Friday, January 25, 2019

A new year, and best wishes to all!

Before the month of January leaves us entirely (Burns Night is here already, and that's for the next chapter), I need to catch up on a couple of the various ways the New Year is celebrated in north-east Scotland!

When I returned to Aberdeen from my Christmas holidays in the States on January 5, several of my classmates had been to a fire festival on New Year's Eve in the town of Stonehaven, not far south of Aberdeen. It's an annual festival with ancient origins.

Fire festivals mark the beginning of a new year in a dramatic way, with delegated townsfolk carrying flaming torches, baskets, and barrels through their village as everyone else lines the streets and cheers them on. The fire festivals may be associated with pre-Christian rituals where fire is used to ward off evil spirits and to purify the village for the coming year. Stonehaven's Fireballs, Burghead's Burning of the Clavie, and the Shetland Isles' Up Helly Aa festivals are all part of this kind of tradition.

I couldn't be in Stonehaven this year, as I was celebrating the turning of the New Year with music and dance at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. But while I was playing music there, my classmates sent me the video clip (above) from Stonehaven. It's short, but it conveys the excitement! Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, led by a bagpiper and accompanied by drummers, about 45 townspeople march to the harbor as they whirl flaming baskets around their heads on long wire handles. When everyone reaches the harbor, they throw their flaming fireballs into the sea. When the last of the fireballs has been tossed and extinguished, a huge fireworks display celebrates the beginning of a new year.

Putting the finishing touches on the Clavie
But New Year's doesn't end on January 1 in Burghead, about 3 hours' drive northwest of Stonehaven. On January 11, 2019, our class and teachers rented a minivan and drove from Aberdeen to Burghead, Moray for the old Julian calendar New Year. There, another fire festival celebrates the turning of the year: the Burning of the Clavie (pronounced CLAY-vee). The Clavie is a giant torch comprised of a half-barrel, nailed to the top of a stout white wood pole with supports to keep it steady. Only traditional hand tools (like a very large round stone instead of a hammer!) are used to make the Clavie and to hammer the huge nail through it into the pole.
A modern hammer, showing the scale 
of  the actual hammer used

Pieces of firewood (staves) are loaded into the half-barrel, and the Clavie is carried to a spot near the Clavie King's house in the town of Burghead. Around 5:30 pm, people begin gathering there, and wait while the Clavie King and his assistants ignite the staves. An air of quiet excitement surrounds us. A few volunteer (?) police wardens keep a path clear for the men who carry the burning Clavie, which is supported on the top of the head of each man who takes a turn carrying it. The whole Clavie, filled with fuel and staves, and set aflame, weighs about 225 pounds, more or less. They use a secret recipe for the fuel, which is a highly flammable mixture!

At 6:00 pm, with its staves burning brightly and snapping sparks into the chilly night air, the Clavie is hoisted onto the head of the first Clavie man to carry it for a short distance through the town. The procession will stop many times to lower the Clavie, add more fuel to it, and transfer it to another man to carry it a bit further. They stop at houses and businesses along the way, sharing the flaming staves with townsfolk to light their own hearth fires from the Clavie. The final destination, about 45 minutes later, is the site of an ancient Pictish fort at Doorie Hill, overlooking the sea, and the Clavie is safely secured where everyone below can see it as it burns like a signal fire.  Here are a couple of video snippets you might enjoy:


Everyone seems to be turning out for this night's celebration, which will last only about two hours. Families, small children, dogs, a few visitors from outside Burghead (like us!), all follow the Clavie to the rampart of the fortress and watch as it burns. It's a festive and social occasion; the children are just as excited as the adults, and I didn't hear anyone wailing to go home.

Every few moments, a few brave Clavie team men climb up on the wall where the Clavie is secured and throw more fuel onto it. The renewed fire hisses, snaps, and towers into the night sky. They take a few good whacks at it now and then to dislodge some flaming staves. As the staves fall to the ground, people scramble to get their own piece of the Clavie, which is good luck for the next year. Finally, the Clavie itself burns out and collapses onto the wet ground, and everyone can get a bit of the Clavie. (Yes, I got a piece, too!)

The rest of the evening is spent visiting several pubs in the town, having some of the local brews, or trying some of the excellent local whisky choices. The Glen Moray distillery is not very far away (in Elgin), and that's only one of many in the area.

