At present the Fireball Ceremony has approximately 45 swingers, is marshalled by around 35 to 40 volunteers, has First Aiders/Responders and Police (with radio communication) in attendance, an Ambulance on standby, an Event Plan (after many many meetings), safety barriers, fire extinguishers, an emergency First Aid Post, a disabled viewing area, a corporate viewing area, webcam coverage (usually), digital clocks, fireworks at the end after we throw the Fireballs in the harbour and 8 to 12,000 spectators. It wasn’t like this before – it was an unusual but simple local ceremony – watched by a few local folk.
It is from the local paper (The Stonehaven Journal) that we have the earliest documented proof of the existence of the Fireballs -1908. However the report seems to infer that the Fireball Ceremony was already an established custom as it speaks of “In the Old Town much rejoicing took place in High Street, fireballs and coloured lights making an effective display”. The report does not explain what the fireballs are—so the reader must already know all about them. Further research through the old copies of the Stonehaven Journal has so far not produced any earlier references.
There is no mention of fireballs in 1909, only ’The New Year was brought in very quietly in Stonehaven, the thaw making walking uncomfortable. The principal attraction was the exhibition held under the auspices of the Good Templars, which was largely patronised’.
In 1910 the Stonehaven Journal of 6th January mentions them again. It says ‘The New Year was ushered in under ideal conditions as regards weather, but fewer people were out of doors at that time than has been noticeable in recent years, and it is evident that the old custom of first-footing is dying out. The Market Square was at one time the rendezvous of the sightseers, but now it seems as if the Old Town was again asserting its ancient position. For some time before the New Year came in the High Street presented a busy scene through the exploits of youths bearing fireballs. These balls are made of shavings steeped in paraffin, wrapped in a piece of sacking, and tied with netting wire. A light being applied, they blaze very brightly, the young men adding to the effect by swinging them round their heads. Some horseplay takes place through others trying to take the fireballs from their owners. Till nearly one o’clock on New Year’s morning the illumination was kept up, after which the dustman must have had a stiff mornings work’.
In 1911 the paper again covers the event well, telling of spectators having to dodge out of the way of the flying sparks as well as the swinging balls of fire. Struggles for possession of the blazing balls were frequent, it says, among the lads.
In 1912 and 13 there were no fireballs mentioned in the Stonehaven Journal but the Mearns Leader had started up by January 1913 and it carried a mention of the ceremony.
In 1914 whilst mentioning the deteriorating situation in Europe both papers carried stories again with the ‘Leader’ mentioning that “the ‘sparks’ of the Old Town displayed their own singular way of heralding the New Year. Fully a dozen of these young men walked, trotted, or staggered along the middle of the street each swinging, by means of a rope, a bundle of straw. If anyone was struck by a ball of fire, it was the victim’s “own lookout”, for those who swung the fireballs seemed to have a reckless disregard for themselves as well as for bystanders or passers-by.”
By January 1915 war in Europe was a reality and the mood for festivities was dampened somewhat. The Mearns Leader reported that “The fact that so many of the younger members of the community are at present serving with the colours had a rather depressing effect on the customary Hogmanay celebrations.”
In 1916 spirits seemed to have rallied a bit as the Stonehaven Journal reported that “the time-honoured custom of “swinging the fire-ball” was well to the fore, and was indulged by the young lads to a greater extent than ever”.
Hogmanay 1917 presented a different picture. The Stonehaven Journal tells us “This year the ceremony was shorn of much of its picturesqueness. The blazing fireballs, which used to be the most conspicuous element of the scene, were banned under the Lighting Restrictions Orders, and the Police put a stop to an attempt on the part of one or two lads to get a fireball going. There was not any bell ringing, and, though a goodly number of people were about, the bringing in of the New Year was a very much quieter affair than usual”. 1918 was much the same.
1919 seems to have been an odd affair as far as Hogmanay was concerned as the Mearns Leader only reports - “Apart from the demonstrations of rejoicing in the Old Town by soldiers and sailors parading the streets to strains of mouth organs, melodians, etc., and the swinging of fireballs, no place attracted the crowds more than the Queen’s Cinema. Three houses were run on Tuesday and at every performance the house was packed.” Given that the Great War had just ended and along with it various and numerous restrictions, it seems strange that the celebrations were so muted.
Hogmanay 1920 was a much better festival with snow-covered streets and a cold nip in the air. The number of swingers would seem to have been up on the previous year, as was the number of spectators. 1921 followed a similar pattern
“Innovations at Stonehaven” was the headline in the Mearns Leader of Friday January 6th 1922 reporting on the New Year celebrations, and innovations was what they were! It was a different Hogmanay to the usual style. The report reads – “There were high jinks in the County Town on Hogmanay night commencing with a torchlight procession and fireworks display organised by the Hockey and Academicals Clubs. Shortly after 10 p.m. the processionists mostly in fancy attire assembled at Mackie Academy and with torches burning brightly they proceeded to make a tour of the town. The costumes were weird and wonderful and by one of the peculiarities of human nature most of the ladies were garbed as men and most of the men wore the frocks and skirts of their lady friends.” It continues – “A great number of people lined the route from whom the ‘torchees’ demanded toll in the way of a subscription for the War Memorial Fund. When the torches were all but extinguished, the Market Square was reached and there a display of fireworks was given consisting of mainly rockets, coloured flares and shooting stars. On the stroke of midnight the display ceased and the High Street then became the centre of attraction, where the custom of fire ball swinging was indulged in by a great many men and youths. To the observer whose first view of this custom it was, the scene was weird in the extreme. Great balls of fire being swung round and round the head for the whole length of the street by strong brawny men.” The article finishes – “ An hour afterwards all was quiet, except for the occasional bursts of melody from revellers wending their way homewards.”
