Custom survived: Burning the Clavie

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Burghead is a remote place – both geographically and culturally – never is that more evident than on a cold and blustery evening in the bleak months of January. Never more obvious on a night which is unique to this small seaside town – the night of Burning the Clavie.

Followers of this blog will notice that accounts have yet not gone across the borders: but as this is about British calendar customs I feel it was about time! Timing of course is the key when it comes to Burning of the Clavie; getting the right timing particularly. Customs always undertaken on a set date can be problematic if you don’t live near and when like me, you are planning a 1000 mile round trip – the correct date is essential! The date quoted is the 11th of January – New Year’s Eve Old Style – but this meant that this year the burning fell on a Sunday. A search of the web said that the custom was always on the 11th, but I was more wary. Indeed 90% of entries said so except the excellent Calendar Customs and Wikipedia. So I decided to do some research, a phone call to nearby Elgin Tourist information by both myself and Calendar custom author Averil Shepherd threw up two different answers – yes and no! Finally I rang the Bothy, which was in Burghead – the confirmed it would be the Saturday – therefore the 10th….cannot help think there would be disappointed visitors on the Sunday night.

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Burning desire

I arrived early the town, the supposed 100 mile an hour winds and heavy snow reported to be battering Scotland in the news were not terribly apparent. It was windy yes, but it was also sunny! I have had a desire to visit the town for a number of years primarily for the Clavie but also to visit the unique Burghead well (more of which can be read on my sister blog)

Wandering around the town I bumped into a man carrying wood out of his workshop, seeing my camera he said ‘ we’ll be building the clavier from two, you’re welcome to come along and film if you like.’ Little did I know, this was the Clavie King – Dan Ralph the man charged with organising the building of the Clavie and whose family has had a very long association with the tradition.  This was a very welcome and unexpected piece of serendipity as the making of the Clavie is as significant a part of the custom as the burning.

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I turned up at the allotted time and found a crowded black smith’s shed. Inside were all the members of the Clavie Crew, a group ranging all ages and traditionally restricted to the same families over the generations. The venture started with the sawing of an old barrel into pieces. How little the production had changed as the account resembles that given by Chambers (1869):

A common fir prop, some four feet in length, called the “spoke,” being then procured, a hole is bored through the tub-like machine, that, as we have already said, is to form the basis of the unique structure, and a long nail, made for the purpose, and furnished gratuitously by the village black-smith, unites the two. Curiously enough, no hammer is allowed to drive this nail, which is “sent home” by a smooth stone. The herring-cask is next demolished, and the staves are soon under-going a diminution at both extremities, in order to fit them for their proper position. They are nailed, at intervals of about two inches all round, to the lower edge of the Clavie-barrel, while the other ends are firmly fastened to the spoke, an aperture being left sufficiently large to admit the head of a man.”

The smooth stone of Chambers has indeed survived the 100 years or more since his account and continues to provide it role.  The oldest member was responsible for fusing the barrel to its spike and soon everyone was hammering in the staves through which the carrier placed his head. One of the most charming aspects of the custom being the contributions by all ages of the Clavie Crew; the youngest only a few years old being urged to have ‘a shot’ and indeed one boy was certainly a better hammering than the adults. I was particularly amused when having difficulty securing a nail into the barrel’s metal hoop one of the Clavie crew was ready to use an electric drill..a move quickly prevented with a  face of panic and dismay by the Clavie King and a ‘no, no, no.’ There certainly was a jolly party atmosphere to making the structure, which itself of course was rather perfunctory.

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Fired up

A few hours later the quiet streets of the town were full of people, the pubs bustling and the Bothy open late. Chambers (1869) aptly again notes:

‘By this time the shades of evening have begun to descend, and soon the subdued murmur of the crowd breaks forth into one loud, prolonged cheer, as the youth who was despatched for the fiery peat (for custom says no sulphurous lucifer, no patent congreve dare approach ‘within the sacred precincts of the Clavie) arrives with his glowing charge. The master-builder relieving him of his precious trust, places it within the opening already noticed, where, revived by a hot blast from his powerful lungs, it ignites the surrounding wood and tar, which quickly bursts into a flame….then Clavie-bearer number one, popping his head between the staves, is away with his flaming burden.”

