With their roots dating back to pagan times, Scotland’s tradition of fire festivals have long marked the cold, dark nights of midwinter, and for travelers, witnessing the unique celebrations is an experience like no other. Whether you fancy sailing the northern seas to Europe’s biggest fire festival or seeing in the New Year with a torchlight procession, here are some of Scotland’s best winter fire festivals.
1. Up Helly Aa
Europe’s biggest and most famous fire festival is Up Helly Aa, held on the remote Shetland Isles at the northernmost tip of the British Isles. The town of Lerwick hosts the event, held annually on the last Tuesday of January, in celebration of the islands’ Norse heritage, and up to a thousand locals take to the streets in a dramatic parade, dressed as warriors and carrying flaming torches. The ancient Viking tradition signifies a sacrifice to the sun, with the torchlight procession ending in the symbolic burning of a gigantic replica long ship, before the night descends into a riotous party, lasting until dawn.
2. Stonehaven Fireball Festival
Scotland has always celebrated New Year in style, but one of the most unique ceremonies is the Stonehaven Fireball Festival, held in Aberdeenshire on New Year’s Eve. Around 60 villagers take to the streets in the countdown to midnight, swinging 16-pound balls of fire around their heads as they march towards the harbor. Dating back to the 19th century, the tradition is said to ward off evil spirits and chase out the ghosts of the past year, culminating in the fireballs being plunged into the sea.
3. Burning of the Clavie
Many of Scotland’s ancient rituals have been kept alive over the years, but one of the most unusual has to be the Burning of the Clavie, held on January 11th in Burghead. Allegedly the oldest fire festival in Scotland, the bizarre ceremony involves a flaming, tar-filled cask being carried through the streets by a torchlight procession of villagers, before being used to light the enormous hilltop bonfire that serves as the centerpiece for the evening’s festivities.
4. The Biggar Bonfire
Another fiery New Year celebration is the Biggar Bonfire, held in the South Lanarkshire town of Biggar to cast away the bad spirits of the passed year and mark the arrival of the New Year. The proceedings kick off with a dramatic torchlight procession through the town, featuring pipers, drummers and fire-wielding dancers, culminating in the town’s oldest resident lighting a gigantic bonfire right in the middle of the high street, keeping it burning well into the New Year.