The Burning of the Clavie

At the start of the New Year, I had the pleasure of attending a traditional fire ritual known as ‘The Burning of the Clavie’. The burning is an ancient Scottish custom still observed in the village of Burghead, a fishing village on the Moray Firth. The clavie is a collection of casks split in two, and lit as a bonfire in the evening of 11th January, i.e. New Year’s Eve (in Scotland, Hogmanay) by the Julian Calendar. One of these casks is joined together again by a huge nail (Latin: clavis). The event – which dates back to at least the 1750s – sees the clavie, which is a half-cask filled with wood shavings and tar, set alight. The elected Clavie King and his helpers parade the burning barrel through the streets before it becomes a fire beacon on a nearby hill. Getting a piece of the clavie is said to bring good luck for the year. The flaming clavie is carried through the village and finally to a headland upon which stands the ruins of an altar, called the Doorie. As the burning barrel falls to pieces, those assembled seek to get a lighted piece. This is placed on their home hearth. It is said that the charcoal of the clavie when put up the chimneys of people’s homes, wards off spirits and witches. The tradition of fire festivals date back to ancient pagan rituals that were practised in many places across Scotland. The Burning of the Clavie has its roots in these rituals. An eighteenth-century century law was passed that outlawed the practice, calling it ‘superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice,’ – the villagers continue to hold their festivities regardless.

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