Further on in that particular issue of the paper a stronger comment on the Fireball ceremony is made, – “While it is probably jealously guarded by the people of the old town, the custom is a very dangerous one, as several burning accidents testified. The men who take part would be well advised to restrain the element of danger, as far as lies in their power, if they wish to be allowed to continue. The action of certain swingers who deliberately swung the flaming balls into dense crowds, can only be condemned as a piece of pure hooliganism which should be stamped out by the swingers themselves.”
Hogmanay 1923 would seem to have been a ‘quiet time’. The paper reports – “The incoming of the New Year was on the whole very quiet and altogether free from the sordid sights (?) that have oft spoiled a full appreciation of the spirit of the times. The fireball swinging proved a great attraction in the old town and again provided a most interesting spectacle.” It would seem that the roots of the ceremony were cloudy even then as the article continues – “We have been inundated by requests to give the origin of this custom but so far we have not succeeded in finding this out. Probably some reader may be able to explain the origin.” We still wait for that reply!
In 1924 the Fireballs went ahead as usual but the paper was more interested in the opening of the refurbished Town Hall after an eight-month refurbishment.
1925 and ’26 appear to have been fairly average except for the detail that ‘The fireballs were swung for an hour continuously.’ In 1925 a ‘Fancy Fair’ was started in the Town Hall which became a very popular regular feature of New Years day for a number of years.
In the ‘Leader of January 7th 1927, the editor comments on the safety aspect as some of the swingers would seem to have been less than considerate to the crowds on the pavements.
There may have been a bit of heated debate after that article as in the first issue of ‘The Leader’ in 1928 there was no mention of the fireballs at all! There were however a lot of column inches devoted to ‘Fire at New Year’ but it was a fire in the old Lifeboat shed that started at 5pm and destroyed the building in a huge blaze. 200 Gallons of assorted fuel oils went up in an hour providing a great draw to the local population on the first day of the New Year. Flames rose 50 feet in the air and the tar on boats some 20 yards away ran down the seams. The fire was still burning at 3am the following morning, all in all not quite the start to the year that Messers. P. & J. Johnstone, fish salesmen, owners of the yard were hoping for!
1929 and ’30 get just a passing reference in the reports, but a letter titled ‘The “glad hand” at the fireballs’ from a Mr. George D. Banks in the ‘Leader of 10th January 1930 gives a good account of the event:-
““Ye maunna miss the fireballs, A’body gings tae see them” I recalled my landlady’s words as I mingled with the waiting crowd in the old High Street. Everybody evidently was there. It was Sauchiehall Street on a four-foot pavement, but, with one big difference. Here, the spirit of friendship prevailed. A more jovial throng than this one would be hard put to find, even if the exploding fireworks failed to upset its equanimity. Everyone was happy; each one knew the other, except my self. I, a stranger in a strange town, separated from home by business, knew no one and was known to none.
As the clock pointed to the hour, the bell pealed out and a murmur rippled up the street, “A Happy New Year” echoed from mouth to mouth. I felt the truth of the saying that a man can be loneliest in a crowd.
An old fisherman beside me held out his hand, ‘I dinna ken ye bit I wish ye a Happy New Year ‘. I grabbed his hand heartily. I was struck with the singularity of the situation. Here was I passing the first minutes of the New Year in an old street with old houses, in the company of an old man.
Just then the houses near The Cross were lit up with a ruddy glare. The sight was wonderful – what might have been an army of demons issuing from their fiery den. First one swaying figure, whirling a great fire-ball, appeared, silhouetted against the glare, then another, and another advanced up the street, till the scene lost its reality. It became more like a nightmare, the creation of a fanciful mind.
The thick clouds of smoke and the myriad of sparks, the masses of blazing debris on the roadway and the figures appearing and disappearing in what seamed a solid mass of fire, were like beings in torment. It was like a scene from Dante’s’ Inferno.
Recovering from my first astonishment at the scene, I turned to greet the old fisherman, but, like the proverbial good fairy, he had disappeared. I was determined to follow this excellent example, and, approaching a group nearby, I repeated the fisherman’s formula. They responded with the right spirit, as did everyone I spoke to. I changed my opinion of the people of Stonehaven. Hitherto I had thought them stiff and formal. Now I will always think of them as cheery good-natured people.
At last when the last fireball had burnt itself out, and the last swinger had staggered away into the darkness, the old gables began to lose their glamour and to sink into their everyday drabness. I joined the dispersing crowd, they to their first footing and I – to bed.”
