Scotland’s Hottest Fire Festivals

Whilst fire festivals aren’t confined to Scotland, the Scots arguably do them best. Celtic pagans used to believe that their fire rituals could ward off evil spirits and protect them from misfortune in the year ahead. Nowadays, spirits are most welcome – as long as they appear in a bottle form! Barton Mathews reveals the best places for you to try the hottest festivals taking place throughout Scotland this winter.

1 The Fireballs in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire


© Stephen Murtagh

Hogmany is Scotland’s world-famous New Year’s party and they don’t come hotter than the festival thrown in Stonehaven. This heated event is known as The Fireballs – where revellers swing fireballs through the air in a pyromanical procession. Prior to the midnight toll, musicians, dancers and puppeteers entertain in the high street but as soon as the clock hits twelve, the night really begins.

After midnight, up to fifty locals enthusiastically start swinging their 7kg, highly combustible fireballs above their head! The unique sight resembles the effect when a sparkler is waved – but on a far larger and more spectacular scale. With the strong paraffin smell wafting through the chill air, the brave participants parade through the town before hurling their fiery luggage into the harbour underneath a firework finale.

Add to the experience and stay at the fantastic Shorehead Guesthouse from £92 per night. 

2 The ‘Up Helly Aa’ in Lerwick, Shetland Islands


© Mike Pennington

In the remote Scottish town of Lerwick, on the last Tuesday of January everything’s starting to feel more than a little Scandinavian. That’s because it’s time to celebrate Up-Helly-Aa (which translates to Up Holy Day) where locals celebrate the Nordic heritage of the Shetland Islands in a Viking themed festival of epic proportions.

This superb spectacle lasts just one day but takes several thousand people all year round to organise. Of particular note is the authentic hand-built wooden long ship, which acts as the show-stopping centrepiece to the festival. As night falls, the streets become lined with hundreds of guisers (torchbearers) who model the very best of Viking-chic fashion.

A booming rocket then explodes over the town centre which signals the cue to light the torches. In doing so, a 1km long train of flame is created that lights up the ink-black night and snakes along behind the boat. Another crack of a rocket signals the lead Viking (guiser Jarl) to blow long and loud on an animal-horn bugle, that feels like it would be heard in not-to-distant Norway. Torches are then tossed onto deck ignite the boat while the low, melodic Nordic requiem “The Norsemen’s Home” is chanted. A truly barmy but absolutely brilliant event.

Add to the experience and stay at Kveldsro House Hotel from £145 per night

3 The Burning of the Clavie in Burghead, Morayshire

 Mungo M.

© Mungo M.

This ancient festival in the cosy fishing village of Burghead is an amazing way to beat those January blues. Taking place on 11th January (New Year’s Eve by the Julian Calendar), participants nail two clavies (wooden half-barrels lined with tar and wood shavings) together with the same ceremonial nail each year. Traditionally a herring barrel was used but now, in true Scottish fashion, a whiskey barrel is the go-to container.

Ten of the strongest men in the village then parade the burning clavie clockwise through the streets, with no one wanting to commit a faux pas and drop the hazardous cargo and ushering in a year of bad luck. Being one of the Clavie Crew is a tremendous honour which is proudly passed down through the generations.

The procession eventually ends up at the site of an ancient roman fort at the top of Doorie Hill where it is mounted on a stone cairn. More fuel is added until all of the hilltop seems alight with fire and when the clavie finally drops, the New Year is said to have officially begun.

Add to the experience and stay at nearby Mansion House from £144 per night.

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