The night begins with the Clavie propped against the wall with a crowd surrounding it waiting in anticipation for the origin of the peat. Traditionally a piece of lit peat taken from the hearth of the oldest house is used. With cries of ‘make way for the peat’ It duly arrived and soon the flame was flickering. The crew added extra pieces of wood to the barrel. Whilst this was going on a member of the crew was getting the crowd excited. Several round of ‘hip hip hooray’ could be heard. Soon the flame had become quite substantial and the Clavie held upon one of the crew’s shoulders was off.

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Ashes to ashes

The Burghead Clavie Burning appears to be the only survival of perhaps a wider spread custom. Fire and New Year is intrinsically linked with a number of locations such as Stonehaven and other boarder locations having fiery celebrations. Despite the earlier origin suggested it appears that the earliest reference was when it was being banned! On 20 January 1689, the church admonished the locals for:

“having made a burning clavie, paying it superstitious worship, and blessing the boats after the old heathen custom”

In 1665 ministers of Duffus district censured fishermen who ‘superstitiously carried fir torches about their boats’ on New Year’s Eve. This clearly did not have the impact it required for an act against clavies was imposed by a 1714 Kirk Session at Inveravon in Banffshire:

“superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice”.

MacKinlay in Scottish Lochs and Springs (1893) notes:

“The antiquity of the custom may be inferred from the fact, that two hundred years ago it was called old. At that time lights were carried round the boats in the harbour, and certain other ceremonies were performed, all pointing to a pagan origin. Formerly the custom was in vogue, not only at Burghead, but at most of the fishing villages along the Morayshire coast. The object in every case was the same, viz., the blessing of the boats to ensure a good fishing season.”

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Chambers (1869) notes:

“Formerly, the Clavie was carried in triumph round every vessel in the harbour, and a handful of grain thrown into each, in order to insure success for the coming year; but as this part of the ceremony came to be tedious, it was dropped, and the procession confined to the boundaries of the town.”

Burning question

What is the origin of the name? That has been the great unanswered question. Some believe it comes from Gaelic cliabh for a basket, others clavus a Latin term for huge nail refering to the nail which attached the basket to its post. This Latin origin has been used as a suggestion for its pre-Christian origin but I feel that itself is not evidence. Firstly, that the Romans never got as far and secondly Latin was of course a language used by the Norman court and ecclesiastical communities, although why that would be chosen is unclear unless the church at first sanctioned it…More problematic is the fact that Burghead is not an ancient town – much of it established early 19th century – but clearly translated from elsewhere probably by the fishing communities as suggested above. Furthermore there are some archaic touches since at least the eighteenth century only a stone hammer is used based on a Highland belief that metal should not be used in lighting a sacred fire. Chambers (1869) again gives a lengthy discussion of its possible origin refering to Doorie Hill where the Clavie finishes its journey:

As well might these wild speculators have remarked that Doorie, which may be spelled Durie, sprang from durus, cruel, on account of the bloody ceremony celebrated on its summit. Another opinion has been boldly advanced by one party, to the effect that the Clavie is Scandinavian in origin, being introduced by the Norwegian Vikings, during the short time they held the promontory in the beginning of the eleventh century….Unfortunately, all external evidence being lost, we are compelled to rely entirely on the internal, which we have little hesitation, however, in saying points in an unmistakable manner down through the long vistas of our national history to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. It is well known that the elements of fire were often present in Druidical orgies and customs (as witness their cran-tara); while it is universally admitted that the bonfires of May-day and Mid-summer eve, still kept up in different parts of the country, are vestiges of these rites. And why should not the Clavie be so too, seeing that it bears throughout the stamp of a like parentage? The carrying home of the embers, as a protection from the ills of life, as well as other parts of the ceremony, finds a counterpart in the customs of the Druids; and though the time of observance be somewhat different, yet may not the same causes (now unknown ones) that have so greatly modified the Clavie have likewise operated in altering the date, which, after all, occurs at the most solemn part of the Druidical year?”