1931 had ‘more fireballs than recent years, but there was not such a dense crowd of onlookers’. While in 1932 it was the ‘first fittin’ that seemed to be popular, with ‘Many first fitters still about at four and five in the morning.’
The weather played a poor hand in the dying hours of ’32, with a strong southeast wind driving a heavy rain. Doubts as to whether the ceremony would take place rose and the absence of any spectators was also ominous. However the rain eased a little and as the bell rang the crowds arrived as did the largest number of swingers that had been seen for quite some time. Some of the participants were so determined to keep the event going for as long as possible that they had two and even three Fireballs ready to use one after the other. The high wind added to the effect by whipping the flames from the cages and singeing a few fur collars! The rain returned to drench the last of the swingers before their fireballs were spent.
In contrast 1934 was welcomed in with calm weather and a full moon popping in and out of a cloudy sky. The good weather ensured a large turnout. The report in the paper runs:- ‘The privilege of seeing the first Fireball swung was enjoyed, not by the crowd in High Street itself, but by scattered groups of people on the Shorehead where a boy had his fiery brand alight a few minutes before the stroke of twelve. The S.S. Locksley was just arriving from one of her coastal trips, and as she passed between the piers, a blast from her siren provided an accompaniment to the chime of the old steeple clock heralding the passing of 1933.’
The 1935 ceremony saw two innovations – one was the fairer sex (2) taking part for the first time – (from the reports in the paper) and the other was a picture that was taken of the event for the first time. It was published in the second edition of the year.
Driving rain again threatened to mar the start of 1936, however it cleared for midnight, but fewer fireballs were seen that year.
In 1937 things went well but a suggestion was made by the paper that the ceremony might be helped along if a prize was awarded for the best fireball. The idea possibly fell at the first fence as no mention is made a year later in 1938. Everything seems normal, with the shopkeepers reporting a bumper run up to New Year.
1939 was welcomed in with great enthusiasm and more swingers and larger crowds than for some years.
That however was the last ‘swinging’ for six years……
In 1946 the tradition returned to its old ways. The number of swingers is not mentioned but no doubt the spectators were glad to see a return to some sort of normality
1947 a good, clear, frosty evening was the setting for the ‘lusty swingers’.
’48 would seem to have had a poor turnout as in the report of the ’49 ceremony the ‘Leader comments that the turnout was ‘well up on the previous year’ and again in 1950 more swingers have swelled the procession to ‘fully two dozen’, so the numbers must have been very low.
In 1951 the ceremony is really heating up with two thousand spectators and ‘about thirty swingers’ reported as taking part. However ’52 is a poorer show with numbers on both sides down. Jock Shepherd is the first swinger ever mentioned in any of the newspaper reports. The ‘Leader of 4th January 1952 says, ‘Mr. ‘Jock’ Shepherd, the main organiser of the event for the past few years, was involved in an amusing incident at the ceremony. Jock, with the largest fireball, (as usual), accidentally knocked his cap off his head while swinging, but recovered it by deftly flicking it up with his free hand while still swinging the fireball – certainly no easy task!’
1953 was an even poorer year in a lot of ways. Numbers were well down with only 13 ‘lads’ turning out to swing (43 being reported as normal previously). The weather was miserable with icy showers drenching everyone at regular intervals. The spectator turnout was very low, and to cap it all the swingers started off far too early, being some way down the High Street when the bells rang.
The downward slide continued in ’54 as ‘only about eight or ten persons were seen to have set out down the High Street in time honoured fashion.’
1955 saw a change. The Town Council became involved in an attempt to keep the ceremony alive, and it worked! ‘As midnight struck Councillor J. Stewart, who was accompanied by Councillor McArthur gave the ceremony an ‘official’ start by swinging the first ball for a few yards before handing it back to its owner.’ Twenty swingers were there trying for some ‘best fireball’ prizes gifted by townsfolk. Overall the night was seen as the best for some years.
The ‘Leader hardly reports the 1956 event at all.
Hogmanay 1957 was a much better one. The storm that had been blowing quietened and, around five hundred folk from far and near came to see the fiery festival. ‘In past years a dozen fireballs have been considered a good display but on this occasion there were nearer twenty. The ‘Parade’ was led by a couple of ladies. Forty three year old Mrs. Mary Fraser and Mrs. Helen Strachen (44). During the ceremony Mr. John Mackie paused for a moment in his swinging and he was hit accidentally on the face by the following fireball. He received superficial burns to his face and was treated by two doctors who happened to be here on holiday.’
The 1958 event seemed to go well though in 1959 the spectator turnout ‘seemed rather under the standard of the previous year’, with just a few hundred turning out in perfect weather conditions to see the biggest turnout of swingers for some time. For the first time thirty-five foreign students, on a course run by the British Council, watched the ceremony after attending a Civic Reception given by the Town Council. (One of the students got ‘lost’ whilst First Footing, missed his bus back and had to be driven back into Aberdeen the next morning!) Scottish T.V. recorded and filmed the event (this is the earliest record that we have of it being filmed).
