Scotland has the best winter fire festivals in the UK. Combine the primitive impulse to light up the long nights, the ancient idea that fire purifies and chases away evil spirits and the natural Scottish impulse to party to the wee small hours and you end up with some of the most dazzling and daring midwinter celebrations in Europe.
At one time, most Scottish towns celebrated the New Year with huge bonfires and torchlight processions. Many have disappeared, but those that are left are real humdingers. Here are the five best winter fire festivals in Scotland.
At least 45 strong Scots dare devils - most in Kilts - parade through the town on New Year's Eve swinging 16 pound balls of fire around themselves and over their heads. Each "swinger" has his or her own secret recipe for creating the fireball and keeping it lit. Thousands come to watch this famous event on the North Sea, south of Aberdeen. It all gets underway before midnight with bands of pipers and wild druming. Then a lone piper, playing Scotland the Brave, leads the pipers into town. At the stroke of midnight, they raise their flaming balls over their heads and begin to swing and twirl them, showering the street, themselves and usually the 12,000 strong crowd, with sparks. As you can imagine, wild partying follows into the wee small hours.
This bizarre ritual, on a spit of land at the edge of Moray Firth, involves a flaming, tar barrel - a clavie - filled with wood shavings, tar and barrel staves. Nailed to a post (some say with the same nail, year after year) it is marched around the town of Burghead, Scotland before being ignited by one of the town's oldest residents with smoldering peat from his own fire. As it makes its circuit, smoldering embers are sometimes presented to householders to ignite their own fires. It then becomes the basis of an even bigger, beacon fire on a hill at an ancient Pictish stone altar. When it finally breaks up, scattering embers across the hill, locals scramble to catch a smoldering bit to start their first hearth fire of the New Year. The origins could be Pictish, Celtic or Roman - nobody really knows. In the past, clergymen tried to ban it as a heathen abomination, but it persists, as exciting and scary as ever.
By the way, if you don't make it up there in midwinter, head for the Moray Firth in warmer weather. It is known as one of the best places to see dolphins at play in all of Europe.
A thousand costumed, torch carrying "Vikings" spend all day parading a Viking galley through Lerwick, Shetland's main port. There's a great deal of rowdy, Viking singing and then, at the sea, the torchbearers throw their torches into the ship and set it ablaze. The Viking festival goes on for about 24 hours. If you can't make it to Shetland on the last Tuesday in January, you might meet up with the Up Helly Aa Vikings a bit earlier in Edinburgh, where they usually lead that city's torchlight parade for Edinburgh Hogmanay.
While Up Helly Aa has all the earmarks of an ancient Viking orgy, it's actually a relatively modern innovation, dating from the 1880s. That was when local young people and the town council joined forces to get some control over the wild Christmas and New Year's revelry, firing off of weapons and general mayhem that persisted after soldiers returned from the Napoleonic Wars with a taste for big bangs. That's not to suggest that Up Helly Aa is now tame - far from it. Plenty of ale and Scotch whisky see to that. But it is a very well planned event (scheduled for the BBC cameras), with planning, costume making and the building of a Viking longboat starting almost a year ahead of time.
The huge New Year's Eve bonfire in the center of this South Lanarkshire town has been going on for hundreds of years. There's a torchlight parade, pipers and drummers and an annual ritual with the town's oldest resident lighting the fire. What makes this event special ( and especially terrifying) is that while bonfires elsewhere are lit in open fields or at the top of empty hills, this huge bonfire is lit in the middle of the town's high street, surrounded by homes and shops. Despite that, it's a family affair with all ages taking part.
Like something out of a horror movie, the townsfolk of this Perthshire town set fully grown birch trees, wrapped in hessian soaked for weeks in paraffin and tar, aflame. They march the eight huge torches around the town before throwing them, with their cargo of a year's worth of evil spirits, into a river. Flames leap as high as ten feet above the tree torches themselves.