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No smoke without fire.

Keeping up with the Clavie was a challenge, the crew with its carrier moved at rapid speed…partly due to the belief it was bad luck to drop it. Bad luck and extremely dangerous I would add. As it parade through the crowds, heat bellowing out of it and sparks flying through the crowd. At certain points it did stop however. Here long pieces of charred wood held in the main basket were carefully removed and handed to individuals. These individuals either ran local properties, mainly pubs or were family members of the Clavie Crew. These pieces are thought to be lucky and are kept all year as good luck charms, extra luck being when the Clavie was brought to the doorway.. Reassuringly, little has changed since Chambers (1869) account below:

“As fast as his heavy load will permit him, the bearer hurries along the well-known route, followed by the shouting Burgheadians, the boiling tar meanwhile trickling down in dark sluggish streams all over his back. Nor is the danger of scalding the only one he who essays to carry the Clavie has to confront, since the least stumble is sufficient to destroy his equilibrium. Indeed, this untoward event, at one time looked on as a dire calamity, foretelling disaster to the place, and certain death to the bearer in the course of next year, not unfrequently occurs. Having reached the junction of two streets, the carrier of the Clavie is relieved; and while the change is being effected, firebrands plucked from the barrel are thrown among the crowd, who eagerly scramble for the tarry treasure, the possession of which was of old deemed a sure safeguard against all unlucky contingencies.”

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Chisholm (1911) in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

“a lighted piece with which to kindle the New Year’s fire on their cottage hearth. The charcoal of the clavie is collected and is put in pieces up the cottage chimneys, to keep spirits and witches from coming down.”

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After about an hour or so, the Clavie reaches an odd hill, called Doorie Hill, on the edge of the town, which was probably part of the Pictish fort. As I was following closely the Clavie at this point I was fortunate to get close to it being carried up and following watched as they mounted it to a small stone altar:

“Being now firmly seated on its throne, fresh fuel is heaped on the Clavie, while, to make the fire burn the brighter, a barrel with the ends knocked out is placed on the top. Cheer after cheer rises from the crowd below, as the efforts made to increase the blaze are crowned with success.”

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Again very little has changed. Despite the ferocious winds which had developed the Clavie Crew took great delight in dousing the Clavie with bottle after bottle of petrol. The Clavie would belch out a great orange flame in anger and the crowd would indeed cheer. I was told that because of the wind, they were being cautious. As I looked at the ground a few feet away engulfed in flame..and me a few paces from the petrol supply, I thought what was it like on a quiet night.

After about 40 minutes of feeding this flame, the Clavie King with his distinctive flame proof fisherman’s like hat climbed it to break bits off to distribute amongst the crowd. Upon seeing me I was happy to say I was given a piece which I quickly wrapped in my damp cloth, dampened in the cold waters of the Burghead well earlier..I thought it appropriate..However, it wasn’t damp enough and I soon noticed it was smouldering and glowing, and it was hot! I dropped it sadly it broke a little. Would that now provide bad luck?

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Soon after this the Clavie creaked and fell to the ground, much of its body broken apart and distributed or else turn to ashes. As it fell the assembled crowd turned to each other and wished ‘happy new year’ for this as I stress was really the start of their year.

This new year atmosphere continued for much of the night in the pubs and the Bothy, as the thousands who assembled to see the Clavie found respite from the cold and snow in their celebrations. They’d be some sore heads the next day. Good job it would be Sunday.

As I left Burghead on my homeward journey I realised how privileged I had been to witness this unique custom in this remote part of Britain..and my Clavie piece? It already managed to save me money…I turned up to go around Elgin Catherdral and was let in for free!!

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