Students’ (26) again watched in ’60 along with only 500 spectators as heavy rain dampened the night. The ‘Leader mentions Mrs. Mary Fraser and Mrs. Helen Strachen as taking part in their ninth appearance. The poor turnout was just as well as only 12 swingers bothered to make it.
In ’61 a fine night pulled out a big crowd but only 11 swingers. Three generations plus an in-law of the Leiper family played their part well however. Grandfather Norman (62), his son William (38) and his son Norman (12) along with their in-law John Masson all enjoyed themselves. 25 overseas students were also there.
In ’62 there were 22 swingers but fewer watching, as the weather was poor. 26 overseas students were there.
1963 saw 30 students attending.
In ’64 the ‘Leader passes doubt on the future of the ceremony as that years procession was ‘a bit ragged’ and feared it’s eventual demise due to apathy (it only took us 38 years to put it on a firmer footing!). The comment produced a letter of support from a Mr. Kenneth Alexander who also put forward other ideas he felt would help.
In ’65 there were 15 swingers and 41 students came.
The ’66 event had a 73 year old leader in Miss Mary Smart, who was swinging for the first time as well. For her effort she got ‘a bottle of very old whisky donated by a local distillery’ – this was not the normal custom (sadly). Mr William Dickson of Bath Street drove back from Rome to swing. 20 swingers took part. Students attended again.
In 1967 controversy broke out when the procession set off ‘at least 10 minutes early’, this prevented the usual pre-event Provosts speech. Some local folk said it was a fair trade off!
19 year old Alex Cormack had an eventful Hogmanay when stray sparks exploded a box of matches in his pocket. Police Sergeant W. Smith saw what happened and tore off Alex’s jacket and stamped out the flames.
Only 10 fireballs were swung and fireball stalwart Jock Shepherd made 5 of them. That sounds very generous of Jock - he was a very helpful man who tried to encourage the youth of the town to take part in the ceremony that he loved, but he also liked to have the ‘biggest ‘ball of the night’ and making 5 of them helped ensure that.
‘One of the best shows since the War’ was the verdict on the 22 swingers who turned out in 1968. Provost John H. Stewart lit the first fireball (note - no speach!) and Raymond Whyte piped them off. There was Archie Middleton in his kilt as usual, Jock Sheperd with his cap and huge ‘ball, Doreen Main, Valerie Carr and youngest of the group was George Cormack (14).
In 1969 the only mention in the ‘Leader is a letter from ex-local man Hamish Cardno who was back for a family holiday. He felt, as others did, that slightly more effort in the organising of the ceremony would derive greater benefits.
1970 was given front-page coverage with 34 swingers taking part. This was the best ever-recorded turnout and wouldn’t be beaten for ten years. Some swingers were still going well up to an hour later!
Later on in December 1970 it was reported that there would be no distribution of prizes after the coming ceremony. It was known that some people had received prizes that they were not entitled to. The awarding of prizes started when the swinger’s numbers were low. Prizes were given for the longest burning fireball, best swinger etc. but it was generally felt that the swingers beforehand decided the winner of the prize (whisky).
In ’71 thirty students from twenty-two different countries came and watched Mrs. Ann Lees lead off the procession of 20 swingers.
Huge crowds are reported turning out to watch 20 swingers in both ’72 and ’73.
There is no report of the ceremony in ‘74
Three thousand people were estimated by the ‘Leader to have turned out to watch the 24 swingers in ’75.
‘Fireballs peter out too quickly’ said the ‘Leader in 1976. Ten minutes was the estimate for the duration of the ’76 event - half the usual time. 25 took part.
In 1977 there is no report but a letter from Mr. Martin Sim was published saying, as had other in previous years, that a little more organising would help so much. This would have seem to hit a nerve as in December ’77 an notice appeared in the paper stating that a meeting would take place to look into the setting up of a Guild of Fireball Swingers. Two weeks later another notice appeared giving details of a ‘make your own fireball’ night. The result at the ’78 event was a good turnout of 29 swingers and several thousands of spectators. This would seem to start off a run of good turnouts of both swingers and spectators, which continues through to this year.
The seventy-nine ceremony went well with 30+ swingers and quite a few of those were ‘first-timers’. There were worrying incidents however, which the ‘Leader highlighted. Spectators were seen to be dangerously close to swingers, some even being singed and splashed on. Some swingers left their still burning ‘balls at the kerb which were picked up by less than sober folk who were then a danger to everybody. Again a little more control was asked for.
In 1980 there were a record number of swingers with 40 taking part.
Nineteen eighty one was welcomed in with biting cold wind and heavy snow showers. Only 22 swingers took part. Spectators crowding in on the swingers and reducing their round trip route were a problem.
Thirty swingers and three to four thousand spectators saw in 1982 - not a huge number.
