Scotland's Fiery New Year's Festivals - The Stonehaven Fireballs

Whirling Balls of Fire at Midnight to Welcome the New Year

Stonehaven Fireball Swingers Disappear in Flames
••• Terrifying Hogmanay Drama of the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Scots do love a good fire on Hogmanay. And New Year's Eve in Stonehaven is an orgy of flame.

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, in the North Sea coastal town of  Stonehaven, at least 45 strong Scots, most in kilts, light up the high street by whirling balls of flame and sending showers of sparks into the watching crowd.

An Exciting and Terrifying Spectacle

The Stonehaven Fireballs, as the event is known, is one of the most dramatic of Scotland's many New Year's and Hogmanay fire festivals.

  At least 12,000 spectators line the route of the event and the partying goes on well into January 1.

Festivities get underway with street entertainment at about 11pm. Usually there's a band of pipers, followed by some very wild drumming. Just before midnight, a lone piper leads the fireball swingers into the town center to the familiar strains of Scotland the Brave.  

The watching crowd counts down the last few second before the new year and, then to the accompaniment of wild cheering, the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers raise their flaming balls, attached to long wire handles, and begin to swing them over and around their heads. 

Swinging their fireballs all the while, the marchers, led by the piper, make their way through the center of town from the Market Cross to the harbor and, when they tire of swinging them, they throw them into the sea. When the last fireball arcs across the sky and into the sea, the spectacle ends with a huge fireworks display.

How it All Began

Stonehaven was oncea small fishing village on the coast, about 15 miles from Aberdeen. The festival probably arose from a local 19th century ritual at one time only practiced by the fishermen of Old Stonehaven - the orignal village. Despite records that go back a little over a hundred years, it's likely that the use of purifying flame to word off evil spirits and to endow the fishing fleet with luck has pre-Christian origins.

At one time, only those born in the burgh of Stonehaven could participate. In the 1960s when the festival began to decline the rules were changed and, today, anyone who has lived in Stonehaven for a period of time and who has served as a Fireball marshal for at least one festival can apply to take part. And, unlike the Allendale Tar Barl, in England which is a male only affair, quite a few women march with the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers. (Some year's they're the only ones in trousers!)

Today, the Fireball swingers each make their own fireballs by filling wire baskets with a mixture of flammable materials. Participant's keep their recipes secret but the object is to create a fireball that will stay lit and burn brightly for a long time.

Watch the Stonehaven Fireball Online

Stonehaven has a live webcam, tuned on the harbor where the festival ends as all the fire baskets are thrown into the sea. Keeping in mind that webcams often go offline just when you need them, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the end of the procession by clicking on the Stonehaven Harbor Webcam on New Year's Eve. The procession usually reaches the harbour 15 to 20 minutes after midnight.

If that doesn't satisfy your inner firebug, Watch a video of the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers in the first few minutes of 2015.

Essentials

  • What: The brave - or the foolhardy - whirl balls of fire, creating an orgy of flame on the high street for Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.
  • When: Midnight, New Year's Eve.
  • Where: Stonehaven, a North Sea town south of Aberdeen in Scotland
  • Admission: Free
  • Website
  • How to Get There: Stonehaven is about 15 miles South of Aberdeen along the A90, coast road. There are train services to get there but none on New Year's Day to return, so your best bet is to take the local bus service. Stagecoach Bluebird runs buses between Aberdeen and Stonehaven.
  • Or you could stay over: If you don't want to drive or wait for the start of bus services the next morning (after 4am), you could book a room in Stonehaven. For a relatively small town, it has quite a few places to stay. But book early because they are all likely to be full on New Year's Eve - and they will charge four or five times their normal price.