Burning The Clavie in Scotland

Jan 11, 2014 by

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.



Burning the Clavie in Burghead Photo by: © James Killeen

Burning the Clavie in Burghead
Photo by: © James Killeen

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 Clavie from Recite Films on Vimeo.

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.



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January 6: Women’s Christmas in Ireland

Jan 6, 2014 by

For most Christians in the western world, January 6 is celebrated as Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany,  which commemorates  the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles.  In Ireland, Epiphany is also known as Little Christmas (Irish: Nollaig Bheag) or “Women’s Christmas” (Irish: Nollaig na mBan)–it’s a day for Irish women to eat, drink and be merry, while the men take care of the household chores. What a great tradition!

Irish Woman

Nollaig na mBan: Irish Women’s Liberation, At Least For A Day  image source


The tradition, still observed in parts of southwest Ireland such as Cork and Kerry, grew out of the days when families were large and the women did all of the household chores. Men worked on the farm or in a trade, but were never expected to cook or clean. As you might imagine, Christmas time was hectic for Irish women–cooking all the special foods for the big meal, plus food to share with neighbors and family, cleaning the house thoroughly and then decorating for the holiday, sewing holiday clothing for the adults and children, all in addition to the everyday household chores women needed to do.

Nollaig na mBan gave all those tired women of Ireland a chance to sit back, relax and let the men take care of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing for one day, on January 6. As time passed, women began to go to pubs and hotels for dinners out, often drinking their stout or whiskey in small “snugs”, essentially small cubicles walled off from the rest of the drinking establishment,  that allowed the ladies to enjoy themselves without having their delicate feminine sensibilities offended by the rough lads who usually came in for a pint or two. Today, women are welcome  in any part of the pub, but many of the snugs still exist and are quite charming in their own way.

By the mid-twentieth century Ireland, barkeeps were serving mostly female patrons on the evening of Women’s Christmas, and bars were crowded with Irish women having a night on the town.


It's Nollaig na mBan--Drink Up, Ladies!

It’s Nollaig na mBan–Drink Up, Ladies!    image source

Importantly, Women’s Christmas is a rare ALL female, just-us-girls holiday, unlike Mother’s Day, which involves men and children and excludes women who aren’t mothers.

As one Irish blogger notes in her reminiscences of Nollaig na mBan when she was growing up, the day was a special one for all the females in the family, young and old alike:

I remember the women gabbing all day and in the heel of the evening getting into the stories and songs of which I never, ever tired. My female cousins and I would sense the privilege of being included in all of this, there was a respect in us and never did we exemplify more the ideal of children being seen and not heard than on that day. Unasked, we poured the drinks and ran outside to boil another kettle to make a fresh pot or brought in the sandwiches and the fairy cakes and the chocolates and exotic biscuits in the later part of the day.

I remember the hoots of laughter as my aunts dipped their ladyfinger biscuits into their sherries, letting us have a small sample of the incredible taste. This was the one day in the year that I could get a sense of how the older women in my family were when they were young girls themselves. Full of fun and music and stories. I learned about their old boyfriends and who courted them, how one of my uncles had dated all four sisters before settling on my aunt. How wild he was and how she tamed him.

I’d learn of the sad miscarriages and the stillbirths, the neighbours who went peculiar from the change or the drink, the priests who got spoiled in Africa and became pagan; or who had the failing, the old great grandaunt who took on fierce odd after her son married. I didn’t know what a lot of it meant then but I stored it all away to ponder on in later years…

A moment would come in the midst of all the hilarity when the time for a spot of prayer came. Out of the big black handbags that never left their sides would come the rosaries. These would be threaded through their fingers and all the heads would bow in unison. I never knew the prayer and haven’t heard it since but it was to St Brigid, the women’s saint of Ireland, and it involved her taking all the troubles of the year before and parking them somewhere in heaven and thus they were never to be seen again. This was followed by a minute of silence (while St Brigid did what she was asked, I have no doubt), then a fervent “Thanks be to God and all His saints” and a reverent kiss on the cross of the various rosaries which were all tucked away carefully into the handbags again. Then the glasses of sherry or the cups of tea were refilled and the whooping and carrying on would begin afresh, the bothers and griefs of the past year now permanently banished and forever.

Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas), by The Other Side of Sixty, January 5, 2009




To Great Celtic Women: May We Be Them, Raise Them and Empower Them!
image source


Contemporary Irish women observe Nollaig na mBan by having lunch, brunch or tea with sisters, aunts, mothers and friends, and perhaps doing some shopping or going to the movies.  Gender roles in Ireland aren’t as rigid as they used to be, with many women working outside the home and men taking more of an interest in cooking and taking care of the children, but the tradition of Women’s Christmas lives on.

