Today something wonderfully peculiar happens in Burghead, a fishing village on the Moray Firth. It's a fire ritual and celebration - one of Scotland's oldest and strangest and rather unique to the village. No one knows when it began or what exactly it means. It's the burning of the clavie.
Burning the clavie is an ancient Scottish custom still observed there. The clavie is a bonfire of casks split in two and lighted on January 11, the old New Year, before the calendar was changed in 1660. On the night, the clavie is nailed to a post by a huge nail - some say that the same nail is ritually used, year after year. It is filled with tar and wood shavings, then carried to the home of one of the town's oldest residents, the Burghead Provost, who lights the clavie with peat from his own hearth.
Always first to carry the clavie is the "Clavie King" who is accompanied by his 17 strong "Clavie Crew" made up of veterans of the ceremony who are often clad in old clothes and overalls bearing the scorch marks from carrying the clavie in previous years. Becoming a member of the Clavie Crew is one of the highest honours the community of Burghead can bestow upon its men and some local families have been represented in the crew for several generations.
They follow a set route through the village and along the way stop off to give smoldering embers from the clavie to householders who cherish them as tokens of good luck for the next twelve months.
They then make their way up to a headland upon which stands the ruins of an altar, locally called the Douro, or Doorie Hill. It here forms the nucleus of the bonfire, which is built up of split casks. When the burning tar-barrel falls in pieces, the people scramble to get a lighted piece with which to kindle the New Year's fire on their cottage hearth. The charcoal of the clavie is collected and put in pieces up the cottage chimneys, to keep spirits and witches from coming down. Pieces are also sent to family members who no longer live in the village so that they may have good luck, too.
No one is certain where the term *clavie* originated. Some believe the word is a derivation of cliabh(clee-av), a Gaelic word for a wicker basket, creel or cage. Others say it comes from the Latin word clavus (nail) and is Roman in origin. But since no one is sure whether this event is Celtic, Pictish or Roman in origin, the origin of the word itself is a mystery.
Regardless of the origin of the word or the celebration, it is fun for all.
Many of us don't have the luxury of lighting a huge bonfire, much less parading around with a flaming, tar filled cask, but there are still ways those of us with Scottish roots can celebrate. Drought conditions in your area may prohibit any kind of outdoor fire, but an indoor fireplace will suffice. Get a nice fire going and celebrate with Scottish food. If Scottish food isn't your preference, make a family favorite and just enjoy spending the time together. Save a piece of the wood from the fire to save for next year's celebration, much like you may have done with your Yule log in December.