But! – The year of Nineteen Eighty Two would be unique! So far it is the only year to have had TWO Fireball Ceremonies! The second ceremony took place on the 10th of September in response to a request from Channel 4’s programme makers. They were organising a programme about festive season rituals in Great Britain which they planned to go out during the Festive Season; so, it had all to be recorded well in advance to allow for editing. Initially there was uncertainty that enough swingers would turnout or that the ‘right atmosphere’ would be missing. There were (and still are) those who felt that it was wrong to hold a Fireball Ceremony at any other time or in any other place. However with lots of coverage in the press and talk in the town, on the night thousands turned out at 8pm to watch the 2nd Fireball Ceremony of ’82. It was a huge and surprising success. The warmer weather, earlier start (9pm to allow the sky to darken) and being mid autumn meant that different people came to see it. A shortened route was used to allow the cameramen to get maximum use of those swingers who were there. The only real give-aways were the wrong time on the clock and the numerous T-shirts and summer clothes in evidence. The programme put over the subject very well and the whole town benefited from the exposure.
In 1983 there were 38 taking part and 4,000 watched. In ‘84 the numbers dropped to 30 but picked up to 40 in ’85. The yo-yoing of swinger numbers continued in the 80’s with ’86 having only 32 but ’87 adding 25 more to total 57. This amazing record was followed by an even better if unbelievable total in ’88 of 62. This is so far the highest recorded number to have swung at Hogmanay. It was later reported that the ‘near shambles’ (some setting off too early, some not keeping pace with those in front, some stopping for no reason, etc.etc.) that resulted from such a large number wanting to swing meant that some controls had to be put in place, with ‘Instruction and Advice’ evenings being held later in December that year and in ’89. There are no numbers recorded for ’89.
In 1990 the event went ‘live’ with a crew from Grampian Television setting up their cameras, lights, generators etc.etc. The attraction of the cameras and the pre-publicity that Grampian TV gave the event ensured that there was a record-breaking crowd. However, the huge mass of the crowd caused quite a few problems. It was very difficult for the swingers to keep any pace going or keep the procession line intact. Swingers were forced to stop on a number of occasions. Later the police expressed grave concerns at the overall safety of the event, both from the crowd control and from the lack of separation between the crowd and the swingers/fireballs. The fact that there was no incident or a serious accident was more to do with luck than with good practice, in fact one ‘ball did disintegrate but there were no injuries or damage. Amongst all of those who had any responsibility for the event in any way in either 1990 or ‘88, there was a realisation that things had to change if the ceremony was to stay alive.
As to the night, it had been a freezing week and it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to drive into the town to witness the event. However the council men worked very well and on the night the streets were all clear. It was very windy and the strong east wind blew sea spray and sparks all around once the balls were lit in Keith Place. Pam Leiper led off the procession in fine style with Jock Brown second. David Alan came home from Vladivostok in Russia.
1991 – A year of change!
This was the year that 45 was the number of swingers that was settled on as being the ideal size for a good ceremony. After the problems of the previous years this year everything went very well and the massive crowd (larger than with the TV the year before) had a great time. All the swingers got time to swing and the event didn’t go on for too long. The weather was fine and mild for the time of year. The ‘Auld Toon Baker’ is reported to have sold 200 dozen pies, bradies and butteries – that’s 2,400 – a lot of calories!
In September 1991 there was another attempt to try and organise the swingers into a group that would help safeguard the events future. There had been various attempts before but although a ‘code of conduct’ had been drawn up it was difficult to enforce and monitor. This time a group was formed – The Stonehaven Fireball Swingers - arm badges were issued, each swinger had to register their intention to swing and the ‘code of conduct’ was to be enforced. A greater resolve was apparent in those who were organising it ( Jack and Bill Emslie) that they would be stricter – and they were!
Also in ’91 it was decided that after the crowding problems that were experienced in 1990 there was a definite need for barriers to keep the ever increasing crowds back so that there was a clear area for the swingers to walk up and down. As well as the barriers it was felt that there would have to be a number of marshals to monitor the crowds and ensure barrier safety. A call went out for public spirited folk to come forward to be marshals. On the night 15 marshals had come forward, 20 Policemen were in attendance and 200 barriers were in place to restrain what turned out to be a very well behaved crowd.
There was yet another first in 1991 however! To give the growing numbers of spectators a slightly better chance of a view it was agreed by most of the swingers ( though not all ) that they would continue swinging past the normal turning point of the ‘Cannon’ and walk another 75-100 yards to the nearest corner of Dunnottar School. Some of the swingers felt that it was a break in the tradition and they wouldn’t do it.
So the 1992 ceremony went off very well. All the preparations had the desired effect; it all went according to the plan. The barriers kept the crowd under better control and safer and the 42 swingers that took part had more space to swing with greater ease and with less safety worries. The extra swinging distance helped more spectators see better and enjoy themselves.
The hope for the 1993 ceremony was that there would be a repeat performance of the ’92 event. Concerns were felt about a stream of applications to swing from around the Grampian area but outside Stonehaven. It was felt by the organisers that this was a reaction to the events popularity and they were forced to make decisions about who should be eligible to swing. When 1993 arrived the 40 swingers were all local or those with local connections. The weather was very mild and the large crowd behaved well. Local hairdresser Martin Sim led off the parade and among the following group there were five members of the Emslie family who have worked hard over many years to keep the ceremony alive.
