The Fireballs Festival is held every Hogmanay in Stonehaven
There is undoubtedly a magic about the flickering flame, it is both creative and destructive. Most ceremonies use fire as a purifying force, a solar symbol or as a means of destroying something perceived as bad. Some can be traced back to pre-Christian times.
In Scotland there were mid-Winter bonfires at Dingwall, Campbeltown, Invergordon, Comrie, Bigger, and Newtown Stewart. Boat burning was also a custom in coastal communities like Stranraer and Bettyhill in Sutherland as well as all up the north-east coast. The burning of the Clavie at Burghead is similar to our fireballs in that it is a more of a procession.
There are even more fire ceremonies in the rest of Britain but Stonehaven’s Fireball ceremony at Hogmany is one of the more memorable. It consists of mainly local people of all ages swinging flaming wire cages, around their heads. Each cage is filled with combustible material (each swinger has their own recipe) and has a wire handle two or three feet long, this keeps the flames well away from the swinger, but spectators can be vulnerable!
The event starts at midnight lasts twenty to thirty minutes and is watched by thousands. The idea behind the ceremony is to burn off the bad spirits left from the old year so that the spirits of the New Year can come in clean and fresh.
From current research the ceremony would seem to go back from a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, but it could easily be much older. At the moment here is no written documentation of the event before 1908. The only source of information is the local newspaper of the time, local folklore and from those who have parents or grandparents who can remember the festival taking place.
The ceremony today lasts only around twenty to thirty minutes but in the past it could last an hour or more. Then, some of the swingers would swing their fireball for a few yards and then stop outside a house that was occupied by someone that they knew.
They would drop their fireball at the kerbside and pop in for their ‘New Year’! After a while they would come out, pick up their ‘ball’ and swing on down to the next house, and so on. So it could take some time to get from one end of the street to the other! In the early years, according to the newspaper reports, it would seem that it was mainly the male youths of the old town that were involved in the custom but once into the sixties the reports are of much older men being involved as well.
The longer lasting ‘balls’ had to be made of material that would smoulder and stay ‘alive’ whilst left unattended. In all fishing communities there was always plenty of old rope, nets, broken cork and leather floats etc. which would have been ‘tarred’ at some time to make them waterproof and which would have been ideal to use in the construction of the ‘balls’.
Old and broken material like that could have been seen by some as ‘unlucky’ and as all fishing communities were very superstitious, burning it would have been a good way of getting rid of it and of destroying the bad luck. Now we use ‘clean’ material which burns without smoking or dripping burning tar or oil.
In August 1848 as a result of an unexpected storm 8 fishing boats were lost with a total of 19 men being drowned. That number of men and boats from a small fishing community would have had a massive effect on the whole town as well as the families themselves.
Tragedies like that were sadly not that uncommon, so anything that would help to balance the odds in your favour was eagerly seized on. It is easy to see how superstition, good luck charms and customs were felt by some to be a means of helping to swing that balance. T
he use of the fireball ceremony as a creator of good luck or eliminator of bad luck is understandable. The idea of the fireballs could have been imported from another fishing community as fisherfolk migrated up and down the coast as the shoals of fish came and went in the seasons.
The old fishing village of Skateraw at Newtonhill had a fireball ceremony in the 1800’s so the Stonehaven one could have come from there. Wherever it came from Stonehaven is one of only a few towns in Britain that now still have a fire ceremony.
In the 1960s F.A.S. Cairn wrote:- :The pavements were more than packed, and the crown of the causey was left to the fireball swingers. The swinging balls were an assurance that the swingers would not be subjected to crowding. The crow-stepped gables and the eighteenth century frontages were ruddy in the glare, as they had been when Butcher Cumberland made a bonfire - in the same street - of the pews from a nearby chapel whose congregation had Jacobite sympathies.
The assembled crowds thought not of the past, but of the future, as they pushed their way along, shaking hands with everybody they met in an orgy of good will. Considering that some of the swingers had been ‘celebrating’ earlier in the evening, the number of accidents was very few. I have seen a tipsy swinger fall over his flaming ball, pick himself up and continue his march.
The worst I ever heard of was that one spectator who had gone too far into the street had the back of his hair singed and all the comfort he got was to be told that it would save the expense of a haircut! But the bell has stopped; the moving finger of Time has traced out another quarter of an hour, and the fireballs have burnt out.
The rite of welcoming the returning sun by fire has duly been performed for another year, and the crows skail (move on) to the serious business of first footing. Even if we only count from 1908 onwards, the fact that this ceremony has been carried out every Hogmanay possible since then ( excepting 1917 to ‘18 and 1940 to ‘45) makes it an event of note in Scotland and the UK. It has never been cancelled.
For many years the tradition just ‘happened’. Everyone knew what to do and what went on. It was always loud and lively. More for the young people to enjoy. Only those who wanted to be involved would come down to see it happen.
It was seen as an ‘old town’ preserve –you had to be born in the old town to take part. Gradually that has changed. Now the requirement is that you stay in the area and have the interests of the ceremony at heart. In the late sixties the ceremony seemed to go into decline, with fewer and fewer swingers taking part.
However, the custom was rescued before it died by a few local enthusiasts who encouraged anyone to take part, locally born or not. As long as they wanted to keep it alive then they were welcome. The enthusiasm for the event that came from these people has helped to enhance the tradition and ensure that it will keep going for many generations to come.
Sadly none of the history of the event or the names of the swingers from the past was written down and this is an area where more information is required. If anyone reading this has any names of previous swingers and the years that they took part, then we would like to hear from them. We would also like to hear from anyone who has any comments about the ceremony – good or bad.
The contact is:- Stonehaven Fireballs Association,
If you have been able to watch the Fireball ceremony then we hope that you enjoyed it. We (the swingers) certainly do! The buzz that most of us feel when we walk down the High Street for the first time after the bell has rung is amazing!
There is no need for any additional stimulants! There are no ghosts in front or behind us (that we are aware of!) but we feel the history that is there when we walk the path that others have walked every Hogmanay.
Visit our web site- www.stonehavenfireballs.co.uk for more information.
Martin Sim October 2002
NB. At time of writing Martin Sim is Chairman of Fireballs Committee and we are grateful for this contribution.
Read the contribution from a vistor from New Zealand here .