Tomorrow is a New Year; new work; new challenges – and long standing beliefs. These beliefs go back to happenings long ago – but were they ‘real happenings‘ or are they just stories? No-one knows for certain – but while there is doubt there is risk so when in doubt….. – now that’s up to you! The decision is up to you – and this is one such situation.
Walk along the High Street at Stonehaven in Scotland at Midnight on this night and you’ll come across the Ancient Fireballs Ceremony. This fishing community, 16 miles south of Aberdeen, is ‘home’ to one of the unique Hogmanay festivals in Scotland – and argued by many as the best.
For over 150 years, at the stroke of midnight, the High Street has been lit up as sixty or so local fireball-swingers make their way through their town, swinging their fireballs above their heads. It looks dangerous but the fireballs are very safely packed in wire cages and attached to strong, five-foot-long wire ropes. The balls are made of combustible and oily waste matter, (rags, twigs, cones, bits of coal), soaked in paraffin and are held together in a case of wire mesh. The ‘balls’ are made as heavy as each ‘swinger’ feels they can handle – anything from 5 to 15 pounds. Some balls can be 3 feet in diameter and, in the past, have been recorded to burn for 2 hours! Now, however, they only last for 20 minutes maximum: – Health & Safety rules must be followed you know!
For the parade, the swingers, all of whom must reside in the Burgh, march down the High Street to the accompaniment of Pipes and Drums from the Mercat Cross to the Police Station, swinging the flaming balls around their heads. After the ‘fireball swingers’ have proceeded through the town they go down to the harbour where the balls are then thrown into the sea.
As you would expect, fireball-swinging is an energetic activity. One regular participant recorded recently that: “I can personally attest to the effort needed to continue swinging for the 10-15 minutes the ball will burn.”
The ceremony is said to date from a fishermen’s festival in the 19th century but these torch processions can be dated back to before Christianity arrived in Scotland and there are a number of theories about the significance of the festival. Some say that it coincides with the winter solstice and the swinging fireballs relate to the recall of the sun but others follow the pre-Christian theory in that the fireballs are to purify the world by consuming evil and warding off witches and evil spirits.
Another, more detailed, theory is that at some time in the Dark Ages a shooting star appeared above what is now Stonehaven and that those living nearby had bumper crops in the following year. The seers of the tribe then attributed this prosperity to the coming of the shooting star. The Fireball is regarded as a mimic of that shooting star and that recalling it at this time will bring a return of that prosperity.
Now, whatever the background, this celebration has become such a popular event that, in the interests of safety, barriers are erected to separate the swingers and pipe bands, and control the thousands that come to spectate! But the spectacle and atmosphere are still second to none.