Stonehaven High Street is a sea of fire every Hogmanay
What is commonly called "The Fireballs" is a colorful annual festival, unique to Stonehaven, attracting thousands of spectators in festive mood. The ceremony is not only Stonehaven's way of welcoming the New Year, but it also provides a gathering point for the town's "ain folk", some home from distant lands, to greet relatives and old friends, mingling happily with visitors from home and overseas who have come to enjoy a guid Scots Hogmanay. Around forty five participants (the number varies year by year) parade up and down the High Street in the Old Town from the Mercat Cross at the east end of the street near the harbour to the Cannon embedded nose down at the west end (some 175 yards). They swing fireballs around their heads with gusto and in spectacular style, the dark skies memorably illuminated.
From the turn of the century up to the time between the War years fireball swinging was undertaken mainly by the hardy men of the large fishing community, but as their numbers dwindled, for a time the festival went into decline. Just a handful of Stonehaven folk kept it going, offering prizes for the best fireball; now it is more popular than ever.
What is the origin of the fireball ceremony?
Processions with flaming torches and kindling of fires on certain days of the year can be traced back to the Middle Ages all over Europe and, indeed, their origin must be sought in ancient times, long before the spread of Christianity. Proof of the existence of such customs in Europe is furnished by the attempts made by Christian synods as far back as the 8th century to put down what were called heathenish rites.
What was the original significance of such a fire festival?
Fireball swinging - who needs a reason?
Although the Stonehaven fireball-festival is now nothing but a spontaneous tourist attraction, two very different explanations of the origin of similar pagan fire customs have been given:
- On the one hand it is supposed that they were sun-charms or magical ceremonies intended to ensure the necessary supply of sunshine for men, animals and plants by parading fires which mimic on earth the source of light and heat in the sky. This may be called the solar theory.
- On the other hand it is maintained that ceremonial fires were simply purificatory in intention, designed to destroy all harmful influences, whether personal like witches, demons and monsters or impersonal as a kind of pervading taint or corruption of the air. This may be called the purification theory.