Category Archives: Superstition

It is New Year’s Eve – and things happen

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 happeningsor 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.

The Tudor House

I had been unimpressed by the rambling Victorian pile of bricks Susie had taken me to see. I had no idea what had fired her enthusiasm about it but sometimes her ‘feeling’ about things had been right, and we were looking for something different, so I went along with her. The house was being auctioned on behalf of an estate with one heir who had no interest in it – and I think I could see why. The bidding started low and stayed slow, the bid price climbing in small increments. I followed the trend and was surprised when it was knocked down me at quite a few thousand pounds below our limit. Susie was jumping around in glee when the hammer fell.

As we completed the after-sale paperwork, two men, standing nearby, looked at us.  ‘You’re not from around here are you?’ the one said.

‘No’ I said, ‘we’re not.’

‘That would explain it then’ added the other as they walked away.

With the paperwork completed we drove out for a last look at our acquisition before heading home. Tudor House stood back from a narrow by-road threading its way across the countryside. Susie just stood and gazed at the house.  ‘All ours’ she breathed. ‘All ours and it feels so …….’ she paused ‘……. so special.’  That done we dropped into the nearby pub for a bite to eat. We were its only customers.

‘Don’t get too many here this early’, the barman said in answer to my silent query.

‘What’s the village like?’

‘It’s OK. You passing through?’

‘’Sort of – but we’ll be back. We’ve just bought Tudor House down the way there,’

Oh‘, he paused, ‘what made you do that?’

‘We liked it’ Susie chipped in. ‘It looks and feels different to other places we’ve looked at.’

‘Well you’re not wrong there’ he said, moving away to serve a couple who had just come in.

Autumn was well advanced when we finally moved in. We soon made it a routine to visit the pub a couple of evenings each week, avoiding weekends when ‘the townies’ invaded. Everyone was friendly and welcoming – to a point. Whenever the fact that we had bought Tudor House came up the conversation seemed to die and there would be a change of subject.  Eventually I reacted to this. There was just me, Josh the barman and Charlie, who claimed his family had lived in the village for a couple of centuries or more, in the bar.

‘So what is it about our house that causes people to clam up and change the subject?’

Josh and Charlie exchanged glances. It was Josh who began ‘Well,’ he paused, searching for the right words, ‘that place has a reputation; stories; strange things.’ He went quiet and Charlie took up the story. ‘Things happen around that house. People don’t stay there long. They leave without giving a reason – or telling the next folk why they are leaving.’


Before either could respond the door was flung open and the quietness vanished as half a dozen lads burst in, heading for the bar and calling their orders as they did so. Josh became busy and Charlie drifted away and soon was gone.  I drained my glass and left as well. As I walked back to Tudor House my mind was struggling with the implied meanings of their comments.

It was dark when I got back to the house. Its bulk in the darkness looked foreboding. A freshening east wind blew up from nowhere and made me shiver. The cobbled stable yard was a collecting place for fallen leaves and the wind caught them, swirling them upward creating a rustling sound that seemed to linger in the disused buildings around. I jumped as some leaves swirled past my face.

‘Bloody fool’, I muttered as I let myself into the house.

Susie was already in bed. As I went up I looked out of the window; the clouds were scudding across the sky, sometimes covering the moon, at others leaving it to light up the whole landscape. It clearly showed the road with a track-way, something like a coach path, turning away from the road and heading toward the house. I hadn’t noticed that before.

‘Quite Gothic’ I thought to myself.

Susie was spark out but I laid thinking about the conversation in the pub.  Outside the wind had freshened further and I could hear the leaves dancing with it in the yard. A couple of times I heard other, indistinct but different, noises before finally falling asleep.

I woke up with a start. There was a distinct smell of smoke. My bedside clock showed 2.30. I nudged Susie awake. She sniffed.

‘Smoke?’ she stated in a querying tone as we climbed out of bed.

