Playing with Fire: An Age-old Ceremony in Stonehaven
Standing nervously in line with my briskly burning fireball on the ground behind me, waiting my turn to launch into my first ever fireball swinging, a voice behind me said: “now Roger another thing…remember to try and breathe only when the fireball is behind you!” That advice was a bit late in the day!
I have lived in Stonehaven for 36 years now and I knew, 3 years ago when I was asked if I would like to swing a fireball in the famous local Hogmanay ceremony, that I had finally been accepted as a local! I was really proud to be part of this and have now taken part three times.
The fireball swinging ceremony is pretty spectacular: 45 men and women swinging massive balls of flame around their heads as they stride the length of Stonehaven’s old High Street. The stronger ones complete 3 circuits between the clock tower at the sea end and the canon at the town end, probably about 1,200 metres in all. I can tell you that’s pretty tiring! On the night there can be between 7-10,000 spectators crowding the length of the street and the pier at the harbour; and many of these have come a long way, this year someone called to me that they had come 7,000 miles to see my fireball!. The reception given to the swingers is tremendous and the occasion is a very family oriented event, even if it does start at midnight, with a pipe band, drummers and other entertainment. And a very humorous and lively crowd of people!
The ceremony has a long history, the earliest documented evidence being from 1908, but it is likely to have been going before then. Only in the two World Wars did fireball swinging lapse and then due to blackout restrictions. It is believed to be rooted in superstitious fisher folk expunging evil spirits at the turn of the year and paving the way for a fortuitous new year to come. It is true that spirits are still much in evidence amongst the spectators!
These days the local community has formed a Fireballs Association to ensure the safety of the event which includes rules on how to make a robust fireball which will not come apart and on what swingers are not allowed to burn in it. However, the actual ingredients, usually some combination of rags, logs, coal and cardboard are closely guarded by some swingers. It’s getting a long-lasting but light fireball that’s the secret! The police, fire and local authority all want now to see event plans, evacuation plans, risk assessments and codes of conduct. Amazingly, this includes a fire risk assessment!
The event just past was rather poignant because the High Street, and many of the old houses along it, had been several feet under water just a week before due to the flooding from the nearby River Carron. Many residents had been forced to leave and their houses wrecked for the second time in 3 years. But the affected community was adamant that the event should go ahead regardless. Two weeks before there had been a big storm from the sea which had flooded and wrecked several other properties and damaged many cars including mine which was parked outside the Marine Hotel overnight while I took a taxi home, and was then flooded with sea water and considered a total loss!
Once the swingers have had enough and their fireballs are dimming they walk to the edge of the sea in the harbour and hurl them into the water. As a first time rookie I let go of my fireball too early, it travelled at right angles to my intended path and flew over the head of a really quick-thinking and rapidly ducking policeman standing at the side of the pier; much to the hilarity of the crowd. After the last fireball is flung into the sea there is a spectacular fireworks display from the nearby braes.
If you haven’t yet seen the Stonehaven fireballs event you must go along at least once. Its something you’ll never forget; and you can give me some much needed encouragement too!
Roger Owen, 2013.