In 1994 there were 42 swingers and again the night went well. No problems were encountered apart from a ‘ball that came apart at the start. The Courier reports that ‘the ‘balls were doused in the harbour as is the tradition.’ It was by necessity that this was started but we are not to sure when we started to do it. The custom ‘till then had been to leave the ‘balls to burn out once you were tired. This was all right when there were smaller numbers of spectators, but as numbers grew it was noticed that members of the public would pick up a smouldering ‘ball and give it a twirl – sometimes with slightly scary results! Not all swingers want to swing their ‘ball ‘till it burns out so it was decided to extinguish the balls in the handiest water that was available – the sea!
The 1995 ceremony had to contend with blizzards which cut the spectator numbers. Maybe it was the cold that made them set off slightly too early that year! Anyhow 43 swingers kept the tradition going braving the weather. Allen Begg, at 14, was the youngest swinger and one of the 4 new intakes that year.
In the lead up to the 1995/6 event the bad winter weather returned and threatened to cause problems, however the conditions improved for midnight and allowed the huge crowd to enjoy the nights entertainment. Fifty swingers are reported to have taken part with the Fireball Swingers Guild Secretary, Pam Leiper, leading off the group. Jock Brown was second that year.
Later in ’96 marshalling problems and insurance costs cast a shadow over the preparations but were later resolved. The local council also added to the problems of the organiser (Bill Emslie) by saying that they couldn’t afford to pay overtime for their men to put up and take down their barriers. This was resolved by the swingers and marshals doing the work them-selves. So the ‘96/7 event seems to have gone well, although the ‘Leader’ has no report.
Hogmanay 1997/8 was a quiet event in one way only! The bells didn’t ring! Andra Watt the usual bellringer was ill and a replacement wasn’t organised. It seems as though different people thought that that the other person was sorting the problem and in the end nobody was! It caused quite a bit of confusion in the spectators although the swingers went off at the right time – it was just that noboby knew it!
Futher difficulties arose when a 20% shortage of barriers was discovered when they were unloaded. The delivery was late anyway so there was no time to arrange for more. This was also the year when there were no lights round the top of the clock tower or music playing through a PA system. One consolation was that 32 people came forward as marshals – a great turnout. All these problems highlighted how complicated and time consuming organising the Stonehaven Fireballs had become.
For the ‘98/9 event all the necessary preparations were done to try and ensure a smooth running evening. An appeal went out for marshals as the Flu Bug had hit and numbers were down. However on the night 6,000 people packed the High Street including folk from South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and France and more local folk from Inverness, Aberdeen, Montrose and many more. 45 swingers including 8 women took part in what was a reharsal for the 2000 – Millennium Swing. All went well although the police escorted off a kilted male reveller for revealing what some Scotsmen don’t wear under their kilts!
The subject of the coming Millennium Celebrations was a hot topic at the Community Council in January ’99 even with 11 months still to run. There was talk of the event being ‘ticket only’ but that was dismissed as unrealistic as were suggestions that the swingers could swing all the way to the Square! Eventually common sense prevailed and the event was allowed to remain as it had always been.
As December wore on the numbers of people wanting to swing that year grew and grew. Bill Emslie’s daughter Lynn had taken over the duty of group secretary some years previously and was allocating the numbers to regular and ex swingers first. Familiar names on the list were Jack Emslie (would be 70), Bill Emslie(he led off), Joe Kemlo (on 44 ‘swings’) and Stuart McKenzie. 13 women wanted to take part with Pam Leiper, Linda Duncan, Kathleen Findlay and Jean Houghton among them. A problem arose when the Bon Accord Silver band was asked to play before the fireballs started, a position that was normally taken by the Stonehaven Pipe Band. The decision had been made as a result of a misunderstanding but it caused a lot of ill feeling locally. There would be a local piper leading off the swingers as usual however – he was a swinger as well.
On the night 50 swingers took part and the ceremony was covered by 7 BBC TV cameras and broadcast worldwide. At least 6,000 spectators watched and four digital clocks helped to give that vital countdown effect to the magic 00.00! The weather was ideal and everything went according to plan. The general feeling from those present was that the celebrations were equal in atmosphere to anything else anywhere in the world. The year 2000 saw the end of Bill Emslie’s close involvement with the running of the event, he handed this duty over to his daughter Lynn.
In 2001 bad weather again played a part with the partner event ‘Open Air in the Square’ having to cancel for safety reasons. High winds were forecast and although they didn’t get too bad it was very wet and blustery. The swingers all got soaked but the crowd was very supportive. The problem of the pipe band continued from the previous year with the Stonehaven Pipe Band noticable by its absence. An appeal went out for a piper to help out and one from Inverbervie stepped in.
More problems arose in late 2001 when the Red Cross told Mrs. Callaghan that they wouldn’t be able to give First Aid cover to the event. She said that the event would be cancelled if the cover was not found. On the night the First Aid problem was solved and it was the clock that gave Lynn difficutlies. It had stopped working as a result of an electrical fault around Christmas and this wasn’t noticed untill the 31st by which time it was too late to get it fixed. One of the marshals helped out by blasting an air horn. It’s not clear why the bells didn’t ring that year as they were usually hand pulled by Andra (Andrew) Watt so didn’t need a clock or electricity. So for the 2001/2 ceremony between eight and ten thousand people turned out to see the ‘balls which was better than for the 2000 celebrations. They didn’t hear the bells or see the turning of the clocks hands but they did get a good show as usual.