We made it back to the University by about 1:30 am, having had a lovely time celebrating the beginning of the new year:

You might (or might not) recognize some of these same folks as members of a Galoshins mummers play that we inflicted upon some undergraduates just putting their toes into a a bit of folklore... Here, we are trying out different disguises for the play. I can honestly say that we rehearsed this, although our audiences probably wouldn't have known. But we had a great deal of fun, and it flowed a lot better by the third time we performed it.




Note the piece of wood hanging over the door?
That's our very own piece of the Clavie, put
 there by our Institute Director, Dr Tom McLean (also cleverly disguised in the picture to the right, where he looks a bit unsure of the sanity of his MLitt students). 

Happy New Year to all, and more news to come soon! (I need to divide these topics up into shorter, manageable chunks.) Next time, more entertainments, and a bit more travel!

Cheers, and thanks!

Friday, January 4, 2019

December and getting ready for Christmas

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Happy New Year's Day to all! I have been home in North Carolina for the holidays, and it's been even busier than it normally is. Three weeks have flown past since I came home. Before that, a whole lot happened--here are a few highlights:

  • Exams for the first term were done in early December. We all went for a very rewarding couple of pints that evening at the Blackfriars. Whew.
  • With a classmate, I spent a lovely weekend in Sheffield, England for the Festival of Village Carols (organized by one of our professors, Ian Russell). We helped out wherever we could, and both of us played in the orchestra.
  • A group of us went to a delightful evening at St Machar's Cathedral in Aberdeen, taking part in a Carol Service. What an amazing way to feel ready for Christmas...
  • Ceilidh! Our Scottish-Polish singing group at the Elphinstone Institute hosted a great ceilidh dance, with lots of classic Scottish ceilidh dances, and a few Polish folk dances as well. Not only was the music wonderful, so was the traditional Polish food!
  • I spent another lovely weekend in Midmar, Aberdeenshire, walking with friends, seeing prehistoric spots, doing musical things, and taking pictures of the beautiful areas around Midmar, Echt, and Banchory. 
Some highlights captured during these adventures...

A trip to Sheffield! We were invited to participate in a very old tradition of multiple-part singing of carols. We were actually in the charming community of Grenoside, just outside Sheffield, in south Yorkshire. Just walking through the village takes you back about 400 years, and there are much older settlements beneath the moss and trees of the parklands around the town.

Fascinating bits of houses and old millstone set into an ancient stone wall, enormous thick slates on a roof, a weather vane bearing witness to the mining history here.

The countryside is beautiful, open, with rolling hills all around. Not far away is the Peak District and the Pennines, a beautiful range of low mountains. Think Wordsworth, Coleridge, Yorkshire Dales. The name Grenoside is probably derived from Anglo-Saxon and Norse words meaning quarry and hills, and it is well-known for its sandstone quarries. The area around Sheffield is also famous for steelmaking and cutlery. 

Walking with our wonderful hosts on top of a hill ridge above Grenoside, enjoying the brisk wind sweeping soft rain across the valleys, with just a soft hint of a rainbow...

The old Red Lion Inn was where we spent our first evening. It was the beginning of the Christmas season, and there are regular carol singing sessions of traditional carols that have been sung in Grenoside for centuries. For me, and for many from the US, some of the words are quite familiar, but they are set to different tunes to the ones I associate with them. And they are lovely. There is something absolutely awe-inspiring about being in a small pub packed with people, all singing with great enthusiasm, in multi-part harmonies!

There was more! The Grenoside Sword Dancers ( took advantage of a break in the soft rain to entertain everyone outside for a few minutes. 

The Festival of Village Carols also hosted some special guests from Sardinia, an ensemble of singers who performed some traditional Sardinian songs. The old Red Lion Inn reverberated with incredibly deep, resonant harmonies, and the pub audience was obviously intrigued and enthusiastic.

The next day was rehearsal time for the performance in the evening, featuring carols from both Sheffield and Darbyshire, and joined by several choruses from neighboring villages. Playing in the orchestra was a great experience, as we each played soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines, according to our instruments' ranges and the balance of the sound with the audience's voices.

View from the orchestra pit - Prof. Ian Russell directs the musicians and also the community singing from the audience. Some of you might recognize a friend and band partner of mine, Julie Gorka, who is playing fiddle in the orchestra. She made a surprise last-minute trip to join us in Sheffield!
Did I mention that we had a pretty wide variety of instruments? Here's one not often seen--a serpent! It's a low wind instrument that is an ancestor of the modern tuba, made of wood and often wrapped in leather. There were actually two of these in our ensemble. This one has a special accessory attached for a beer glass... 

