We waited two hours in the bitter cold of Stonehaven High Street to ensure a good view of the fireball swingers who parade between the old clock tower and the harbour at the stroke of Midnight every Hogmanay/Ne'erday - and have done for hundreds of years. The fireballs are the size of small creels (lobster pots), doubled wrapped in chicken wire then stuffed with oily rags - old jumpers sometimes. They are then attached to fence wire and swung above the head. While most of the participants were of the burly variety, there were quite a few women too - including one even shorter than me, who was nevertheless able to perform the full circular swing in a way that looked effortless. Most of the men wore kilts and others dressed up in carnival style - I liked the giant guy with the necklace of blue fairylights and another whose t-shirt had a build-in digital clock giving a countdown to the 2011. Centuries ago Hogmanay was a time when people dressed up and went guising, so the display was appropriate.
It was exhilarating to be there, even as a spectator. Fire is elemental and exciting - its seductive warmth comes with menace and danger. It transforms the night, and the people around you. In our case the risk was real - our spot on the narrowest stretch of the street meant the fireballs gie close. The combustible parade, which was preceded by pipes and drums, captured the old Scottish spirit of Yule and New Year, which in Scotland used to be called "The Daft Days". It was a time when a society restrained by rules, religion and grinding labour could go a wee bit crazy. Fire was traditionally used in Winter Festivals to purify and drive away evil spirits - just like it destroyed germs and drove away wild animals. It also symbolses the sun, and the spirit of optimism that keeps telling us it won't always be this cold and dark.
The ringleader of a group of boisterous Aberdonians preferred a more contemporary comparison: "It's like the X-factor for big hairy Scotsmen!" He was perturbed by the absence of a soundtrack - the drummers being further up the street. So he spent the next few moments rousing the street to yet another rendition of Flower of Scotland. They complied. But the combination of crackling fireballs and yelps of encouragement from the crowd somehow made the soundtrack more authentic. The comparison with X-Factor was flippant but not irrelevant. What greater contrast could there be to the manufactured, monocultural entertainment that now dominates our lives than this? The Stonehaven fireball swinging is rooted in a real community and still organised by local people - with considerable time and skill given the health and safety requirements of the 21st century.
But there is a little spark of the x-factor culture in the ceremony. One of the veteran fireball men told the Press and Journal the ceremony had almost died out by the early 1960s - until it began to attract spectators. The fishermen who originally performed it did so because of ritual and superstition. Now it is a carnival, attracting 10-12,000 a year - people from the town and surrounding area, emigres who have left the "auld toon" and returned, and an increasing number from further afield. The crowds this week included Scots like us but also lots of voices from England, The United States, France Germany and other parts of Europe. The tradition survives because it has become a compelling spectacle. there's an element od showbiz now that would not have been the case 100 years ago. But culture is a living, dynamic thing and to survive it must adapt. In the age of the i-pod, x-box and laptop, people crave cultural experiences that are real, not virtual. The like to come together with other human beings - this explains the growth in popularity of summer festivals. It made me wonder whether other Scottish communities could learn from Stonehaven and revive traditions that have been allowed to die out. My old book Scottish Festivals, by Sheila Livingstone documents fire ceremonies all over Scotland. A few still exist. As well as Stonehaven, there is Burning the Clavie in Burghead, Up-Helly-aa in Shetland and the Biggar Bonfire. But according to Livingstone, there were bonfires at Wick. In 1655 ministers in Moray complained of the idolatrous practice of fishermen circulating torches around their boats. At Comrie there was a torchlit procession with folk dressed in fantastic costume. The Lighting and carrying of a tar barrel, which continues in Burghead, was once an annual event in Campbeltown, where an old boat would also be filled with burning barrels and dragged on its keel. In Galloway, tar barrels were carried through Minigaff and Newton Stewart until the First World War. Participants in costume would cross the River Cree on horseback. In Dingwall a large crate was set alight and pulled to the Mercat Cross by a heavy horse - It was accompanied by a band using handmade instruments - drums, whistles and tambourines, to drive away the evil spirits.
We now have a Winter Festival in Scotland, From St Andrew's to Burns night. The cities have embraced the concept. Smaller towns have even more to gain. It saddens me to travel around Scotland's and see the decline of our once proud burghs. Vibrant cultural and commercial centres have become shells of their former selves. They are victims of out of town retailing, the drift of talent to the cities, the centralisation of services and businesses like banking - and the current recession of course. Yet they also suffer from a loss of confidence - in their desperation to appear cosmopolitan, they have lost faith in the unique locality that made them fascinating.
Stonehaven could teach similar sized towns a thing or two. The Fireball festival is a sign post for its other attractions - there were surfers in the bay on Ne-erday and the harbourside bars were packed. Quite a few will doubtless return in summer. I love the word glocalisation, the use of local culture and singularity to appeal to the wider world. Reviving local traditions, and inviting the rest of the world to watch, might relight a few home fires.
Morning after postscript...small tourist flings a dead fireball on Ne'erday. Not as easy as it looks on the night...