Weird and wonderful

Eccentrics on New Year’s Eve

The year end sees Britain’s most violent, dramatic and colourful ceremonies. 

Written by Ben le Vay


The Scots’ Hogmanay has always beaten plain old New Year’s Eve as such peaceful festivities go. But many English would be surprised to know that the year end sees Britain’s most violent, dramatic and colourful ceremonies, which literally set things ablaze in many a northern town.

Most are in Scotland, but in Allendale, Northumberland, at about 11.45pm the brightly dressed ‘guizers’ go marching through the town, led by a band. each bears a blazing half barrel on his head, filled with tar and wood shavings, and these are eventually hurled on a huge bonfire in the marketplace, the ancient ritual being linked to the rebirth of light in the coming year. similarly, in comrie, Perthshire, the fl ambeaux procession starts from the square on the last stroke of midnight. every  corner of the village is visited ‘to drive out evil spirits’ and the procession ends with the fl aming torches being thrown from a bridge into the River Earn and all dancing round.

The Biggar Ne’erday Bonfire  at the south Lanarkshire town sees a marching band and an enormous bonfire in the High Street (9pm–midnight). sparks also fly at Stonehaven near Aberdeen in the fireball ceremony, which starts at about 11.30pm and involves a couple of dozen men marching down the High Street whirling round their heads balls of fire, made of flammable material in wire netting, on the end of wire ropes. As the men march down to the harbour, the circles of fire make a startling sight.

Not far away, in Burghead, Burning the Clavie takes place on the old calendar’s New Year’s Eve – 11 January. An old whisky barrel is filled with tar and wood chips and set ablaze, then run up and down the street, bringing good luck to anyone who can seize a firebrand. It is set on a special stone pillar to burn, then brought to earth and smashed to pieces by hundreds of spectators. Lerwick, Shetland, must take the prize for the most spectacular New Year pyromania, although Up Helly Aa doesn’t take place until the last Tuesday in January. Again, guizers in gaudy dress parade through the town with blazing torches, but in keeping with the Shetland Islands’ Norse heritage, they draw a replica Viking galley with them, complete with dragon’s head on the prow and dozens of beefy Vikings in horned helmets.

The procession, which starts at 7.30pm, ends at the King George V playing field where, after certain rituals, the guizers hurl their flaming torches high in the air to rain down on the Viking galley, which blazes fiercely, to the cheers of the crowds. The night is then spent dancing, dining and partying.

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