Burning the Clavie at Burghead

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 (http://www.morayhols.co.uk/the_clavie_burghead_scotland.html).

ImageAccording to Morayhols.co.uk, 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 (http://www.burghead.com/clavie.html), 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.

See more images: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87385673@N07/sets/72157639698261164/


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