Stonehaven Fireball Swingers: Hogmanay

Wobbling slightly on tiptoes I lifted my head as high as possible to take in the sight before me. The street stretched wide ahead and narrowed to my left. On the walls of stout harbour homes a glow grew in strength and height. It slid across the white walls, heralding the arrival of the Stovehaven Fireball Swingers.

First, here is a video to give you a sense of the event. My apologies for the shaky footage in places. I totally got stuck behind a giant of a man and had to lift my camera over my (and his) head!

It’s not often an event passes out a pamphlet with its entire history laid out — especially small-town events — but the Stonehaven Fireball Association had 24 pages worth of information (well 12 outside of ads, the cover, acknowledgements and other tourism info) on hand, which is impressive.

As it makes sense to utilize the information directly distributed by the event organisers I’ll be largely quoting this pamphlet, so thank you Stonehaven Fireball Association for this easy-access treasure trove of info.

Some of my favourite quick facts were:

  • The first recorded swingers were Alexander Shepherd in 1910-1930 and Alexander Lees in 1911 (though the act of swinging fireballs is believed to go back 150 years further).
  • They know 12 fireballs were swung in 1914, whereas 62 were swung in 1988. This year featured 45 swingers.
  • The first women to participate were Mary Fraser and Helen Stratchan in 1951 (a great inspiration for the 12 women in this year’s ceremony I’m sure!).
  • A wooden Tattie (potato) Masher flew out of a fireball in the 1950s and landed in the crowd. You can view it at the Tolbooth Museum in Stonehaven.
  • The ceremony has never been cancelled. However, during the World Wars it was not held.

The Stonehaven Fireballs Ceremony at its heart is a purification ceremony. The idea is to burn away any lingering negativity or old spirits from the previous year so new spirits arrive fresh and untainted. In 1848, for example, eight fishing boats were lost and nineteen men drowned in a summer storm. The community would later use the ceremony to clear away their feelings of bad luck and move beyond the tragedy.

For many participants the source of their fireball includes elements from their past like old jeans, textbooks and possibly nets, old rope, broken cork and leather floats. Some may also choose to include a token associated with a bad event in the previous year. Aside from the jeans (minus buttons and zippers for safety’s sake), tokens and maritime material other flammable materials they would include are: wood, coal, paper, cardboard and other non-synthetic materials.

Each swinger makes their fireball on what’s called Fireball Making nights in November. Alongside its contents they decide its weight and size since each must be suited to individual swinger’s strengths and stamina. They have to be able to swing these things for 20 minutes after all!

Their spinning walk is back-and-forth down a 260 metre stretch from the harbour slipway to the Dunnottar School. For most of the swingers the walk adds up to a mile!

What keeps all this fire-fuel safely enclosed in the fireball is chicken wire, which must be wrapped around twice, and thick wire—which is wrapped around the cylinder shape like the ribbon on Christmas presents! The heavy wire also acts as an integrated line from the fireball to the swinger’s hand. On the other end is a handle, often featuring a tube or pipe which allows the swingers to rotate the fireball more easily. On Fireball Making nights these creations are tested for integrity, checked for sharp edges or other flaws and then marked with unique brass tags.

Then on the night of the big event the last addition to the balls is paraffin to assist their ignition.

As crowds gather well before the ceremony begins local band groups warm up the crowd (or rather keep them warm) as the clock counts down to midnight. The fireballs are lit just around midnight and the swingers hurriedly take up positions along the pathway so they can start swinging right after the new year has arrived!

Hopefully the fireballs stay lit for the next 20 minutes before they are tossed into the harbor water for a spectacular end. From the photos they must have looked like descending meteors as they were flung over the water! Unfortunately, try as I might with an early start and an attempt to establish myself as close to the harbour slipway as possible, I did not get to see them extinguished. Bad luck!

Don’t worry about a pile of metal cages left to slowly rust under the water though, the same evening these fireball skeletons are retrieved and counted.

It used to be that you had to be born in the Old Town to participate in this ceremony, but the entry requirements has expanded to include those living in the area with a genuine interest in the event. You also have to volunteer as a crowd marshal for several years before you can swing any fire.

The volunteers herd and keep the 10,000 visitors behind the 400 barriers they set-up the evening before the ceremony. Some will also be sent out to retrieve the fireballs. It sounds like a lot of work, but you do get an unimpeded view of the festivities so it must be worth it! As the sidewalks on this old section of Stonehaven are narrow and were filled with people I couldn’t help being envious of the ease of movement for those on the other side of the barriers.

Still, the approaching firelight always had me staring wide-eyed and astonished. I truly believe in their ability to disperse bad luck too. As the ceremony began to wind down the giant before me decided to leave early to beat the crowd. Seizing my chance at the gap he left I wiggled into his spot and caught a bit of quality footage. Was it luck or my puppy-eyes? I will never know.

I’ll leave you with this description from Swinger Number 13:

“Now you’re into your swinging and the weight of the ball swings you as you’re walking, so you’re concentrating all the time. The heat passes in front of your face and you can feel the flames from your ball and any other swinger who is close by. The best advice is always to breathe in when the fireball is behind you!”

Happy belated Hogamany and I hope your 2017 is free of bad spirits!

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Firing up for the Fireball Ceremony

Budget: It’s free! But bring a donation if you can to help them keep the event running!

Age group: 7+ or so. Same idea as the Torch Procession, you will be standing, waiting for a long time.

Clothes: Waterproof layers, hats, gloves and good shoes. Old clothes are recommended since there can be stray sparks.

Culture: Social, this is a very local event so take the time to chat with your crowd neighbors! Also, be respectful as there is tons of FIRE involved. Listen to marshals.

Food: There are local pubs, but book way in advance! It is New Years Eve after all! A bit of hot chocolate or cider is great for the cold later too.

Transport: You have no choice but to drive in (or hotel I suppose) since the event goes way past bus timetables. Come early for a good parking lot or be prepared to walk from your parking spot.

Time: Since crowds are a factor this can vary.
+6 hour wait: If you want to be at the harbor, front and centre you’ll have to be there earlier than 8pm.
Under 5 hours: If you are fine with being further up the road 8 or 9pm is fine.
Under an hour: If you can squeeze in at the farthest point from the harbour arrive at 11:50pm.

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