11th January: 'Burning the Clavie'

When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r; 
When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r,
Far south the lift,
Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r,
Or whirling drift...

From:  'A Winter's Night' by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Fire!  Gosh what significance fire has to the Feast and Festival lover - fire to warm - fire to cook - fire to symbolize. Since Prometheus we’re all pyromaniacs at heart.

There are dozens of fire festivals all around the world involving bonfires, torches, funeral pyres, burning boats and tar barrels – lots of tar barrels. On Midsummer Eve they were rolled through the narrow streets of my adopted hometown and on the night of the Old New Year a special tar barrel is paraded through the streets of Burghead in Scotland.

It’s called ‘Burning the Clavie’. Burghead is on the Moray Firth in north east Scotland and its tradition has stayed faithful to the old ways. In effect the good people of Burghead celebrate New Year twice; on the 31st December and again on the 11th January.

Churchmen in the 17th century condemned the Burning of the Clavie as ‘an abominable, heathenish practice’ and tried to stamp it out, so it is possible that before that time the practice was more widespread.  Burghead has kept faith in the Clavie - although no one knows when it began or what exactly it means.

The clavie is an iron-hooped whisky barrel packed with wood and tar. It’s daubed with creosote and nailed onto a pole with a specially forged nail.  A group of men known as the Clavie crew - traditionally burly fishermen, are lead by the Clavie king and take turns to carry the burning Clavie on a set route clockwise round the streets of the old part of the town.

The Clavie crew stop to present bits of smouldering embers to certain households and the three pubs in the village to bring them good luck for the following year. Finally the Clavie is put onto a stone altar upon Doorie Hill, and more fuel is added, often setting the whole side of the hill alight in the process. The barrel eventually collapses and the blazing embers are scattered all over the hilltop before they are collected and given out for good luck, although it is said in the past the embers were kept as charms against witchcraft.

You can see what happens on You Tube…

Not far round the Moray Firth to the south east of Burghead, is the little town of Cullen. Cullen gives its name to Cullen Skink, which sounds like some horrible creature that might lurk under the deep waters of the Firth, but it’s a totally delicious soup – a sort of pre-chowder. 

This is a recipe by Felicity Cloake in ‘The Guardian’. I heartily recommend her column. She takes a classic dish, compares the available recipes and comes up with the best version.

Cullen Skink

500g undyed smoked haddock, skin on

A bay leaf

Knob of butter

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 leek, washed and cut into chunks

2 medium potatoes, unpeeled, cut into chunks

500ml whole milk

Chives, chopped, to serve

1. Put the fish into a pan large enough to hold it comfortably, and cover with about 300ml cold water. Add the bay leaf, and bring gently to the boil. By the time it comes to the boil, the fish should be just cooked – if it's not, then give it another minute or so. Remove from the pan, and set aside to cool. Take the pan off the heat.

2. Melt the butter in another pan on a medium-low heat, and add the onion and the leek. Cover and allow to sweat, without colouring, for about 10 minutes until softened. Season with black pepper.

3. Add the potato and stir to coat with butter. Pour in the haddock cooking liquor and bay leaf, and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potato is tender.

4. Meanwhile, remove the skin, and any bones from the haddock, and break into flakes.

5. Lift out a generous slotted spoonful of potatoes and leeks, and set aside. Discard the bay leaf. Add the milk, and half the haddock to the pan, and either mash roughly or blend until smoothish.

6. Season to taste, and serve with a generous spoonful of the potato, leek and haddock mixture in each bowl, and a sprinkling of chives.

O, IT'S fine when the New an the Auld Year meet,
An the lads gang roarin i' the lichtit street,
An there's me an there's Alick an the miller's loon,
An Geordie that's the piper oot o Forfar toon.
Geordie Faa! Geordie Faa!
Up wi the chanter, lad, an gie's a blaw!

From 'Hogmanay' by Violet Jacob (1863-1946)

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