On the 20th of January 2002 as a result of increasing and changing legislation and regulations a public meeting was called by some of the regular swingers. They felt that the ceremony had to change in the way it was being organised. It needed to be more organised and more professional with more swingers taking an active part, something that they hadn’t been allowed to do in the past. They felt that the future of the event was in danger if improvements weren’t made to the fire safety, crowd control, risk assesment, marshal/ swinger / police communication and fund raising. At the meeting the vast majority were in favour of change, many felt it was long over due. Many questions were asked, thoughts expressed, ideas put forward and some heated discussions took place. By the end of the meeting a steering group was formed to go and set the ball rolling for a formal organisation with a committee, regular meetings etc. etc. The initial group consisted of Lynn Callaghan, George Carr, Maurice Coull, Susan Leiper, Raymond Milne, Raymond Penny and Martin Sim. At the first official meeting of the new group it was expanded to include Mark Anderson, Linda Duncan, Alan Venters and a Police representative. The group was named the Stonehaven Fireballs Association. Regular meetings were held, issues discussed and progress was made towards holding the 2003 event.
Police Inspector Ian Swan was appointed to Stonehaven. He came along to all the meetings and helped steer the committee over a variety of hurdles in the process. To help him understand the task he faced he got a video with clips from various sources showing the Fireball Ceremony from different years. This helped him a lot.
At one stage it looked like the Fireballs were to be swung at Murryfield. In September the association was asked if they could perform during the half-time break in the match between Scotland & Romania on 9th November. Plans were made, a risk assesment was done, association members visited Murryfield and then – it all fell apart. A local Edinburgh offical didn’t think it was safe so it was called off. Later, at the annual open meeting in November it was decided that the Stonehaven Fireballs should not go out of Stonehaven, the only place that the Fireballs are to be seen is in Stonehaven High Street just after Midnight on the 1st of January each year. This decision helped the committee members later in the year as other requests for the ‘balls to be seen at other events were made – all were turned down.
The barriers continued to be a problem however. The Aberdeenshire Council had plenty barriers and the 300 required for the ceremony could be available, but it was their location that caused the difficulties. The 300 would not all be in the one place but scattered around the district - 50 here, 35 there, 5 over there etc.etc. So getting all 300 in the one place took time and effort and time was in short supply at the Festive Season. Usually the Council managed but sometimes they were a bit late. This year the Council said that they couldn’t guarantee that the barriers would arrive on time. A solution was found in Aberdeen City's barrier depot. All their barriers were stored in one yard and could be hired for a nominal amount – problem solved! A lorry was ‘loaned’ to the association and the barriers duly arrived on time. Swingers and marshals put up the barriers mid evening and took them down after it was over.
A brochure was prepared in conjunction with the Open Air In The Square group which helped to raise funds and a web site was created. Better communication with the swingers and the marshals was put in place. Eventually better flood lights were installed to illuminate the clock tower steeple and rope lights were put round the wooden balustrade at the top. A webcam was added to the website and installed in the clock tower so that images of the ceremony could be seen over the World Wide Web. The Stonehaven Pipe Band was contacted and they were very happy to come back to their rightful place at the start of the ceremony.
When 2003 arrived all the preparations paid off with 41 swingers and 12,000 spectators (the largest turnout!) enjoying the night, or at least 40 swingers did – one ‘ball fell apart just a few minutes into the ceremony spoiling its swingers Hogmanay. The weather was good and no trouble was recorded. The lighting up of the ‘balls was one area that the new group looked at. In the past it was usually a bit of guess work ‘what time do you have it as?’ This year it was better, Martin Sim had a watch and clock that were synchronised with the Atomic clock at Rugby, so the exact time was known. This didn’t stop the ‘balls being lit too early though! Too many ‘balls were burning too early and producing a lot of heat. However the deadline was kept to and they only set off at midnight. It was a lesson learnt though – two minutes is enough time to light up 10 ‘balls and get them burning well! Once the ceremony was over and the ‘balls were thrown into the harbour the cages were taken out of the water to ensure that they didn’t cause any problems for the other harbour users. The old cages were examined the following day to see how well they had stood up to the heat and swinging. The results of that examination were not good. Apart from the one ball that had burst, three others had serious breaks in the wire mesh. Another seven showed signs of significant deformation. At the AGM of the Association the Chairman, Martin Sim, showed photographs of the various fireballs and how badly damaged they were. It was decided that better building techniques had to be enforced to ensure better safety. A plan of having group Fireball making nights in early December was put in place.
