Last Tuesday, on the last night of 2013, I was honoured to take part in one of the oldest, if not THE oldest traditions of the town which I now call home. The Stonehaven Fireballs is a ceremony which begins after the clock strikes midnight on the 1st of January each year, and 40 residents of Stonehaven march up and down the High St whirling wire cage balls around their heads, which have been filled with flammable material and set alight. The ceremony possibly has its roots in pagan traditions, but recent research indicates that the ceremony in its ‘modern’ format reaches back around 150 years.
After marshalling and volunteering at other events for the Fireballs, I was pleased to hear that I had earned my place and that a space was available for me last year. When I accepted it I was immediately struck with nerves and excitement; I hate crowds and don’t really like being the centre of attention, so how was I going to handle this one? I was also scared that I might not be strong enough to complete the task and do the traditions justice – I might have the cardiovascular fitness, but I run with my legs, not my arms!
The swinging movement is not a particularly challenging one, but everyone I spoke to about it said that I’d be drinking my pints with a straw for days after as my arms would be wrecked. I really didn’t want that to happen. In preparation I started training my upper body in new ways by attending circuit classes, Metafit classes, and diligently doing free weights and body weight exercises at home.
I attended the fireball making workshops at the start of December as required, and learned the secrets of building a good fireball. I’d tell you more about that, but then I’d have to kill you What I will say however, is that the wire cage, filling and 2ft handle weighed 4.5kg and I think the weight was just right for me. Kynon’s was about 5kg, and ours averaged somewhere in the middle in size out of the 40 swingers.
By the time the afternoon of the 31st of December came around I was finding it hard to conceal my nerves. I was very nervous that I wouldn’t be strong enough, that I’d do a bad job, that I’d let everybody down. Most of all I found it frustrating that I couldn’t fully practice what it would feel like to do the swinging of a fireball until the clock struck midnight. Kynon found it amusing and as a third-time swinger was 100% confident that I would be fine; after all if the septuagenarian swingers amongst us successfully swung every year, there was no reason why I wouldn’t be the same. I was just counting on adrenaline pulling me through in the same way it does in the last few painful miles of a race and you find yourself capable of things you never thought were possible.
I went for a walk to clear my head in the afternoon and the atmosphere in the town was incredible. As well as the usual Fireballs ceremony there was the huge Open Air In The Square event which Simple Minds were headlining. There were tourists standing around with maps, people milling about the High St pointing up and down in anticipation of the spectacle to come, yellow-jacketed officials bustling around, and the strains of mic checks drifting across the town in the wind. When I realised again how lucky I was to be a part of it all, my nerves gave way to excitement and I was ready to take my place in the show.
The Fireballers themselves do the set-up in the High St, and at 6pm an army of us descended on the piles of barriers and worked together like ants to get everything ready in an hour. Barriers are erected on both sides and ends of the street from the Cannon all the way down to the harbour and around the piers, effectively sealing off the road itself for our use. At 8.30pm the barriers are manned by the first shift of swingers who collect donations from the crowds and monitor the numbers entering the High St.
At 10pm it was time for us to take our turn at the gates. We’d watched the crowds trickle in from our living room window and then increase to a steady flow. When we opened our door and stepped out with our fireballs, we were greeted by points and delighted stares; “Look! They’ve got fireballs”, “Hey guys – a pair of swingers!” (no, the joke never gets old, and yes; we’ve heard them all before!). On the gates we greeted visitors from all over the world – I was astounded by the amount of different languages I heard and felt proud that so many people had decided to come and see our town. As the clock ticked on, the flow of people increased to a deluge who had come from far and wide. There were the tiniest, frailest of old ladies who were wrapped up and gripping their friends for warmth, herds of completely wasted yet amiable teenagers, groups of people with their carers, familiar faces from the running and rugby clubs, and complete strangers who just wanted a friendly chat and some tips on where to get the best views.
