Monday, 31 December 2012

New Year : Hogmanay in the Strath and the Comrie Flambeaux


Crossing Dalginross Bridge
Hogmanay -  Seekin' Their Cakes In Fife

Burning The Clavie At Burghead

Hogmanay ( New Years Eve ) is an old and much celebrated occasion  throughout Scotland . The word itself however  is something of a mystery . Amongst the theories regarding its origins is that it is from the word “ Hagmena “ – a corrupted Greek word  meaning “ holy month “ . Another “ learned “ school of thought  implies that the  word is  of French origin and  was  brought over with the Normans in 1066 !This latter line is  based on the  old Norman word “ Haguillennes “ . To add to the  general confusion a third source promotes the theory that the Hogmanay source lies in the  ancient Norse festivals that was celebrated at Yule time . The night  before it started  was called “ hoggin – nat “ or  “ hogenat “ which  meant the slaughter night when the cattle  were  killed to allow   the prepararation  of  food  on the great day . Confused ? – well join the club  !

There is  no doubt that the Scottish Hogmanay and Neerday ( New Years Day) have  changed radically over the last  few  decades . By tradition the “ first foot “ after mid night determined the  luck of the household  in the ensuing year . It was regarded as bad luck if the  first  person to cross the thresh hold after “ the bells “ was a woman or  a fair haired  person . To quote an old Scots rhyme :

If the first foot is a woman

And that woman

she be fair

In all the days that follow

You will have a care

Luckiest first foot was a tall dark haired man who would  enter the house without  speaking and poke the fire and add a lump of coal thus  bring  good  fortune  for the New  Year . The origins of the Dark haired first foot as opposed  to a fair one  is said to date  back to the period of the Norse attacks  on the coast of Scotland !

Despite the intrusion of TV and its pre packed entertainment – many customs pertaining to New Year celebrations can be found throughout Scotland  and indeed the North of England  . In the East Neuk of Fife many of the towns and villages  celebrated  the New Year in a particular fashion  up  until the  start of World War 2 . Mumming or Morality plays  were acted out by the  children who went from door to door “ to seek their cakes “ They either carried baskets or bags or else dressed up in sheets which were folded  at the front to form a sack .

“My feet’s cauld , my shoon’s thin

Gie’s  my cakes  and let me rin”

In Galloway in the  south west a tradition  prevailed that water drawn a mid night before New Year had luck bringing properties particularly in allowing a young lass to find a suitable beau ! In Fordyce in Elgin there was  great stone known as the “ mortar stone “ . It  would  be laid  at the door of local lass selected by the community  and kept there for  a full year during which time  she would in probability get  m arried  to her choice . Stonehaven  south of Aberdeen has an annual fire ball swinging procession akin to  our Comrie Flambeaux  . Biggar in South Lanarkshire has a New Year bonfire  around which the citizens dance and parade A similar custom exists 400 miles north in Wick in Caithness  whilst a Burghead  on the Moray coast holds  the burning of the Clavie . The Clavie  is  a a long handle  to which a wooden  half barrel is  attached and filled  with tar and tarred  wood , set alight and marched around the old town .

What then of our own Comrie Flambeaux ? Below  is a description of  what  happens in the  early 21st century taken from the “ web “

One of Scotland's traditional celebrations of New Year takes place in the village of Comrie, Perthshire where virtually the whole village, with numbers swelled by residents of the surrounding area, assemble in and around the Square in Comrie await the arrival of the New Year , celebrating with an old tradition - the Comrie Flambeaux. The origins of this "Pagan" festival are lost in time but the tradition of the Comrie Flambeaux is that a torch lit procession is led round the village by the Comrie Pipe Band to drive out the evil spirits and to cleanse the village for the year ahead.. The procession includes several floats , often with a humorous theme, which commemorate significant events of the old year.

The torches are 12 foot birch poles which have been soaked for weeks in the River Earn, then wrapped in hessian sacks which are then soaked in flammable liquid. Carrying these is a significant test of fitness for the bearers!

