Heritage and Culture
Tradition of the Ancient Fireball Ceremony
Perhaps the most unique of all Hogmanay celebrations, is that of the ancient fireball ceremony in Stonehaven. The idyllic fishing town, a mere 16 miles south of Aberdeen, hosts its annual Fireball Ceremony. This ancient celebration, of fire acrobatics, sees 60 locals parade the town streets, swinging the heavy fire-balls above their heads.
Although exciting, some may worry of the dangers of this celebration, however don't be alarmed. The fireballs are made from combustile and oily waste matter, like rags and twigs, which are packed into wire cages and attached to strong, five-foot-long wire ropes. The rags are soaked in paraffin and held together in the wire cases. To ensure safety, the balls are made as heavy as the swinger can comfortably lift, usually weighing between 5 and 15 pounds. In the past, some balls can be 3 feet in diameter and have been recorded to have lasted for two hours! These days, however, the balls can be lit for a maximum of 20 minutes.
As the swingers begin in the Burgh, they plan their march down the High street. They are accompanied by the sound of pipes and drums, as the waves of powerful music whips through the winter winds. Crowds huddle closer together and marvel at these skilled entertainers as they pass by. Making their way to the harbour, the swingers complete their journey. As a symbol of the end of the celebration, the fireballs are thrown into the sea.
As an observer, you can watch this impressive display on Hogmanay every year. The ceremony is extremely popular and in 2002 there were 12000 people there, the most they have ever had! At an estimated population of around 12000, to double their headcount proves how impressive this celebration truly is.
As you can imagine, fireball swinging is an energetic activity. With balls being swung for the 20 minute duration in which they burn, the effort needed to continually keep the ball in the air is immense.
Why does the Ceremony exist?
Torch processions are a popular activity throughout history, and date back to before Christianity. This particular celebration dates back to a historic fishing ceremony in the 19th Century. The festival has significance because it coincides with the winter solstice. It is believed that the fireballs, swung in the dark, are meant to represent the sun.
There is also a pre-Christian theory that fireballs purify the world by consuming evil and warding off witches and evil spirits.
Another theory for the ceremony's existence is that some time ago, in the Dark Ages, a shooting star appeared above what is now Stonehaven. As a result of this appearance, those living nearby had bumper crops. The seers of the tribe then attributed this prosperity to the coming of the shooting star. The fireball is a mimic of this star and the prosperity it brings those who are around it.
Whatever the reason for the existence of the ceremony, the thousands that come to spectate every year, bring in the new year in an impressive fashion. There is no other sight quite like it, with the atmosphere of the crowd and the swoosh of the fireballs. This is definitely not a Hogmanay to miss!