The Burning of the Clavie
Opinions differ as to the roots of the ancient festival of the Burning of the Clavie, condemned in the eighteenth century as "an abominable heathenish practice". But even in the third millennium it still goes on...
Pictish, Celtic, Viking or Roman in origin, the Burning of the Clavie, which takes place at Burghead, in Moray, is without a doubt one of the most bizarre of Scotland's Hogmanay festivals.
A group of grown men carting a barrel of fire around the town? It doesn't get stranger. Okay, maybe in Stonehaven then...
The event takes place on the night of January 11 (the original Hogmanay before the calendar changed in 1660). The "Clavie" is a half barrel filled with wood shavings and tar. In the past, it would have been a herring barrel. Today, iron-hooped whisky barrels daubed with creosote are used.
The barrel is nailed onto a carrying post - the same nail is ritually used every year - which is hoisted onto the shoulders of a local villager.
The clavie is then lit, traditionally by a peat from the hearth of an old Burghead Provost and from there carried by the elected Clavie King.
Each of the ten or so men (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.
The men proceed to the stone altar of an old fort on the ancient Doorie Hill, the clavie is set down here and more fuel is added until the hillside is ablaze with a beacon of fire.
When the Clavie falls to the ground, it is the official start of the Burghead New Year. The flaming embers are snatched up by onlookers and used to kindle a special New Year fire at home, kept for luck or are even sent to relations or friends who have moved away from Burghead.
As well as drawing comparisons with the Celtic festival of Samhain, various theories link its origins to the Picts (there was once a Pictish fort at Burghead) and the Romans. The word Clavie may have originated from the Latin Clavus meaning "nail" and it is speculated that the fort at Doorie Hill may have been an ancient Roman altar. 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.
Whatever the origins, the practice of Clavie burning probably took place at many villages in the North East centuries ago, but was not always tolerated by the powers-that-be. It was condemned by the strict presbyterian establishment as "superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice". In 1704 a law was passed against Clavies. But the ritual practice of Clavie burning still continues each January 11th...
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