The Burning of the Clavie

Susann 2 croppedclavieThis post is by Nancy Jardine. (All images from Wikimedia Commons)

New Year felicitations to everyone! Fireworks have lit the skies; the champagne has been drunk and the partying has wound down; the new calendars for 2016 are hung on the walls but…guess what? A part of Scotland is still waiting to celebrate New Year with a spectacular fire festival!

What? Are you asking if I’ve gan gyte? (i.e. gone mad; pronounced like the hard ‘g’ as in ‘get’ and the  ‘i’ in the word ‘white’)

I’ve written posts on this blog before about Scottish traditions on Hogmanay (31st Dec) and the celebrations of Ne’erday (1st Jan) but I’ve never yet written about The Burning of the Clavie – a unique and ancient Scottish custom. This distinctive New Year celebration takes place in the fishing town of Burghead on the Moray coast of North East Scotland on the 11th January, and is exclusive to that town. That’s correct, the Burning of the Clavie happens on the 11th January, so those canny Burghead folks have 2 New Year celebrations to plan for!

But why the 11th January? Why don’t they have their fire ceremony on the normal New Year day of January 1st? Do they work to a different calendar from the rest of the world? 

You may already know I’m fascinated by the quirkiness of history and of how historical events still linger, in some form, today, and calendars come with their own stories! …Settle in comfortably for my first history lesson of 2016 😉 .

In my historical Celtic Fervour Series, set in AD 84 Roman Britain, I mostly refer to a lunar calendar which focuses on the equinoxes and solstices since I’m mainly writing about how the expansion of the ancient Roman Empire affects my Celtic clan. On the other hand, the Ancient Roman legionary soldiers who feature in those novels are glad to use a monthly calendar year since the Julian Calendar was well established across the Roman Empire by AD 84. The Julian Calendar makes it much easier for my Roman characters to calculate their feast and special worship days because these matter a lot to the men on campaign in barbarian Scotland! ancient republican calendar

(The adoption of the Julian Calendar in 45 B.C. was a great improvement on the  ‘HUGE MESS’ of the ancient Republican Calendar which had 61 ‘lost and unaccounted for’ winter days across their ancient calendar of 10 months (304 days). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have to use the above calendar to book my author presentations! By 45 B.C., Julius Caesar having decided enough was enough, insisted on a more sensible calendar which had 365 days.)

Of course, an astronomical day isn’t a perfect 24 hours and Julius Caesar’s astronomers knew this. Regrettably,  over the ensuing millennium, even the use of the Julian Calendar created A BIT OF A MESS. The original Julian rule of adding a Leap Year Day (eventually inserted every 4 years) to accommodate the extra minutes in a day was a great idea, but sadly still not accurate enough for the astronomical events around us. When the Christian festivals of the Middle Ages became way out of sync with the seasons something different had to be done.

In 1582, Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian Calendar to make the Roman Catholic Christian festivals match the contemporary astronomical year – though not all countries across the globe were willing to adopt this new calendar immediately because the introduction of it meant the ‘loss’ of 10 days. In 1582, the concept of losing 10 days was too much for many countries, like Scotland, to fathom but by 1752 the UK government in London eventually decided to ‘get in step’ with the other nations who used the Gregorian Calendar and insisted it be used UK wide.

hogarthHowever, the governmental dictate wasn’t entirely popular. By 1752, a total of 11 days had to be ‘lost’ and many people resented the change. People rioted in the streets and demanded back their 11 days. The above painting is by William Hogarth who was famous for his ‘genre’ paintings and engravings depicting society with all its warts and blemishes.  In this Whig Party Banquet scene (the political liberal party of the day) the man seated on floor at bottom right has his foot on a stolen Tory Party campaign banner declaring “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days!” (BTW to make matters worse, England and Wales also had to change their NEW YEAR day TO January 1st! and that’s another story…)

The Gregorian calendar was introduced in different US states at different times. More information HERE.

Now…back to those canny Brochers of Burghead (nickname for the inhabitants of Burghead) in Scotland who were told to change their Hogmanay.

clavie burningThe Brochers decided their traditional Burning of the Clavie on Hogmanay would go ahead on their planned day,  on ‘Aul’ Eel’  (Old Yule), regardless of the fact that it now put Hogmanay to 11th January of the new 1752 calendar – the canny villagers having already celebrated with a wee dram , …or 2, …or a dozen, at New Year on the ‘official’ 1st January.

Since then, the Burning of the Clavie festival has continued to be celebrated on the evening of the 11th January…but what actually happens during this fire ceremony?  

