so he was ready to go up after a nap or as and when he was needed.
I covered him with a blanket to try and keep in any warmth he was generating and although he felt making hot drinks would be a bridge too far, I got the kettle on.
I started sending hot drinks out on deck and broke into our week two banana rations to give the two watch leaders still on deck to add to the chocolate rations they had been wading through.
After a break the skipper woke up, had a hot drink and went back out to relieve one of the watch leaders.
He, likewise, crashed and was covered in a blanket.
One of the watch leaders described the boat as a nuclear-powered baked bean can.
Obscenely, despite all, the sun was now shining. Gradually a sea state described as looking like blocks of flats rising up behind the wheel subsided. Perversely, in less than 12 hours later we were virtually at a stand still in doldrums.
It took a good 12 hours for us to recover and get back into our shifts.
I found, after four days, any signs of sea sickness I had went. I have suffered, even when taking sea sick pills, but I’d appeared to get my sea legs. Which meant I was able to stay up and keep the storm watch watered and fed.
That was also the start of me being mother. I started to make sure key crew were fed and watered, organised most of the meals and started making us porridge. Everyone needed all the calories and energy intake they could get and we had not been good at eating our cereal after running out of fresh milk after the first three days.
In the end we came third in our class after a neck and neck battle with British Soldier, another yacht in our class, who beat us by just 15 minutes on corrected time.
We had originally been ahead of the class winner, Encore, but went west going up the east coast – the only boat to take that tactic.
Despite pulling back a lot of ground afterwards, we lost time as a result and never managed to pull it all back due to hitting tidal gates at the wrong times.
My bruises are wearing off and I’m glad to be able to go to a non-Alton Towers style loo.
But I’ve already thrown my hat into the ring for another race in a couple of weekends across the Channel to Ostend.
Not long enough to get the sea legs running but back at sea none-the-less.

To business…

April 8, 2010

It seems like an age since the last post, for which I apologise. I’ve been getting down to business, quite literally.

Despite being busy, it has been really good. One of the best things about the job is meeting so many interesting people.

Yesterday I met self confessed techie Paul Williamson. He runs RD Research from Norwich, a data base firm which mostly developing medical reporting systems for health agencies. Don’t be put off – he’s been working on some fantastic new techonology due to take a web site/application for Norwich City Football Club on to a whole new level. The full story will be in next Wednesday’s EDP Business supplement and it’s worth a read – for technies and non techies. Paul, bless him, was kind enough to drive us down to Carrow Road for a chat at Yellows after I was late for our interview. He has a fabulous looking Nissan GT-R – a Playstation on wheels, he calls it.

From the modern to the traditional. As friendly as Paul was the owner of Duff Morgan, the gentile and warm David Barratt, a businessman of the old school mould – and I’m so pleased they still exist. Business by personal guarantee and thought to the smallest detail. We did a story on his Norwich Citroen dealership taking on a dealership in King’s Lynn. He had a member of staff personally deliver a history of his Norwich family run firm to the Prospect House HQ of the EDP. It’s a wonderful booklet to look at if you are ever in their dealerhip in Whiffler Road and soon King’s Lynn. Being a modern(ish) lass I suggested to Mr Barratt that the history ought to go on their website – soemthing he responded they had not thought of. The idea sparked the offer of having my car cleaned inside and out at the dealership.

Who will I meet today?

I may well let you know!