The Square in front of the Royal Hotel is set aside for Comrie Flambeaux dancing and this can be interesting, especially if there is snow and ice on the ground as in 2004!! Dancing styles vary from traditional country dancing to jiving and perhaps even to no style. The age range of the dancers is wide and the whole emphasis is on having fun. The Square and surrounding streets are full of people and it is strictly standing room only. Fans of the architect Charles Rene Macintosh may wish to admire the white harrald building on the left of the Square on the corner of Dunira Street which was designed by him and which shows some typical features of his style. He may not have been particularly happy to know that a bargain store now occupies a large part of this fine building.
The spectacle of this torch lit procession, the parade of floats, and the pipe band itself finding its way through the packed village streets is well worth watching as the villagers and visitors mill about in the streets , greeting old friends, exchanging drinks from the many bottles being carried and generally having a good time.
The following account of the Flambeaux was written in the 1930s :
In Comrie in Perthshire , the young men  and boys  of the town dress up in weird and wonderful  costumes , some with  horned head dresses , and parade  at mid night through the town carrying burning torches with which a street bonfire is finally lighted . Shopkeepers and house wives lay in  a good stock of cakes and fruit and , even if the original Hogmanay cake , a kind of sweet bread , is  not universally baked ready for the guisers, still there are  few houses which fail to respond  to the children’s demands.
Get up , good wife , and shake your feathers
Dinna think that we are beggars
For we are bairns  come out to play
Get  up and  gie’s  our Hogmanay
The Flambeaux alike Hogmanay itself has a degree  of uncertainty about its  origins .Peter McNaughton in his fascinating web page "Highland Strathearn – Papers in a Trunk "  posts  this interesting piece :

The origins of this mysterious celebration lie in the misty swirls of time. It is the cause of much speculation. As a mid-winter festival many have suggested that the Flambeaux celebrated customs from the time of the Druids. They suggest that the Druids held it to celebrate the changing of the seasons and to drive away evil spirits. To accomplish this rather Herculean task they bound and swathed the tops of birch poles in hessian or canvas, covered them in pitch, and then set them ablaze carrying them through the village preceded by a pipe band. This sounds rather fanciful. Others favour the notion that after the Vikings visited our community principally in search of plunder and sack it was instituted for celebratory purposes. Questions have been raised about this philosophy as well .However, the reality is that there was no mention of Comrie as a village prior to 1750 although it was known as a meeting place since around the twelfth century.There had been no mention in the records before 1750 of a fire festival called the Flambeaux in the village. It was during the period 1750 to 1820 that Comrie grew into a village.

Peter’s analysis  is  sound but  it is evident from the abundance of similar customs  throughout Scotland  that our Strathearn New Year Festival – the Comrie Flambeaux – has a truly ancient origin albeit that the locus  may well  have  been somewhat different prior  to 1750 !
A happy New Year to you all when the bells chime  and  the last flaming torch is cast into the Earn!!






Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Perthshire Clearances and Glen Beich