Committee meetings took place on a regular basis though the year dealing with various aspects of the ceremony. As 2004 approached the group Fireball making evenings took place at Stonehaven Engineering’s workshop. These proved to be a great success with quite a number of swingers deciding to make their ‘balls on those nights. Some of the swingers met each other for the first time. Some had only seen the others at Hogmanay in the dark! So it was good for the group to get to know each other better. Certainly the more secure construction techniques could be explained, done and then checked. Once a ‘ball had been completed and been checked it got a metal tag with a number on it and that number was noted down along with the swingers name. If anything did happen to that ‘ball then it could be traced to who made it.
Barriers again reared their ugly head! The Aberdeen City depot was used again to hire them from. However although 200 were ordered only 189 were delivered, leaving a shortage of quite a margin. Three large digital clocks were provided by Stonehaven Engineering Ltd. As S.E.L.s owner Alan Dow had become a swinger and had such a good time he felt it was something he could help with.
Hogmanay this year (2003/4) turned out to be one of the worst in most folk’s memory. A powerful storm blew up from the South during the evening forcing Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Inverness to cancel their Hogmanay celebrations – but the Fireballs went on! Torrential rain, sleet, snow and high winds lashed the whole of Scotland with the eastern side getting the worst of it. Localy the Open Air In The Square was cancelled but in the High Street only some of the barriers blew around a bit - that was all. The Stonehaven Pipe Band performed a heroic feat by keeping playing despite the wind, rain and sleet – not even a Glengarry was seen to fly! As ‘light up’ time approached there was a problem finding an area calm enough to get things going. In the end 42 swingers took part and 6,000 brave and wet spectators saw the ceremony through. As the first ‘ball set off the wind died quite a bit and though the rain still fell it wasn’t cold. The new digital clock helped provide the correct time for the swingers and spectators alike and added something extra to a wet night. During the year swinger Ian Wood had designed a logo for the association and this was used on ‘T’ and sweat shirts which were on sale to the public as well as postcards and framed pictures. All this helped bring a bit of extra revenue.
Later in 2004 the barrier problem was finally solved with the help of the Aberdeenshire Council, the Stonehaven It’s Special umbrella group and cash from previous fundraising measures that Bill and Jack Emslie had done. A total of 300 barriers were acquired for the Association.
47swingers helped 2005 come in much quieter and drier than the previous year. Susan Leiper led off the first group with her brother and mother following. There was some rain at 10.30 but it faded away. At 11.30pm the swingers gathered at the shorehead/slipway area then organised themselves into their groups of 10. They then added some paraffin (up to 1 litre) at the drenching area. The drenching area had ‘kitty litter’ spread on the road surface to absorb any spillage and stop it getting slippery. The digital clock at the clock tower again helped the swingers and spectators anticipate the arrival of midnight after the Stonehaven Pipe Band had put on their usual great display for the 12,000 that had gathered. Marshals had the use of a radio link this year which helped them get the crowd spaced out more evenly and stop bottlenecks gathering. At the end of the ceremony, 00.25am, the "Open Air in the Square" committee put on a five minute firework show, setting them off from the old Bervie Braes road. This proved to be a great success and made a fantastic ‘finale’ to the event.
The run up to the 2006 ceremony was fairly uneventful. Grampian TV contacted the group to say that they wanted to broadcast live from the High Street. This later turned into an STV show which on the night was a disaster. Very little of the Fireballs were shown, there was no information about what the custom was about, how old it was, or how the ‘balls were made. There was a lot of ‘light chat’ about what the presenters were doing, had done and were about to do though! It was later reported that 50% of the viewers switched over to BBC Hogmanay programme at the first commercial break – a good choice.
For the 12,000 spectators who turned out to see the Fireballs those who were in the High Street (about 5,000) saw a great fiery and drumming display provided by Circadian Rhythm, Bards of Balrog and members of Fire Pois. That along with the Stonehaven Pipe Band (and sometimes they got a little mixed up!) provided an amazing range of entertainment from 11.00 ‘till 11.55.
As midnight struck George Black led the first group down in fine style with a resounding cheer following him all the way. Some of the drumming group couldn’t get back to their van as the crowd was so dense so they carried on drumming as the swingers came down the High Street. The effect was very good and added an extra element.
"Open Air in the Square" staged their usual Firework display which ended a fantastic ceremony.
In March 2006, at the Stonehaven Fireballs Association AGM Martin Sim steped down from his roll of Chairman and handed over to Alan Venters. He had been in the chair since 2002 when the association was formed. Other committee members were – Joan Aitken, George Carr, Maurice Coull, Linda Duncan, Raymond Milne, Raymond Penny, Susan Leiper, Jim Steven, David Dallas, Andrew Ritchie and David Flemming on the Committee as Chief Co-ordinator.
During 2006 progress was made in getting a DVD and CD duo pack made. It was to consist of ‘The Swinging of the Fireballs’ documentry programme made by Gail Anderson and Mark Biglow from America on the DVD and some of the video footage that the group had collected along with copies of the press reports on the ceremonies over the years and this article. This should be a good archive for anyone interested in the Fireballs history and a starting point for further research and should be on sale for Hogmanay 2006/7. If anyone has any more information of any kind then the Association would like to hear from them. Contact can be made by email or by sending details to;
Stonehaven Fireballs Association
63 Barclay Street
Martin Sim. 26th October 2006