Seven weird and wonderful Scottish traditions

A competitor in the haggis hurling competition in Edinburgh, August 1985.
A competitor in the haggis hurling competition in Edinburgh, August 1985.
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WITH a fascinating and rich history, many Scottish celebrations and traditions are seeped in myth and legend.

From haggis hurling and coal carrying to sheep racing and groom blackening, we take a look at the history behind eight weird and wonderful Scottish traditions.

Competitors from a Scottish coal carrying race.

Competitors from a Scottish coal carrying race.

COAL CARRYING

One day each summer, at noon, the bunting-strung streets of Kelty ring with the thunder and pech of runners carrying on their straining backs sacks of coal.

The Scottish Coal Race is run over a kilometre, uphill through the village, from the smiddy to the school, with women hefting 25 kilo bags and men double that.

The race has been going since 1994 and is regarded as a way of honouring the proud, sad industrial history of the Fife coalfield.

Sya Laidlay practices for the world's first haggis hurling competition at Prestonfield House Hotel, part of the Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh,  April 1977.

Sya Laidlay practices for the world's first haggis hurling competition at Prestonfield House Hotel, part of the Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh, April 1977.

Kelty once had 14 pits round about; now there are none. It is said that the miners would sometimes run home after their shift carrying a large piece of coal, called a “clug” or “raker”, for their own use. This story is a kind of prop on which the race rests.

BLACKENING THE GROOM

It sounds like a form of medieval torture but Blackenings, which were once carried out to ward off evil spirits before a marriage, still go on today in some parts of Scotland,

The prenuptial ritual, normally carried out the day before a wedding, sees the future bride or bridegroom seized by friends and covered in soot, treacle, flour and feathers.

In past times the victim or victims would be loaded onto a cart and paraded around the town however today, when Blackenings are carried out notably in Orkney, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Fife, they are put on top of a pick up truck and driven around to the sound of horns and claxons.

The victim is usually rendered incapable through alcohol throughout and will likely end up tied to a lamp post or thrown into the shallow sea.

Blackenings are closely related to the Penny Bridal ritual where donations would be made towards the cost of the wedding feast.

The Bride would be taken to a room where here friends would wash her feet in water in which a long-married woman had dropped her wedding ring in.

The bridegroom would then be grabbed by the bride’s friends and have his legs blackened with coal.

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HAGGIS HURLING

While it may have been the English, the Vikings, the Romans or even the ancient Greeks who created the original haggis recipe, it’s the Scots who have gone on to embrace, refine and make this wonderful dish famous around the world.

Not all Scottish traditions involve eating the haggis, one actually involves throwing it.

Haggis hurling has gained massive popularity over the past few decades.

It began in 1977 when Irishman Robin Dunseath placed an advert in a national newspaper inviting entrants to The World Haggis Hurling Competition.

Mr Dunseath claimed to be reviving a 17th century practice, where the women of Auchnaclory tossed haggis across the River Dromach to their husbands, who were working in the fields, in an effort to save time which would otherwise be spent walking to a crossing point.

The men would have to catch the haggis in their kilts to avoid having dirt mixed in with their dinner.

Hundreds of people responded, and the sport soon spread throughout the rest of the world, with competitions popping up in countries with links to Scotland through migration, such as the US, Canada and Australia.

BURNING THE CLAVIE

When Britain changed over from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, not everywhere followed suit.

Burghead was a little bit slower than the rest of the UK, and even today the small town in Morayshire celebrates New Year on 10 January.

However, what they lose in tardiness they make up for in effort, as they host one of the few fire ceremonies that are thought to have survived the Catholic Church’s purge on Pagan fire rituals.

The Burning of the Clavie involves a hooped barrel, the Clavie, which is filled with old bits of tar and wood. It is hammered onto a pole with a specially forged nail, which traditionally used no iron (perhaps suggesting a link to primitive magic?).

Ten men take turns to carry the burning Clavie clockwise round the streets, stopping off to present bits of smouldering embers to houses. The burning bits are snatched up by locals to feed their home fires, and some ashe remains are even packaged and sent by post to relatives. Presumably they are snuffed out first, but no one is saying.

After a town parade, the Clavie is attached to a special pillar that has been built on nearby Doorie Hill. More fuel is added before the blazing embers are scattered down the hillside as people scramble for the glowing cinders for good luck.

Is Burning the Clavie a tradition passed down from the Picts, Romans, Celts or Norse? Well nobody really knows. By the 17th century it had turned into a cleansing rite, to expunge the evil eye from the fishing fleet and it probably took place in many villages throughout the north-east of Scotland. It was condemned by the Presbyterian churches as “superstitious, idolatrous and heathen”, and in 1704 a law was passed against Clavies.

Today a position on the Clavie “team” is highly prized and is handed down through the family.

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REDDING

Redding is essentially the equivalent of a spring clean - done on New Year’s Eve.

Households must be spick and span by the time the bells arrive, so that the New Year can be welcomed with a clean slate (or house, in this case).

In generations gone by, all fires were cleared of ashes so that new ones could be started. Burning juniper to ward off disease and evil spirits was also part of the ritual.

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THE KIRKWALL BA’

If you’re of the opinion that football isn’t what it used to be - that is, “a man’s game” - then you’re unlikely to find a purer distillation of this than at the Kirkwall Ba’.

Local men gather on New Year’s Day (though it is also played on Christmas Day) at 1pm to play a chaotic and brutal version of the beautiful game with a cork-stuffed leather ball.

The playing field is much, much larger - the entire town of Kirkwall effectively becomes the pitch, which makes locating the ba’ an elusive task at times.

MOFFAT SHEEP RACE

It may not yet rival Pamplona, where tourists flock to see the running of the bulls, however Moffat, more famous for toffee, stages its own equivalent when hundreds gather to watch the annual sheep race. every August.

Sheep race down the town’s high street with a dummy jockey, made of wool, on their backs while negotiating a series of obstacles.

The spa town staged what is thought to be the first such event in Scotland on its high street in 2011.

Last year’s event drew thousands of spectators to the centre of the town.

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