The Comrie Flambeaux - Celebrations in the UK's Shakiest Town

Dom Pates, ccl

Thrill-seekers should really head for Comrie for the New Year's Eve Comrie Flambeaux festival. If the giant flaming birch trees aren't spine-tingling enough, Comrie could throw a wobbly - the town is the earthquake capital of the UK.

Some towns may have bigger bonfires or torchlight parades with more torches, but few are as impressive as the flaming trees of the Comrie Flambeaux. Yet the Hogmanay spectacle is only one of this Scottish town's claims to fame.

Here, on the southern edge of the Highlands, they start preparing for Hogmanay, their New Year's Eve celebration, in October. That's when they fell and trim the small birch trees that will become the flaming torches of the Comrie Flambeaux. 

In November, the tree trunks - which look a bit like shorter versions of the cabers thrown in traditional Highland Games - are soaked in the river for several weeks. They're then wrapped in hessian fabric (as many as 10 potato sacks each) soaked in paraffin and tar. When they are eventually lit, at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, the flaming part of the torches can be as much as ten feet long.

From the Churchyard to the River

New Year's Eve festivities in Comrie begin in the early evening with a children's fancy dress (British for "costume") parade at 6:30 p.m., followed by fireworks at 7:30 p.m.

The Comrie Flambeaux party sets off, near midnight, from a dike near Comrie's old churchyard - the church is a landmark of the town. There are at least eight flaming birch tree torches; some years as many as 12.

The torchbearers head for Melville Square in the center of town where hundreds of people in fancy dress are waiting. Then, as Big Ben in London chimes the strokes of midnight, the flambeaux are lit. Led by a band of pipers and followed by a costume parade, they're carried around the town by strong young men. Some say this is to cleanse Comrie of evil spirits.

When they return to the square, the flaming heads of the flambeaux are tipped into a massive bonfire, while prizes are awarded for the best costumes. At the end of the town celebrations, what's left of the torches, along with their "cargo" of evils, is then carried to the Dalginross Bridge and thrown into the River Earn, taking a whole year's worth of evil spirits with them.

But That's Just the Half of It

If you head for Comrie, just east of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, for Hogmanay, stick around a few days on the off chance that you might feel the earth shake under your feet. Comrie sits beside the Highland Boundary Fault that runs from the Isle of Arran in the west to Stonehaven in the east.

It's an area that experiences more earth tremors than anywhere else in the UK. In fact, this area has been so active that, since at least 1597, when diarist and diplomat Sir James Melville recorded a tremor felt all across Perthshire, scientists and the curious have been visiting Comrie to feel it for themselves. 

The term seismometer was first used here and it is probable that one of the earliest instruments to record the tremors, a pendulum suspended over a concave disk, was created by Prof. James D. Forbes in Comrie. In all, Forbes placed six seismometers of different sizes in Comrie for his research.

Just a few miles south of the town, look for the tiny Earthquake House, in Dalrannoch. In 1988 it was restored and supplied with modern monitoring equipment by the British Geological Survey. It also contains a replica of the world's first seismometer, installed in 1874. During the restoration, big windows were installed so that you can see the new seismometer working alongside the 19th-century replica of the 1840s original.

Comrie Flambeaux Essentials

  • What: Eight or more huge torches parade around the village for Hogmanay. Before that, a children's fancy dress parade sets off at 6:30 p.m. followed by fireworks after 7p.m. There is also an adult parade with floats. The torches parade through the town at about 11:30 p.m.
  • When: From 6:30 p.m. to after midnight, New Year's Eve.
  • Where: The Perthshire Village of Comrie in Scotland, about 19 miles west of Perth. There is bus service from Perth to Comrie, Perthshire.
  • Note: This is a small town and it gets very crowded for Hogmanay. Use public transportation to get there because you will never find a place to park.
  • Admission: Free
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