02 January 2011

New Years Eve - Stonehaven Fireballs

Stonehaven, in addition to being the home of the pneumatic tyre and the deep fried mars bar, is also the location of a World famous (in the NE of Scotland) fireball festival on New Years Eve. So this year, in a bid to do something a bit different, we headed there to check it out. It seemed like a interesting option given that Katharine can't drink at the moment and we will be living there soon.

The Fireball Festival involves about 40 folk from the town walking through the streets at midnight swinging large (3-15 kg) flaming balls around their heads, narrowly missing a drunk and appreciative crowd who line the main street. The procession ends up at the harbour where they then throw the balls into the sea.

The balls are constructed of wire mesh and filled with a secret mix of flammable material. The handle is made of wire, often with a padded grip. The size and shape of the balls are variable and depends on the preference and strength of the owner. There are prizes for biggest, brightest etc . The people doing it are all locals and there was an interesting mix of regular folk and hippies, reflecting the towns artisan population. And it isn't just the local men, who one might expect to be associated with such an activity there was a lot of ladies and the age range, for men and women must have been from 25 - 70.

So we headed to Stonehaven early evening. We had managed to book a restaurant on the harbour, but could only get the early sitting. The meal was good and we had a couple of drinks before heading out for a wander around. It was still fairly early, but when only one of you is drinking sitting in a pub isn't a whole lot of fun so we picked a good spot by the harbour and waited.

About 11.30 some drummers appeared, a bunch of school kids led by a Freddie Kruger look alike. They were actually very entertaining, significantly more so than the neo-nazi acne monsters that comprise Bergens Buekorps. A Scottish marching band came past about 11.45 and then the "swingers" started to assemble. By this time the crowds at the edge of the streets were 5 or 6 deep and we were happy to have our prime position.

At midnight the various fireballs were lit and the Swingers started to wander around, up and down the streets. There was no structure or order, they pretty much all did there own thing but is was still very impressive. The act of swinging the ball feeds the fire with oxygen and they are soon burning pretty brightly and throwing off a fair bit of heat.

A policeman watches as the fireballs are lit.
The swingers disappeared off up the streets and then reappeared about 10 minutes later, spread out and entertaining the crowd. Some of them looked decidedly tired as they arrived at the harbour one by one to throw the fire into the water. Most just dropped it in but a few manged to get a good swing send it flying, when this happened the crowd cheered appreciatively.

Yes it really is that mad

The whole thing was wrapped up at about 12.30 and a very impressive firework display was fired off from the hills across the harbour. All very pretty.

The origin of the festival is lost in the mists of time but the website for the fireball association suggests it stems from pagan fire related purification rites! Which seems possible, but it could also just stem from a load of drunk blokes dicking about with fire, which seems just as likely to me. What ever the origins it was fun to watch and a great atmosphere. It will be interesting to see how long it can survive in a world obsessed with HSE and risk.

A good effort on the final hoof into the harbour

More pics on my flickr site

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