New Year’s Eve: Odd Scottish Hogmanay traditions

Hogmanay fireball swingers illuminate the streets of Stonehaven. Picture: Getty

Hogmanay fireball swingers illuminate the streets of Stonehaven. Picture: Getty

SCOTLAND has a long and revered history of celebrating Hogmanay. Thousands of tourists flock to Scotland’s major cities in late December, singing alongside locals in street parties and music halls as Auld Lang Syne echoes across the country at New Year’s Eve.

On such occasions, however, many of Scotland’s more obscure traditions often remain hidden from view. Scotsman.com sheds some light on some of our nation’s stranger Hogmanay customs

The Loony Dook

Every year since 1987, South Queensferry residents have gathered on New Year’s Day to take a dip in the ‘refreshing’ (by which we mean, very, very cold) waters of the River Forth. Sound enticing? It’s more fun than you might imagine. Initially conceived by a small band of brave locals, the Loony Dook now attracts thousands of spectators and participants from all over the world. Revellers often arrive in fancy dress, too.


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.

The Burning of the Clavie

They do Hogmanay rather differently over at Burghead. For a start, the Moray town celebrates the New Year twice - on 1 and 11 January. The tradition dates back before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century, which replaced the Julian calendar. Come the 11th, residents carry the flaming Clavie (a barrel full of tar and staves) around town. The Clavie is then taken to Dorrie Hill, where it is placed on a stone alter in the remains of a fort, after which it is allowed to burn out and tumble down the hill. Revellers then gather the smouldering remains of the barrel, which are said to bring good luck for the new year.

Fireball swinging

Stonehaven residents celebrate New Year’s Eve by swinging great balls of fire in ways that would put Jerry Lee Lewis to shame. On the 31st, locals form a procession from the Mercat Cross to the Cannon, all the while swing burning balls made of chicken wire, pieces of cloth and newspaper over their heads, which are then thrown into the sea. Dating back to at least 1908 (thought it is suspected to have been established some time before then), the origins of the festival are inconclusive, but some say the ceremony was intended to facilitate the supply of sunshine; others simply regard it as a purification ceremony, designed to ward off evil spirits and witches.

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 town of Kirkwall effectively becomes the pitch, which makes locating the ba’ an elusive task at times.




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