A thorough search revealed nothing except that the smell seemed to be all over the house – not strong in any one place but noticeable everywhere. After half-an-hour or so we had either become used to the smell or it had gone. As we went back to bed, something caused me to look out of the window. The moon was spreading its light across the fields. Was there something moving on the track-way cutting across the field? Whatever it was, it vanished in the copse by the road.

The following night the smell of smoke again woke me. Susie remained fast asleep. The waning moon sent a subdued cold light into the room. I sniffed the air. It was smoke – but the smoke alarms we had fitted and tested that morning had given no warning. The clock showed 2.30. I climbed out of bed. All was silent. The smoke smell lingered. From somewhere I heard a sound – faint but distinct. It sounded like shod horse’s hooves on cobbles.  Susie, stirred, muttered ‘He’s here’, and slept on.

Then there was no sound, inside or out, except Susie’s even breathing. The smoke smell had gone. I gazed out of the window for a while. Nothing moved. I got back into bed but it seemed like ages before I fell asleep.  At breakfast Susie was her normal morning bright self, and I said nothing about my nocturnal experience.

A month passed with nothing upsetting the equilibrium of our life. Tudor House was now definitely home. The visits to the pub dropped off to once a week. Susie rarely came and the subject of the house and its history never entered conversation.

The moon was again on the wane when I was awoken by the sound of horse’s hooves on cobbles and the jingle and rattle of a harness. ‘Who the hell is that’, I thought as I turned and looked at the clock. It showed 2.30.  I nudged Susie; she grunted, muttered ‘He’s here,’ and slept on. I nudged her harder.


‘Can you hear anything?’

‘No, but there’s that smoky smell again.’

‘You said ‘he’s here’. Who’s he? Who’s here?’

‘Did I? I don’t remember’ she said as she climbed out of bed and went to the window. I joined her. Something moving along the track-way caught my eye. I looked closely. Was it there? Was it someone on horseback riding away into the darkness? At this time of the morning? I shook my head. I suddenly felt hot – as if I was standing in front of a blazing fire. Susie moved close to me.

‘It’s nothing. Let’s get back into bed. I’m freezing standing here like this.’  Then a smell of burning permeated the room. It was no longer smoky – it was strong – something, somewhere was on fire.  ‘Those damn smoke sensors are useless’ I snapped as we headed to the stairs and looked down. Nothing.

Down stairs the smell was as strong as it had been upstairs. We checked every room. All felt warmer than usual but there was no fire – just that damned smell of smoke. I looked through the kitchen window toward the old stables. Did something move there? The leaves swirled as a breeze caught them. I went outside. There was nothing – just the swirling leave but – the smoke smell seemed even stronger there. Somewhere in the distance I heard a horse whinny. The rest of the world slept.

Bemused and confused I went back in and locked the door. Sleep was now out of the question; and the smoke smell had all but gone – now overpowered by Susie’s brewing coffee.

Daylight showed everything as it should be.

That lunchtime we decided visit to the pub.  Charlie was there. We sat down beside him and told him of our strange night. I added the tale of my earlier disruptive night. I also added Susie’s ‘He’s here’ comments.

Charlie said nothing.

‘So?’ I said. ‘What do you know about this?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘Nothing; nothing really.’

‘Come on – spill it’, I could sense Charlie was backing away from something. ‘Tell us what you know.’

He sighed – ‘there is a story about that house. No-one seems to stay there long. Three or four of them have upped and left – usually about this time of the year. None have ever said anything – they’ve just left.’

He looked at us, and then came to a decision.  ‘It’s like this. There has been a house there for about 600 years. The first stood there until Victoria became Queen. That burned down. The one you’ve got was built about 1850. They named it ‘Tudor House.’

Charlie went quiet.

‘So?’ Susie challenged after what seemed like an age of silence.

‘They say the burning was done by a stable hand who had been sacked. It’s reckoned he rode down the old Coach Path in the middle of the night and set fire to the stables. The wind was in the east and the whole darned lot went up in flames. It was about this time of year when it happened, so they say.’

‘They said nothing about this on the prospectus.’ I sounded aggrieved.

Charlie looked at me closely.

‘Will you tell anyone when you come to sell?’