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Adding Scottish (and a Clan Baird) Holiday Touch: Burning of The Clavie

Your Ultimate Guide at bringing a touch of Scottish and Baird Traditions, both old and new to your holidays throughout the year. We will look at both Highland, Lowland, and diasporic traditions and how incorporating elements of these Scottish Traditions, including historic traditions, into your life can help you protect and pass culture and heritage. Today, we look at the most unique Hogmanay celebrations on January 11th - the Burning of the Clavie

Up the Clavie, borne on high Fire under a winter sky In windy darkness, the red sparks fly.
Fire ahead, folk behind, Earlier ages spring to mind Wild voices on a wild wind.
Pict and Viking strive once more On the rocks and sand of the Moray shore, Speeding their dead as in days of yore.
For all our science and technical skill, We watch with hearts that hungry still Leap with a wild primeval thrill At the leaping flames on the Doorie Hill.

Mary Harding from Burning of the Clavie at

Each year, on the 11th of January, on town in Scotland celebrates the New Year in perhaps one of the most ancient continual traditions of Scotland. Hogmanay has drawn to a close in the rest of Scotland and the rest of the world but in Burghead, just 43 miles west of Banff near the Baird lands, the local population, known as Brochers, celebrate the new year by burning the Clavie. This gigantic torch harkens back to perhaps thousands of years of tradition to when Burghead was not just a fishing village but once the capital of a powerful kingdom. This tradition may be one of the legitimate remaining traditions from the Iron age and pre-Christian times.

Attempts have been made to stomp this tradition out but even though it was predicted to end, this lone community holds true to one of their most ancient traditions.

Did guard ye [recte the] Seamen to beware of ye [recte the] old Heathenish superstitious practice of carrieing lighted Clevies or torches about yr [recte their] boats on new years even.

December 23, 1705, Session Records of Kinneddar (in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,. 1875)

There have even been times when it was thought this tradition would survive:

Of late, the burning of the clavie has degenerated into a mere pastime, [sic] and will probably soon be numbered among the things that were.

J. Macdonald, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,. 1861

Despite the naysayers, the people of Burghead have not abandoned this ancient tradition. The Brochers have a specific tradition around the Burning of the Clavie. While anyone can watch, the ceremony itself can only be performed by people from Burghead. Each year, they prepare the Clavie, a large 100kg torch, and march it sunwise, or clockwise, around the town. 10 people hoist it through the streets and then take it to Doorie Hill where the let it burn to coals. The coals are then taken to homes throughout the world to light the fires in the hearths for the new year.

Who burns the Clavie?

In the Northeast of Scotland, on the coast lies a small town of Burghead. Burghead has a remarkable past for such an unassuming town. In the 1809, during excavations for municipal water, an elderly resident claimed to remember the legend of pool buried in the ground. After clearing away the soil, the town discovered stairs that led into the ground. Those stairs led into large room with a pool below carved before history could record who did it or why. However, there are theories according to Historic Scotland:

• a shrine to Celtic water deities

• a place of ritual execution

• an early Christian baptistry

• a Pictish cult centre, later converted to Christian use

What we do know is that on the site, a great Pictish fort has been discovered. The fort may represent one of the largest late iron age and early medieval enclosed sights and represent the remnants of a once powerful royal city. It is thought is may even be the center of the Pictish kingdom called Fortiu. The site continues to be studied and discoveries continue to occur. Recently, a longhouse and other artifacts were uncovered and that this may peel back the mystery of the Picts and allows us to see them as a powerful nation and people in the early medieval ages.

Interestingly, the Clavie is burned on Doorie hill, which was once a part of the Burghead Fort site. This may be a last vestige of an ancient pagan ceremony extending back to when this was a royal city and fort.

What is a Clavie?

A Clavie is a barrel that has been split into two piece and fashioned to represent a gigantic torch. It is filled with tar and set ablaze. The townsfolk set the Clavie alight and parade it through the town before placing at Doorie hill, the ramparts of the Pictish fort. The fire burns the Clavie and the coals and embers are taken through the town, and the world, to restart the fires in household hearths.

Where is this done?

Distrance from Pennan to Burghead
Map Data: © 2023 Google, Geobasis-DE/BKG (©2009)

This ceremony happens annually in Burghead, in Morayshire, Scotland which is roughly 60 miles from Pennan, the historical Baird lands in the North East of Scotland. It is also the birth place of several very important Bairds, including Lt. General Sir James Parlane Baird. [Note: Not to be confused with the many Sir James Bairds of Saughtonhall who are from an entirely different line.]

When and why is this done?

The Burning of the Clavie occurs on the 11th of January ay 6 pm and runs until 7:30 PM. The reason for this date is that this the original Julian Calendar date for the New Year. When the world switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the town of Burghead resisted and maintained their fire ceremony on the 11th of July. The town uses this tradition to usher in a New Year and celebrate Hogmanay,

Is there are Clan Baird Connection?

There are members of Clan Baird who live in and around Burghead. One of the most famous Bairds from that region is Lt. General Sir James Parlane Baird [1915-2007]. Lt. General Sir James Parlane Baird rose from the northeast of Scotland to become one of the finest healers and military officers in the world.

In a future article, we will look at Sir James Parlane Baird and his life. However, a short bio is:

• Educated at Edinburgh University in medicine

• Joined the Royal Navy

• 1941 he went to the Middle East as regimental officer of the 11th Scottish Commando.

• Served in the 8th Army field medical units in the Western Desert and Sicily

• Served as adviser in medicine to the British troops in Austria until 1949

• Served with the United States Army Medical Corps as an exchange physician, at Brooke Army Hospital, Texas.

• assistant professor of tropical medicine at the Royal Army Medical College.

• officer in charge of the medical division, British Military Hospital, Singapore.

• Honorary consultant to the Singapore Chest Clinic and General Hospital,

• external examiner at the University of Singapore.

• Queen Alexandra Military Hospital as officer in charge of the medical division at Queen Alexandra Military Hospital

• and as an assistant professor of military medicine at the Royal Army Medical College.

• Professor of military medicine at the Royal Army Medical College and the Royal College of Physicians.

• Honorary Physician to the Queen

How can I celebrate the Burning of the Clavie?

First, if you can, go to Burghead and watch the tradition play out. Meet the people who live there and get to known why and what they do. While only residents may carry and light the torch, spectators are welcome. Support the local businesses

If you can’t, but live in the UK, try attending a local fire ceremony and embrace your local community.

For those outside the UK, try attending virtually by watching the video of the Burning of the Clavie on YouTube. As it grows in popularity, the chances for it to be livestreamed increase. If you can’t go to Burghead, but want to hold your own or start your own tradition, you might consider holding your own torch or fire ceremony to celebrate the new year. Be respectful and mindful of the origins of the traditions and the people that still carry that tradition. Invite family or share it alone. Then use the embers to light a hearth or fireplace of a friend or neighbor.

We can only help preserve Scottish and Baird traditions if we are mindful of what we are doing so study and understand why the tradition exists. In these ways, we can help preserve traditions, keep interest alive and find ways to ground ourselves in timeless traditions. In addition, we can also celebrate Hogmanay one more time.

Tell us what we got right and what we got wrong. Leave a comment below.

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