Our fireballs resting against the barriers attracted a lot of attention as well. People wanted to pick them up and examine them, and ask us how they were made. They asked for pictures of them, pictures of themselves with the balls, and pictures of us with our balls as well!
At 11.20pm, Stonehaven Pipe Band started marching up and down the High St which signalled that there wasn’t long to go ’til we would close the gates. At 11.40 we handed over to the marshals, picked up our fireballs, and joined a handful of other fireballers in making our way through the huge crowds which parted for us with whoops and applause. When we reached the barrier, a marshal let us through and we stepped into the wide open High St. As the crowd began to notice us when we made our way up the street, the applause and cheering grew deafening which made my heart thump so hard in my chest – I couldn’t believe what I was about to do! I looked at Kynon and we grinned widely at each other whilst walking in step and waving to the crowds.
When we reached the harbour there were TV cameras and photographers to add to the melee. We stripped off our outer layers to reveal a Mackie Rugby shirt for Kynon and a Stonehaven Running Club vest for me, and greeted our fellow swingers which included Vikki and Iain Shanks and George Reid from the running club. My head was spinning as I was guided towards a pile of sawdust to get my fireball doused in paraffin. I took my place in the first set of swingers waiting to ‘light up’ and at 11.50pm the ‘sausage’ (a big, long fireball) was lit up and our balls placed upon it to ignite. Mine took a little longer than I thought and I was worried it might fail, but soon enough flames were licking through it and I was able to walk around to take my place in the procession, which was now 9th.
It was disconcerting to see the flames flicker so close to me as the fireball sat near my feet, but I was soon distracted by the crowd suddenly shouting FIVE…FOUR…THREE…TWO…ONE…HAPPY NEW YEAAAAAAAR!!! The strains of a lone piper reached over the noise of the ecstatic crowd as the procession, lead by Jean Houghton, began to move. One by one the figures in front of me took one or two steps before hoisting their flaming ball into the air, and then it was my turn and everything went blurry.
Words can’t really do this experience justice, nor can they give you the smell of paraffin in the air or the whooooosh of fire as it swings in front of you, behind you, and on either side of you. I can’t truly describe the burning in your triceps and shoulders, but I can tell you that hearing your name being called by friends and family across the crowds lifts you up beyond the pain. The disorientation of camera flashes, sparks, dizziness, exhaustion and exhilaration may make your steps wobble from side to side, but the shrieks of delight from the crowd will let you know when you get too close. When you turn at the bottom of the High St and return into the wind once more, your eyes squint from the heat and sparks fly around you like wasps but you don’t notice them stinging your skin as you’re just hoping you can make it back to the harbour with enough life left in your fireball to give a good throw into the harbour for the crowds. When it comes to your turn on the slipway, you wind it up good and strong and let go…only for it to make it 6 ft before scudding into the waves, but it’s ok because you resolve to do much better next year.
With a shriek and a cheer you turn and raise your knackered arms to the crowd and applaud them for their part in the festivities, shouting ‘Happy New Year!!’ to them all, which they shout right back at you. You take a few steps back to allow the next swinger to take his turn, and it’s your fiancé who grabs you for an embrace after launching his fireball into the water, and the crowd love it. You retreat to cheer the rest of the swingers whilst swinging from hip flasks and hugging friends with your trembling arms. As the last balls are extinguished, fireworks explode overhead and adrenaline still coarses through your veins. By walking in the footsteps of those who came before, you have played your part in keeping this ancient tradition alive and making a memorable start to 2014 for a crowd of 8,000.
I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face for days – the buzz and the rush from taking part in this was absolutely insane, and it’s clear why there are swingers who are approaching 40 years and more of participation. I’m already thinking about how I can make my ball bigger and brighter for next year and how to be fit to swing for longer. I’m not one to wish my life away, but I really can’t wait!
All pictures used with grateful permission from Stewart Mitchell of Earthly Light Photography - www.earthlylight.co.uk