As one of my 2018 mid-life crisis resolutions was to be more spontaneous and random, on a whim I called upon two simarly like-minded friends to drag themselves out of their toasty homes on a bitterly cold January evening and accompany me to the tiny fishing village of Burghead on the north-east Scottish coast. The conversation had gone something like this.
"Do you fancy coming to the Burning of the Clavie festival in Burghead?"
"What's it about? Is it Viking?"
"I dont really know, I think its Pictish, maybe Viking. Probably pagan anyway. Pagans have more fun. They burn a clavie and the Clavie King takes it round the village"
"Whats a Clavie?"
"I dont know. A sort of barrel I think, they make it especially from what I can gather and it's supposed to bring good luck if you get a bit when its hot. I might be wrong, Google it"
"Unless you burn yourself, that wouldn't be lucky"
"Or burn your house down, that wouldnt be lucky either"
"I think its a New Year festival"
"On January 11th? A bit late isnt it"
"There must be a reason,I think its to do with the Gregorian calendar when we lost 11 days"
"So they changed New Year to the eleventh?"
"Yes but they kept the old one too, to be honest, I'm not sure. Google it. They have a big bonfire on the hill, I think its an old Pictish fort"
"I love a bonfire"
"Is the bonfire before or after taking the barrel thing round the village?"
"I don't know, Google it"
"It'll be freezing"
"Can we get Scampi and chips on the way home?"
And so it was, that last Thursday evening, the three of us turned up in Burghead with absolutely no idea what to expect, what to do or even why we were there at all. I don't really know what I expected. I'd read various news snippets, tourist blurb and Wikipedia and from what I can gather, the festival has its origin in Pictish times, although whether its origins are Pictish, Roman or Norse, no one really seems to know. What is known, however, is that when Britain changed over from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, not everyone was happy about losing eleven days and riots and protests erupted throughout the country. The canny Scots in the north-east however, never keen to pass over an opportunity for a right good hoolie, seem to have opted for celebrating Hogmanay twice, once on the 1st and again on the 11th of January, conserving their ancient traditions and refusing to bow down to the distant powers that be. And despite the strict Presbyterian Church in the eighteenth century trying to stamp out what they considered to be "superstitious, idolatrous and sinful", (always a sign of a good party), this "abominable heathen practice" thankfully still survives.
And boy did we enjoy it. Having opted to miss out the walk around the village following the Clavie, we took local advice and took up stance on the hill overlooking the main hill, where all the activity would supposedly take place. Now from what I can gather the Burning of the Clavie involves a hand-crafted hooped barrel filled with tar and wood, which is then hammered onto a pole. There seems to be something special about the nail used but I haven't managed to get the real story. The elected Clavie King and his very able crew then traditionally take the Clavie to the house of the Provost, where it is lit from the hearth of the fire. Once lit, it is then carried around the village, stopping at certain houses to offer embers for good luck before proceeding to Doorie Hill, the site of Burghead Fort, and thought to be one of the earliest power centres of the Picts.
It is there that the real fun begins.
So under spectacular starry skies, we gathered with fellow bemused onlookers on the hill opposite the beacon, as the locals of all ages, bravely pitched themselves on the hill around the pillar erected to hold the Clavie and as our feet began to lose feeling in the -2 degrees temperature, our crowd huddled together for warmth and started to chat. One man had travelled from the United States simply because he had read that his birthday was the same day as the festival and another couple I spoke to were from Canada. Others, like us, were local outsiders, travelling from far flung townships like Nairn, Forres and Elgin, all of us not really understanding what was going on but all drawn to a spectacle that we had heard about but never attended. And we had plenty of time to chat, as it was a good hour before the smoke and light of the smouldering Clavie finally appeared from behind the hill to cheers from the crowd.
And from then on it was fabulous or completely bonkers if you are looking at it from a health and safety point of view as the aim of the game is obviously to burn the Clavie to dismantle the staves and create embers for sharing amongst the locals. But this barrel takes some burning. I have no idea what was being thrown onto it , but with huge cheers accompanying every explosion as small nuclear like clouds erupted into the night sky and beautiful golden sparks drifted down from the hill, the spectacle was awesome. To virgin onlookers, the first explosion was a bit of a shock, especially when half the hillside seemed to be on fire but with each explosion, our twenty-first century risk-averse sensitivities went gleefully up with the flames and our cheers got louder and more excitable. Our feet were still frozen but it didn't matter. We were children again. We were transfixed.
For there is something about a fire that brings people together and from time immemorial, fire has represented cleansing, purification and rebirth. It is an incredibly powerful symbol. And as we witnessed this wonderful event , we all felt something which is very hard to describe, a feeling that comes from being part of a ritual that has taken place in the same spot, for what some people say is 1600 years. For a fleeting moment we were in touch with our ancient past. When I was trying to describe it to another friend ,who had been many years before, she used the word visceral, meaning basing the experience on deep feelings and emotions rather than logic and reason. That was the word I was looking for. You can tell she went to a posh school.
And so it was, that the fire finally went out and the crowds drifted peacefully away and as we walked up the street towards the car, the aroma and whisps of smoke still hanging on the crisp night air, I watched a young local couple walking ahead. The proud owner of a burning ember, the young guy clutched his prize and as he showed it to his girl she put her arm around him and kissed him on the cheek. I almost cried. I hope the Clavie brings them much health and happiness.
Back in the warm sanctuary of The Bandstand in Nairn, we ordered Scampi and chips, well soup and chips "for the vegan" and I even had a small whisky. I never drink whisky but it seemed appropriate and somehow elemental, to be partaking of the "Water of Life" after a fire festival. For your information it was a Bruichladdich single malt from Islay, so warming and delicious, I even drank it neat. It tasted like nectar.
Will I go back next year? Probably, although I wonder whether, like many special experiences, it could ever be as good as the first time. Maybe I'll follow the Clavie next time and get down with the locals on the street. Who knows. The pull of the fire is strong, it is. Not that Yoda said that, but had he been to Burghead, I'm sure he too would have felt the force.
Happy New Year
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