Blowing on the Embers
The Oidhche Challain custom of circling, in a sunwise direction, the fire in each home on the evening prior to 12th of January, the Old New Year’s Day, no longer happens regularly in the Isle of Lewis.
The young men of the village before entering each home chanted a blessing on the family inside, before entering..
Thàinig sinn a-nochd dhan duthaich san àm ùrachachdh na Calainn
Cha lig sinn a leas a bhith ga innse bha i ann bho linn ar sheanair
Leis an tairt a tha san duthaich cha bhith dùil againn ri drama
Ach beagan do thoradh an t-samhraidh ma tha e ann, cuir a mach e
The Leader of the Calainn, had a dried cow or sheep hide on his back, he circled the fire several times in a sunwise direction. The man of the house beating the hide on his back, with a stick, each time he passed.
The lads had another rhyme to bless the house on leaving,
Beannaich an taigh ’s na tha ann
Eadar choin ’s cheit ’s chlann
Pailteas bi ’s pailteas aodaich
‘S slàinte dhaoine gun robh ann
The Calainn tradition is belived to have been practised in one part of Lewis until this festival of fire went out, in the 1970s.
The ancient fire celebration believed to be from pagan times, celebrated on the cusp of the New Year in the old Julian calendar, is still maintained, in the old fishing port of Burghead, on the North East coast of Scotland.
Here on the 11th January the burning Clavie barrel, moves in a sunwise direction, through the maze of narrow streets. Enroute, the Clavie distributes glowing staves, to renew the fire in specific homes along its route. The new fire is a blessing, to ward off evil spirits and to bring health, wealth and prosperity to each home in the coming year.
The Clavie’ s route ends at the hill the Dubh Airigh, on the headland overlooking the Moray Firth, where the final Clavie flames can be seen in five North East counties.
PAST AND PRESENT CUSTOMS
Burghead locals still refer to the town as The Broch, the fortification on the headland which gave the town its name. Several of the local people mention their forefathers had been evicted from fishing villages on the west of Scotland, in the mid to late 1700s. Those families settled, close to extensive fishing banks, in a town on a promentary which has the sea on three sides and a safe harbour.
Broch traders took fish to the Baltic ports and part of the return cargo, were barrels of Archangel Tar, which had many uses in and around the fishing ports. The Archangel Tar barrels were an ideal shape for the fiery Clavie celebration and were utilised long after the trade ceased. When the Archangel barrels ran out, whisky barrels were used, then as they were not, fit for purpose, around 1997 a local carpenter crafted a new version, based on the old tar barrel shape.
Each year the Clavie barrel is prepared and fitted with wooden hoops, three weeks before the Clavie event. The barrel is soaked in water for days, before being coated with a mixture of coal tar and Bitumen.
On 10th January 2012, I was privileged to be at the next stage of preparation, along with thirty five other people. We piled into the former carpenter and undertaker’s shed, the premises of Daniel Ralph, who set up his business in 1910. On the walls of the shed, some of the implements of his trade still hang, and there was a familiar horseshoe on the door.
There were a surprising number of children present. The first task was to halve the tarred barrel with a large double handed cross cut saw, two men set about the task, then the children took turnabout. Under guidance, they were allowed to hold the handle of the large saw as it gnawed its way through the tarred barrel..
Another man was skillfully preparing the stalk of the Clavie This was the post the Clavie bearer, would wrap his strong shoulders around, keeping the burning barrel well above his head on the trip around the town. The stalk was fixed to the half barrel with wooden staves. The men secured the point of the three inch nails in the wood and the youngsters took charge of the hammer to drive the nails home.
Lachie Ralph gave me a potted history of the tradition standing in his great grandfather’s shed, the scene of many Clavie preparations. Lachie comes from a long line of Clavie crew men. His own father Dan has been Clavie King since 1988.While Lachie talked his own son, Fionn aged two, played at his feet.
Records of the Clavie go back to 1600, but the tradition stretches back into the realms of time. The designated route of the Clavie, through the town of Burghead takes in the harbour area, where the boats responsible for the town’s livelyhood, were moored. Part of the Clavie custom was to thrown a burning stave, along with grains of barley on to the decks of the boats.
The route through the streets include, the homes of the past and present Clavie crew, their families and supporters are also recipients of the burning Clavie staves. In days gone by the token fiery stave was thrown through the doorway on to the stone flags, now the burning stake is received by the householder on the outside step to protect fitted carpets, real wood flooring and laminate. The charred remains of the stake are treasured by the householders and a portion is sometimes sent to Broch relatives living overseas.
Oral tradition tells of a Burghead trawler crew, fishing off the coast of Ireland, commemorating the New Year by having their own Clavie burning onboard the ship, before launching it over the side.
In Burghead, only members of the families native to the town, were ever eligible to be in the Clavie crew. The Clavie was banned during the blackout of World War Two. Few of the last pre-war crew returned and in 1946 those lost in action were represented in the crew, by a close relative.
Lachie Ralph is a Clavie tradition bearer and his enthusiasm is contagious Meantime his dad, sixty two year old Clavie King, Dan Ralph was being interviewed by a pupil for a project, for the Burghead school website . I heard Dan say “When we are too old to burn the Clavie, we hope the children here at the preparation of the Clavie tonight, will keep the tradition alive.” Having witnessed the youngsters being interactive with saws, hammers and an up to the minute voice recorder gadget. I think there is a fair chance …
The Clavie Fire 2012
The 11th January was a blustery night, the Clavie crew of twelve men, spent over an hour on the streets with sparks flying in all directions in the strong wind. This included two re-fueling stops, travelling sunwise, the procession made its way through the streets of Burghead.
The staves of fire, the token gift, bringing health and prosperity, were distributed safely to homes on their route.
The spectacular fire show at the Dubh Airigh delighted the hundreds of people who had come to watch. One of them told me she never missed it, as she believed it brought her health and happiness throughout the year.
In the darkness as the crowd dispersed in Burghead my quest was rewarded , on hearing one or two voices crying out “Happy New Year”