The seriously ancient origins of the fire festival of the Clavie burning are unknown but each year a traditional format is followed. A collection of barrels are split into staves (in the past herring barrels were used but now they use whisky casks). Some of these staves are then reattached to reform a half barrel using a huge iron nail, the very same nail used ritually each year. The half barrel is tarred with creosote and mounted onto a tall carrying post which fits over the shoulder of the man bearing it. The half barrel is then filled with wood shavings, tar and other flammable material. This Clavie is then lit, traditionally from the peat fire of an ex-provost ( mayor) of the town, and hoisted onto the shoulder of the ‘Clavie King’ who begins the procession around the streets.clavie altar A team of Clavie carriers take turns to carry the lit Clavie (about ten men) their procession ending up at the Doorie Hill where there is a stone altar in the ruins of the ancient Celtic fort. The Clavie is placed on the altar and more wood from the split casks is added to keep the fire burning brightly for hours.

It’s thought that other towns and villages of the north east of Scotland may have traditionally burned their own clavies but by the early 1700s the practice was banned by the Presbyterian run government who deemed the custom to be “superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice”. Quite obviously the Brochers didn’t really listen too well to their government rules!

If someone’s likely enough to be gifted a burning ember from the Clavie, or snatch a fallen one, it’s claimed it will bring good fortune for the coming year. Pieces of embers have been known to be sent to Brochers who have gone to live abroad. (Fire festivals like this one also bear similarities to some Norse/ Viking traditions.)

My own interest in the Burning of the Clavie is sparked beyond the quirky adoption of the festival day. Although the Celtic hillfort on Doorie hill has been dated to very late Roman Scotland (c. A.D. 400),  it’s thought that the stone altar may be of Roman origin since it’s design is typical of Roman altars. Additionally, and very interestingly, the word Clavus in Latin means nail. There’s some confusion in archaeological reporting over whether there could possibly be any lasting Roman influence so far north in Scotland, but my October 2015 visit to the nearby museum at Inverness clarified that the Roman armies of General Agricola, and of Emperor Severus, most likely did march to the Moray coast.

I’d love to get up to Burghead to see the real live event this year.

Would you like to be celebrating a second New Year on January 11th?

Wishing you all a lovely first weekend of the New Year!

CFS End Sept 2015Nancy Jardine writes historical romantic adventures (Celtic Fervour Series); contemporary mystery thrillers (Take Me Now, Monogamy Twist, Topaz Eyes-finalist for THE PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE 2014); & time-travel historical adventures for Teen/ YA readers (Rubidium Time Travel Series).


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23 thoughts on “The Burning of the Clavie

  1. That’s a fascinating story! I love the independent spirit of the Scottish people. Your people very much remind me of the folks of my state of West Virginia, which makes sense, since so many of the folks who originally settled in the hills and hollows (or, as we call them, hollers) of our fair state were Scottish.


    1. Linda- I’d never heard of it till fairly recently though it takes place about 75 miles where I live- a journey of around 1 and 1/2 hours, the road being mainly a single carriageway. In my defence, I’m not from N E Scotland and didn’t grow up knowing about it. I really want to go sometime but not this year since I’ll be grandchild minding.


  2. Nancy, I just love the history lessons. This one really fascinated me. Time counting is so artificial and the stories around getting to where we are fascinate. Doris


    1. Thank you, Doris. My history lessons bore some people to death 😉 but events like the ‘Burning of the Clavie’ always have some background story that I find great to delve into.


    1. I agree, Abbie. it looks like an uncomfortable and very heavy thing to carry. I guess that’s why it takes a bundle of men to get it to its destination. Happy New Year to you, too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting how different cultures and countries celebrate the New Year. The Chinese also go by the lunar calendar and this year Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 8. My dad who lives in Taiwan then has two “Happy New Year”s, although the Chinese New Year is the big one. Either way, Happy New Year, Nancy, and hopefully next year you’ll make it out to see the Burning of the Clavie!


    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Sarah. I think people who work to lunar calendars, or indeed other non- Gregorian calendars, work so hard to keep track of what is happening when!


  4. The question of Roman influence in the Burning of the Clavie is fascinating. Jan. 11, eh? You really need to get up there and do a bit of research. Happy New Year, Nancy, both on the Jan. 1 blastoff and the wild Jan. 11 Clavie one. And I’m with the 18th century folks… I want those days back. There you go… government interfering in our lives again. Lol.


    1. Yes, Mike, it takes a bit of tenacity these days to keep old traditions going. The Burghead area also has other potentially Roman influences and I DO need to get up there soon.


  5. Nancy,

    I love the stubbornness of the Borchers to keep an ancient tradition alive. Also, your voice in describing the calendars and history is spot on perfect for a BBC segment. Bravo!


    1. Thank you, Gayle. There’s always another bit of history to share and learn. 😉 Regardless of which country you stay in.


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