Burghead: The Scottish village with its own New Year plans

SCOTLAND will lead the world in raising a glass to the New Year tomorrow night, but one village on the Moray coast won’t be celebrating like the rest of us.

Burghead, with a population of around 1,500, primarily marks its New Year on January 11, just as Scots did from the time of the earliest civilisations right up to the mid 1700s when the old solar calendar was phased out by the church.

Here, the New Year will celebrated with a huge festival of fire - the Burning of the Clavie - just as generations did before them, with the ritual still doggedly observed as it has been for many hundreds of years.

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Attempts have been made by the authorities to ban the celebration, or at least curtail it, partly on the grounds of heathenry but latterly more for health and safety reasons.

But the enthusiasm for the Burning of the Clavie appears to be unstoppable in Burghead and a week on Monday, a flaming Clavie - or barrel full of staves, tar and creosote - will be carried round the town with a procession of village folk trailing behind the burning offering.

It is taken to Doorie Hill, on the ramparts of the village’s Iron Age fort, where it is refuelled and allowed to roll down the brae as onlookers rush to grab its burning embers.

These little fragments of burnt wood are prized possessions, symbolising good luck for the year ahead.

They are often seen pinned above the doors of homes and businesses or posted to Burghead natives who have scattered overseas. Many come home for the occasion, with around 4,500 people at the last burning - three times the village population.

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Dan Ralph, 62, a joiner and undertaker, is the Clavie King - and has been since 1988.

It was his father, Jock, who revived the ceremony with the help of two friends - James ‘Peep’ McKenzie and James ‘Lichtie’ McKenzie - after returning from service during World War II, when the burning was banned during the blackout.

Mr Ralph said you need a certain “thrawness” to live in the wind-battered point of Burghead - and that it was probably this spirit that led to the survival of the Clavie burning in the village.

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He said: “Clavie burning was popular along the north east coast but we believe that all the towns and villages eventually changed to the new calendar - apart from Burghead - and celebrated the new Hogmanay. We have stuck rigidly to the old calendar.

“There have been recorded attempts to ban it, ostensibly by the church, as it thought to be heathen and idolitrised.

“But these attempts were all ignored. There have been more recent attempts by the Kirk to make it safer for the crowds and we have had to concede slightly. The crowds are kept at a safe distance but it is self regulatory.”

Nothing is more important to Burghead than honouring the detail of the original Clavie celebration.

Without this devotion to the integrity of the ceremony, its future would be at risk, Mr Ralph said.

The Clavie was originally made from tar barrels that arrived on the Moray coast, possibly from the Balkans,

Over the years, more readily available whisky barrels were used in the burning but Mr Ralph decided to address this slight slip in the ritual - and around 20 years ago travelled to the Faroe Isles to find a tar barrel.

The measurements of this barrel have since been used to make an exact replica, and this week Mr Ralph’s first son - also a joiner - was finishing off the 2016 Clavie.

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“We are not at liberty to change anything and we have to stick rigidly to what came before. It we allow change, we have literally blown it and the Burning of the Clavie is not going to last,” Mr Ralph said.

Fire festivals were common on January 11 through Europe and indeed the north of Scotland but began to dwindle after the old Julian - or solar calendar - was phased out by a Christian Church determined to realign the dates for religious feasts.

People rioted as the new Gregorian calendar was brought in as folk sought back their 11 days but eventually January 11 became the last day of the year.

Mr Ralph is confident that Burghead won’t lose the old tradition any time soon.

He said: “When I see the other Clavie crew members and my grandsons, they are so enthusiastic about what we do and I know if my heart the future is secure. I know the Burning of the Clavie is not going to die out anytime soon.”