Burning The Clavie in Scotland
Nobody throws better fire festivals than the Scots–first at Hogmanay on January 1st, then at the numerous Viking fire fests, such as Up Helly Aa, that are held throughout Scotland in January and February. In Burghead, a small fishing town along the Moray Firth in northeast Scotland, residents hold a second New Year’s fire fest on January 11th: The Burning of the Clavie, a unique and spectacular custom that may have its roots in the ancient traditions of the Picts, Celts and Vikings.
In the 18th century, Scotland adopted the Gregorian calendar, taking away fourteen days from the month of September and making January 1, rather than January 11 (the first day of the year under the old Julian system), the official date for all Scottish New Year celebrations. Most Scots were verra displeased with these new-fangled dates, but the good people of Burghead decided to make the best of it by holding TWO New Year’s fire spectacles, one on January 1 and the second, The Burning of the Clavie, on January 11 (unless the 11th falls on Sunday, then the party is on January 10).
Aye, we all know that they burn a Viking longboat at Up Helly Aa, but wha’ the heck is a CLAVIE and how do ye burn the clatty wee thing?!
The “Clavie” (pronounced CLAY-vee) is a half barrel filled with wood shavings and tar, affixed to a large post with a specially forged nail. In the past, a clavie would have been a herring barrel; today, whisky barrels daubed with creosote are used. A group of local fishermen called the Clavie Crew are led by their Clavie King, taking turns carrying the burning Clavie on a set route clockwise round the streets of the old part of the town.
The final destination of the clavie and crew is Doorie Hill, atop the remnants of an ancient Pictish hill fort. The clavie is placed on a 19th century altar, and fuel is added until the entire hilltop is a blazing bonfire in the darkness. As the fire burns down, the clavie embers roll down the hill, where the crowd eagerly grab pieces for good luck in the coming year. In earlier times, the embers were also thought to be wards against witches and fairies. Leaders of the Presbyterian church condemned the clavie burning as “superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice”.
Is Burning the Clavie a Celtic, a Pictish or a Viking custom, or maybe a little of all of them? The tradition is so old, no one knows for sure, but it has elements from each culture. As far as locals are concerned, scholars can research the origins all they want—-Burghead will just keep building and burning their clavie in a fiery celebration of the New Year.