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The Burning of the Clavie

The word clavie is probably derived from the Gaelic word of 'cliabh' which means a wicker object used for carrying. Bust of Pict ManSince ancient times in Scotland, the burning of the clavie has been celebrated, first by the Picts and then in later times the modern Scots of Burghead, in Moray.

This ceremony takes place annually on the 11th of January now and is said to have occurred on the first of January in the old calender. As a fire festival, the burning of the clavie is a ceremony of purification. And even though today's version of the ceremony is a huge success in terms of attendance, the exact meanings and superstition related to this festival appears to be lost on the modern Scot. As recently as one hundred years ago, newspapers were lamenting the old fire festivals:

"January 14, 1899: The Burning of the Clavie was carried out in Burghead on Old New Year's Night with as great enthusiasm as ever, and the proceedings were watched by a large crowd. Although the superstition attatched to the ceremony has almost died away, there is no indication of abolishing this time honoured and ancient custom."
Source: The Northern Scot

Fifty years ago, the same newspaper headlined its annual Burning of the Clavie coverage with the question: "Interest Fading?"

"January 15, 1949: The smallest crowd for a considerable time were present at this year's Burning of the Clavie. The bitterly cold weather may have been responsible for the poor turnout, the majority of townspeople watching the ceremony from the sanctuary of their doorways."
Source: The Northern Scot

Originally, the ceremony was carried out by a small group of Pictish people, but this has changed considerably. Today's Burning of the Clavie is a massive celebration attended by thousands of tourists and celebrated by most of the local townspeople of Burghead.

In recent times the clavie was a herring barrel filled with tar and packed with staves. Today, iron-hooped whisky barrels daubed with creosote are used. The barrel is nailed onto a carrying post - the same nail is used every year. The clavie is lit by a peat from the hearth of an old Burghead Provost, and from there carried by the elected Clavie King.

Each of the ten or so men (usually fishermen) take turns to carry the burning clavie clockwise around the streets of Burghead. They occasionally stop at the homes of former eminent citizens to present a smoldering faggot of the clavie in the doorway to bring the household good luck for the year ahead. Eventually, the men proceed to the stone altar of an old fort on Doorie Hill, the clavie is mounted to a rampart and fuel is added until the hillside is ablaze with fire. Afterwards, the residents of the town usually retire for a dram.

by BW, January 2000, with sources from The Gathering of the Clans


Moray Council Website

Scotland's Oldest Attested Fire Festival

Burghead Museum

Mystical World Wide Web Traditional UK Calendar

New Year Fire Festivals

Files of the Northern Scot, January 14, 1899 and January 15, 1949

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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