Every Hogmanay the streets of Stonehaven on the Aberdeenshire
coast are lit up with the magnificent fireballs procession, which
has ancient roots and is also a modern day attraction.
As midnight strikes to mark the start of the New Year the fireballs
procession begins at the Mercat Cross in Stonehaven as 60 fireball
swingers come down the High Street in a spectacular and unique display
to celebrate Hogmanay.
With dazzling skill and dexterity the fireball carriers swing
their blazing fireballs around their heads and bodies as they make
their way towards the harbour where the still burning fireballs
are tossed into the sea.
The fireballs are seen as a way of helping speed on the exit of
the Old Year and herald the beginning of the New Year as the procession
makes its way through the town led by a small pipe band.
Each fireball is a round cage of wire netting about two feet in
circumference which is packed with all sorts of flammable material
like oily rags, twigs and cones from trees and small pieces of coal
all of which is soaked in paraffin to ensure a fiery display.
Attached to the end of a five foot length of galvanised wire rope
with a handle the fireball is then swung around throughout the duration
of the procession which is no mean feat considering each fireball
weighs up to twenty pounds.
The fireballs procession has been celebrated in its present form
since the mid 19th century when it was primarily a fisherman’s
festival but over the years the number of fishermen working in the
town dwindled and so did the popularity of the fireballs.
At one point the fireballs festival was kept going by just a small
group of determined enthusiasts before its popularity boomed once
more and the fireball swingers started to be drawn from the wider
community and now include men and women from all walks of life.
Although it was celebrated as a fishermen’s festival from
the 19th century the origins of the fireballs festival stretch much
further back in time to Pagan times when important events were often
marked with fire festivals.
There are two theories relating to the origins of the Stonehaven
festival one that it coincides with the winter solstice and the
swinging fireballs relate to the sun and another that suggests the
fireballs were seen as purifying the world by consuming evil and
warding off witches and evil spirits.
Given the long and dark winters experienced in northern Scotland,
where daylight lasts for only around seven hours a day during midwinter,
it is no real surprise that a fire festival emerged in Stonehaven
where people may have used the fireballs as "suncharms"
to urge the passing of the winter.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the fireballs ceremony
takes place shortly after the winter solstice and the shortest day
of the year and indeed it is known that present day Christmas in
fact superseded an ancient heathen festival to celebrate the birth
of the sun on the shortest day of the year.
However the importance of fire in warding off evil spirits also
probably had a role to play in the fireballs festival over the centuries
as fishermen were fearful of evil spirits and witches and by banishing
the fireballs into the sea the spirits would also be banished.
No matter the precise origins of the procession the Stonehaven
fireballs festival as it is celebrated today is one of the most
spectacular sights to be found anywhere on Hogmanay.