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.