I, for one, would love to see the custom of Nollaig na mBan jump the pond to America (or at least to Irish-America).  Our lives in the 21st century are filled with the go-go, stressful nature of putting food on the table and raising a family, checking emails, tweeting and posting and blogging—STOP! My eye is starting to twitch just thinking about all that craziness.

Taking a day off to chat about our Celtic and family heritage with the women in our lives, to help each other carry some of life’s burdens and to just have  a good old-fashioned hen party (with no gifts to buy, food to cook or cards to write)  seems a PERFECT kind of holiday.


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Dec 29, 2013 by

    Let’s sing, dance and share a wee dram of whisky to toast the New Year ~ Lang May Yer Lum Reek!


In Scotland, the New Year festivities around January 1st are commonly referred to as Hogmanay. The word itself is Scottish for the last day of the year, and Hogmanay celebrations can last all night, through the day on January 1, and even into January 2nd. Customs and traditions vary from town to town in Scotland, but always involve merrymaking and good times, especially in Edinburgh, which holds the largest Hogmanay festivities.

Lang may yer lum reek” is Scottish slang for “long may your chimney smoke“, and is a common salutation used to wish someone health, wealth and prosperity in the New Year.

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It’s NOT Halloween, it’s Hop-tu-Naa on the Isle of Man

Oct 29, 2013 by

On the Isle of Man, October 31st is celebrated as Hop-tu-Naa, an ancient Manx tradition that predates Halloween. As with Samhain, hop-tu-naa marks the end of the harvest season, the onset of the cold, dark days of winter, and the start of a new year.

Manx Hop-tu-Naa Turnip Lanterns http://tinyurl.com/mpg3bnx

Manx Hop-tu-Naa Turnip Lanterns http://tinyurl.com/mpg3bnx

This is old Sauin night; Hop-tu-naa
The moon shines bright; Trol-la-laa…

Shoh shenn oie Houiney
T’an eayst soilshean; Trol-la-laa…

from The Hop-Tu-Naa Song

The name “Hop-tu-Naa” (pronounced hop two nay) is a derivation of the Manx Gaelic phrase  “Shogh ta’n Oie”, meaning “this is the night”.  Like Hogmanay in Scotland, hop-tu-naa is a Celtic festival in honor of the new year,  “Oie Houney”, but the Manx fest has not been moved to January, as has the Scottish fest.  Manx people continue to ring in their Celtic New Year on the eve of October 31st, just before “mee houney”, Manx for November, begins.

Some Manx hop-tu-naa traditions are similar to Halloween customs.  As with American trick or treaters, Manx children today don disguises and happily go door to door in search of sweet treats.  They may also bring along their carved turnip lanterns–pumpkins are a New World luxury that would have been too expensive to purchase, even if available, so turnips(called moots or swedes) became the practical choice for hop-tu-naa revelers about 100 years ago.  I can tell you from personal experience that carving a turnip is MUCH harder than carving a pumpkin, and requires a good deal of commitment to your art.



In the old days, children would sing the Manx Gaelic Hop-tu-Naa Song (see above), as they roamed door to door, seeking apples, salted herring, old coins or other goodies. Sadly, the song is rarely heard sung in Manx these days, but recent efforts to increase Manx Gaelic use throughout the island may give the Hop-tu-Naa Song a rebirth. I searched in vain for a video or sound clip of the song being sung in Manx.

Another musical  hop-tu-naa tradition involves singing a song about a local lady, Jinny the witch, as the children go from house to house. Not to be confused with just any old Halloween witch, this Jinny is unique to the Isle of Man and predates  Halloween by several centuries. She lived  in the town of Braddan and was tried for witchcraft in the early 18th century, for using magic to shut down the local corn mill.  Fortunately for her, local authorities did not have the same zealousness for punishing witches as was seen in 18th century Scotland and America.  Jinny was sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment, fined £3 and made to stand at the four market crosses dressed in sackcloth–not fun, but much better than being burned at the stake.



There are numerous versions of the Jinny the Witch song, but a common one has the following lyrics:

Hop-tu-Naa, Tra-la-laa
Jinny the Witch flew over the house
To catch a stick to lather the mouse
Hop-tu-Naa, Tra-la-laa
If you don’t give us something we’ll run away
With the light of the moon.


Here is short video from the Manx Heritage Center in 2011, showing some of the dancing, music and activities traditionally associated with hop-tu-naa–watch for the little guy dancing with a candy cigarette in his mouth:


To learn more about the Isle of Man:

The Isle of Man: Portrait of A Nation, John Grimson, 2010 ISBN-10: 0709081030

Manx Heritage Center http://tinyurl.com/kdx58xm

The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man: Being an Account of its Myths, Legends, Superstitions, Customs & Proverbs(Forgotten Books), A. W. Moore, 1891,
ISBN-10: 1605061832

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