St Machar's Cathedral on a rainy night
Other Christmas carol singing sessions during December were equally wonderful. The Carol Service at the ancient St Machar's Cathedral in Old Aberdeen was another awe-inspiring and joyful evening. (See video clip below.) It was, of course, raining as we walked through Old Aberdeen to St. Machar's, and the ancient church looked quite ghostly, but inviting, rising up out of the mist. On our way back, I couldn't resist taking a picture of the colorfully-lit Christmas tree in front of King's Chapel on campus.

King's Chapel, ready for Christmas!

One of the slightly more unusual things I have become part of at the Elphinstone Institute is the Scottish-Polish singing group. They meet most Thursday evenings in the Buchan Library at the Institute, and share Polish and Scottish songs. I can't say that I speak any Polish at all, but I can sing a couple of Polish songs and make appropriate sounds that, in a group, might pass for Polish words. The Scots lyrics aren't quite such new material!  In November, the Polish members of our group organized a ceilidh dance at a venue in Aberdeen. We spent the evening learning some Polish traditional dances, interleaved with some classic Scottish ceilidh dances. There was a lot of excellent homemade Polish food for everyone, too. 

Ceilidh dances are opportunities for socializing and for general hilarity as everyone tries to figure which direction they are supposed to be heading in.

The band--Danse McCabre Ceilidh Band--was great! Lots of energy, fun tunes, and a patient caller with a good sense of humor.  

Flute, fiddle, keyboard, caller...all add up to great music and good fun for all.

Anne Taylor, who plays keyboard in the Danse McCabre Ceilidh Band, lives on a beautiful farm outside of Aberdeen. (Anne also got me to join the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society, which is great fun!) I spent a lovely weekend at the farm, which goes by the delightful name of North Tillydaff. The scenery is amazing, and it's sufficiently away from lights and towns that it is quite normal to see the Milky Way at night. I am still hoping to see northern lights (the Merry Dancers!) while I am here, but on this trip I saw more earth-based beauties. 

The current Midmar Kirk is a 18th-century church built on the site of much older ones. It's interesting in that the graveyard is in the midst of a Bronze Age stone circle and recumbent stone--a beautiful blending of pagan and Christian beliefs and history.

A large single standing stone next to Midmar Kirkyard. It doesn't seem to be part of the stone circle, but stands apart from it at a little distance from the church.

You can read much more about it here:

Of course, it wouldn't be Scotland without gorse, that ubiquitous, tough bush that seems to bloom no matter what time of year I happen to see it. It has some impressive thorny defenses, but the cheery yellow flowers offset its prickly nature.

Unfortunately, these piebald-marked Jacob's Sheep (below) probably do not eat gorse. Goats do, I am told.

A view of North Tillydaff, looking out towards 
the Cairngorm Mountains in Aberdeenshire.

Sunset over the hills near Crathes Castle, near Banchory, Aberdeenshire. 

Below is the castle just as the sun was setting at 3:30 pm. 

Portrait of Anne holding up a massive tree on the Crathes Castle grounds. The gardens are a not-to-be-missed attraction, even in winter. Walking through the grounds, you encounter a wide assortment of specimen trees, many several hundred years old.

The tree below is apparently what is keeping the steep slope around it intact; the roots look like they are growing out of the grey granite boulders.

Granite, I'm discovering, comes in many colors. Crathes Castle and several others nearby are what I privately call pink castles (like Craigievar and Midmar Castles)--the granite is almost a peach color. Aberdeen is the Granite City, mostly the grey sort, but I'm becoming aware of how varied the granite blocks and cobblestones can be. Textures, cracks, stripes, shades of grey, pink, tan, white...I'm gradually realizing it's not just plain old grey.

Enough for this chapter of the adventure, I think! You've scrolled down and down and down and stayed with me--next time, trips to Edinburgh and also to Burghead (for the Burning of the Clavie on 11 January--one of many fire festivals at the beginning of the new year).

Two of the Elphinstone Institute MLitt students using an old traditional method--flaming torches--to light their way on a muddy path at night
Thanks for reading and supporting me! More soon...please let me know if you have 
any trouble with the video bits. I'm still learning this!