Hogmanay Fireballs Ceremony
Hogmanay in Stonehaven is a fabulous and well loved tradition. Crowds start to gather early to take in the atmosphere, meet old friends and new and enjoy the build up to midnight with street entertainers and the local pipe band going up and down the High Street amusing the crowds from 11pm. A very Scottish tradition, traced back to our pagan ancestors, the word Hogmanay may come from the Norse “Hogenat” or “Hogge-nott” which was the slaughter night when they killed off the herds for the new year’s feasting or perhaps it originates from “Hog-minne – “remember your sacrifices”.
As the clock strikes 12 midnight on Hogmanay taking us into the New Year the Stonehaven Fireballs ceremony proper begins in all it’s fiery glory and it is quite a spectacle to behold. About 40 local men and women raise their lit, pre-prepared fireballs and, led by the pipe band, start to swing them above and around their heads whilst walking in procession from the Mercat Cross, up the High Street to the canon and back again, over and over until the fireball starts to fade. The whirls of flame are said to ward off evil spirits and purify the town for the coming new year. The swingers then proceed to the slipway at the Harbour and one by one throw the faded fireballs into the water. Cheers of encouragement from the crowd lends to the buzz of the night and once all the fireballs have been extinguished in the cold waters of the harbour, a tremendous fireworks display on the top of the Bervie Braes rounds off the ceremony.
The origins of the ceremony are unknown for sure but police records of the fireballs go back to 1850 and newspaper articles in 1940 and 1941 refer to it having taken place for over 100 years. The first written record of the Hogmanay Fireballs is in 1908 with the Stonehaven Journal reporting “In the Old Town much rejoicing took place in the High Street, fire-balls and coloured lights making an effective display“. No explanation of the fireballs is given so the locals must have been familiar with it. Indeed, similar fireballs are mentioned much earlier in an article of 23rd March 1871 during the celebrations for Princess Louisa’s marriage being “made up of oakum soaked in naphtha or paraffin. These they tossed about in a manner rather alarming to the timorous portion and to the no small danger to some”.
In the 1800s the old town of Stonehaven was a fishing village and the ceremony may have been imported by fisher folk as they moved from one village to another. A similar ceremony was reported at Skateraw (Newtonhill) in the 1800s. With the ancient belief that fire purified, it is plausible that the fishing community wanted to ward off evil spirits that may affect their catch in the year ahead. Perhaps it has pagan origins, possibly that it evolving from a Ba’al fire ritual; or it may have Norse origins from the Jol (Yule) celebrations to honour the dead, to receive good luck in the new year, to celebrate the Sun and light as the days were getting longer after the winter solstice, or to honour Thor as he was the god who protected the world from the darkness.
One thing is for sure, whatever the origin of the practice it was born out of superstition as the fisherfolk needed to calm the fury of the sea to keep their men safe and enable a good catch over the year to maintain their livelihoods.
During the 1800s and early 1900s the custom was impromptu with the young fishing lads emerging from their lanes and closes with fireballs and swinging them between houses where they would first foot, leaving the fireball outside the door until they were ready to move on to the next familiar home and it was very much contained within the domain of the Auld Toon folk.
In modern times, the ceremony has become more formal, especially with the size of the spectacle as it is now, in part due to television broadcasts on at least 4 occasions. In 1991 a man was hit by a fireball which led to the police wanting to move the ceremony to the Old Pier, a suggestion that was shot down by the experienced fireball swingers who put the responsibility of the crowd safety on the crowd themselves. Compromise was needed so in 1992, for the first time, only pre-registered swingers with official badges were permitted to take part, 15 volunteer stewards were present and barriers used. Later in the 1990s a limit of 45 swingers was added to the rules. And so we have the fireballs procession we see today.
We hope to see you there as we welcome in 2020!
For full details of this year’s event see our What’s On guide HERE
Fireballs Fun Facts:
- The largest number of swingers recorded was 62 in 1988, the least was 2 or 3 in 1949
- The fireballs have never been cancelled but during the 2 world wars in 1917, 1918, 1939 to 1944 the ceremony was banned because of black out regulations
- Although a piper was reported before, it was in 1977 that the full pipe band got involved in the ceremony
- An 8 point Code of Practice for fireball swingers was brought in for the 1989 ceremony
- The first 6 member committee – the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers – was established in 1992 to liaise with the police and local authorities
- Despite threats to the ceremony during the 1990s with safety, bureaucracy and finance issues, the local stalwarts have determinedly made sure this unique Stonehaven tradition keeps running. Stunning!
- The Swingers registered as a charity in Dec 1996 so they could fundraise and apply for grants with the first voluntary collections made at the 1997 ceremony to help raise funds to finance all the new costs associated with stewarding, insurance and barriers that had previously been covered by the council.
- The numbers allowed into the High Street and Harbour area are strictly limited so be sure to turn up in plenty of time or you may not get in!