To celebrate the New Year fireballs swing in Stonehaven, Scotland.
The ceremony consists of mainly local people of all ages swinging flaming wire cages, around their heads. Each cage is filled with combustible material (each swinger has their own recipe) and has a wire handle two or three feet long, this keeps the flames well away from the swinger, but spectators can be vulnerable! At the end of the ceremony, the fireballs are tossed into the bay.
The event starts at midnight and is watched by thousands. The idea behind the ceremony is to burn off the bad spirits left from the old year so that the spirits of the New Year can come in clean and fresh.
From current research the ceremony would seem to go back from a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, but it could easily be much older.
The ceremony today lasts only around twenty to thirty minutes but in the past it could last an hour or more. Then, some of the swingers would swing their fireball for a few yards and then stop outside a house that was occupied by someone that they knew. They would drop their fireball at the curbside and pop in for their ‘New Year’! After a while they would come out, pick up their ‘ball’ and swing on down to the next house, and so on. As quite a number of the swingers would have had many relatives and friends staying in area it could take some time to get from one end of the street to the other!
In the early years, according to the newspaper reports, it would seem that it was mainly the male youths of the older ‘fisher’ town that were involved in the custom but once into the sixties the newspaper reports are of older men and women being involved as well.
The ‘balls’ had to be made of material that would smoulder and stay ‘alive’ whilst left unattended. In all fishing communities there was always plenty of old rope, nets, broken cork and leather floats etc. which would have been ‘tarred’ at some time to make them waterproof and which would have been ideal to use in the construction of the ‘balls’. Old and broken material like that could have been seen by some as ‘unlucky’ and as all fishing communities were very superstitious, burning it would have been a good way of getting rid of it and of destroying the bad luck. Now we use ‘clean’ material which burns without smoking or dripping burning tar or oil.
In a fishing community, where life and livelihood depend on the sea, it is easy to see how superstition, good luck charms and customs were felt by some to be a means of helping to swing that balance. The use of the fireball ceremony as a creator of good luck or eliminator of bad luck is understandable.
For many years the tradition just ‘happened’. Everyone knew what to do and what went on. It was always loud and lively. More for the young people to enjoy. Only those who wanted to be involved would come down to see it happen. It was seen as an ‘old town’ preserve -you had to be born in the old town to take part.
Gradually that has changed. Now the requirement is that you stay in the area and have the interests of the ceremony at heart. In the late sixties the ceremony seemed to go into decline, with fewer and fewer swingers taking part. However, the custom was rescued before it died by a few local enthusiasts who encouraged anyone to take part, locally born or not. As long as they wanted to keep it alive then they were welcome. The enthusiasm for the event that came from these people has helped to enhance the tradition and ensure that it will keep going for many generations to come.