OS Map showing the area of Glen Beich in this "blog"
Loch Earn from Glen Beich

I recall about ten years ago being asked  by a lady from Ontario  in Canada to look into her Scottish roots and in particular those of her ancestors  who had  come  from Glen Beich near Lochearnhead . At that time I was totally  ignorant  of the significance  of this , one of the most beautiful and unheralded  parts of the Strath . Apparently  her family  had  been small crofters in a n area of the Glen on an  elevated part above the settlement of Ardveich . Ardveich which in Gaelic is Ard-Bheathaich or “ height of the birch woods ” lies  less than half a mile from the shores of Loch Earn on the east side of the Beich Burn . On the west side was another small settlement known as Dalveich- Dal-Bheathaich- “ the field of the birch woods ” .It is  clear that this area had been  inhabited  for countless generations back into the mists of time . A castle had  been built  near by and had been constructed as a fortified  tower  house for the  chief of the Clan McLaren . It  has been referred to as both Ardveich and Dalveich Castle over the years and now is sadly a mere pile of  rubble surmounted  by a clump of trees .These lands were originally as noted the fiefdom of the McLarens . The origins of the clan are uncertain, but by tradition the MacLarens are descended from Loarn mac Eirc of Dál Riata, who landed in & settled Argyll in 503 A.D. The clan name is supposedly derived from Lorn (variations Loarn, Laurin, Laren); these variations are all ultimately pronounced Lawrin in Gaelic. However there is no concrete evidence of Lorn being the progenitor of the family. A more likely origin of the clan is that they take their name from a 13th century abbot called Laurance of Achtow. This theory is also supported by the MacLaren rallying cry which in gaelic is: "Creag an Tuirc" which means "Boars Rock". The rock in question is near Achtow in Balquhidder . Dalveich of course is not that  far  from there and in the 17th century this powerful clan held all the land in the lower part of  the Glen . They were however in something  of a decline  and the lands came into the possession of the Marquis of Atholl and eventually the powerful Marquis of Breadalbane . From the extremely informative Stewarts of Balquhidder Discussion Forum ( , it is explained that the lands of this part of Glen Beich  were occupied  by the Stewarts  from about the middle of the 17th century on leasehold tenure ( wadset ) . These Stewarts were a  branch of the well known Stewarts of Ardvorlich  on the south side of the Loch .
In those far off days this would have  been a thriving  community with the tenants living a crofting  existence relying  on fish ( from the Beich Burn and no doubt the adjoining Loch ) as well as root crops such as potatoes , seasonal barley or bear for food and beer and flax which was spun and  woven into linen cloth . A hard but satisfying existence in this  idyllic  spot . The old parish records show  countless generations of Stewarts being born , living out life and dying in this so beautiful airt . Alas, by the mid 19th century all was to change . The rapacious  Marquis of Breadalbane realised that sheep were more profitable than people and the Perthshire clearances began both here  and in Glen Quaich near Amulree . En masse the people  moved away having  been thrown off their lands and the roofs of their cottages  stripped and burned . It is part of our history which in a Perthshire context has been overlooked . It should  not  be forgotten . These people should be remembered for the suffering they endured prior  to reaching the promised land of Canada . Not a few failed to make it  .
Ruins of Ardveich/Dalveich Castle
 Deserted croft


The Beich Burn



Where was that ? The Crieff of yester year !


The top of Church Street was known as the " Shambles " 


There is  an incredibly detailed  map of Crieff  drawn up in 1822 by John Wood . Wood was a Scottish surveyor resident in Edinburgh. Between 1818 to 1830 he engraved 52 plans of Scottish towns, of which 48 were published in Atlas form in 1828. He also surveyed numerous Northumberland and Durham towns during the period 1826 and 1827. Fortunately his  work  has been  preserved   by the National Library of Scotland in digital form on the internet : (

By clicking on the image  you can increase or decrease the size  making it  so easy  to take  a town tour of Crieff as it was nearly two centuries  ago ! For the  genealogist / family historian with  roots in the town there is an added  bonus  in that the houses are clearly delineated  with the owner or  occupier’s  name shown . Indeed in some cases the  occupations are also listed !

An area shown with cross hatching is described as the “ Shambles ” . I had always associated The Shambles with the lovely City of York in the North of England and certainly not here in the heart of Strathearn ! . The name also occurs in both Manchester and in Lutterworth in Leicestershire . Historical evidence indicates that the word is used to denote  a place where cattle  were slaughtered or butchered . Crieff’s “ Shambles ” is located  opposite  The Cross at the junction of Church Street , East High Street and High Street . Old timers  will recall that the little shop now trading as the Community Council Charity Shop  was  once the Coop butchers ! Although it  was  certainly not around in 1822 when Wood produced his master piece – the area was the  focal point of The Tryst when 30 000  beasts  invaded our little town ! It was here that Rob Roy – drover – rustler – bandit and folk hero – toasted the health of King James –“ the King across the water ” despite the presence of a somewhat immobile contingent of Hanoverian Redcoats .

 Other places  which have disappeared or  just  changed  name include Cross Street or Kirkgate now Church Street , Pudding Lane  now Bank Street , Brown’s Lane now Ramsay Street , McFarlane’s Lane now Roy Street , The Octagon  now Burrell Square and Cowper’s Lane  now Cornton Place . Late Victorian Anglicisation saw Hall or Hill Wynd  become Hill Street and Lodge Brae become Lodge Street