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  Orcadian Bonfire Traditions

"The sky was a vivid crimson in every airt. Great bonfires flamed and the bairns were delirious with delight."

A Johnsmas BonfireIn the words of an old Orcadian author: "bonfires are the very blood of Orcadians. The ritual bonfire goes back to the very beginnings of our history and even before."

A perfect description.

Orkney is a place where absolute dark reigns for half the year. So the ceremonial lighting up of the night sky with fire was an eagerly awaited occasion.

In days gone by, four times every year, hilltops across Orkney blazed with orange firelight.

Giant bonfires were constructed and lit to commemorate the ancient festivals of Yule, Beltane, Johnsmas (midsummer) and Hallowmas (Halloween).

Over time, the tradition of lighting bonfires at Yule and Beltane died out. The third altered slightly, with the Hallowmas bonfires becoming associated with the national celebration of Guy Fawkes' Night, and therefore being lit around November 5.

Johnsmas was the last of the festivals widely celebrated with bonfires. The lighting midsummer bonfires remained in most Orkney toonships until the 1860s.

Preparing the fire

The responsibility for finding and gathering the material for the festival bonfires fell on the older children of each area. Because wood was far too scarce a commodity to waste in a fire, the main sources of fuel were heather and peat.

So, in the weeks leading up to the fire, the youngsters of the community would wander the hills, gathering armfuls of heather. These would be carted back and stored near the bonfire site. Every house in the area also permitted the gatherers to take as many peats from their stack as the strongest boy could carry away.

The site of the bonfires was usually a traditional one - a place where the celebratory fires had been lit for countless generations. The massive cliff in Hoy, St John's Head, is so called because it was the site of the Johnsmas bonfires from time immemorial.

Fireside antics

When the night of the fire finally arrived and the bonfire was ablaze, the youngsters danced and capered around the flames. The boys would pull burning bits of heather from the fire and run across the hillsides, setting them alight! Antics such as jumping through the flames were normal and generally expected.

Early records from the seventeenth century tell us that those who gathered to watch the bonfire's leaping flames would walk around its circumference "with the sun" - in other words, clockwise. In much the same way, cattle, horses, the sick or infirm were also led sunwise around the fire. The bonfire's flames were regarded as having some form of purifying or revitalising power.

The importance placed on the power of flame remained until the middle of the nineteenth century. Until this time, farmers throughout the county carried torches of blazing heather around their fields, through their byres and among their cattle in the belief that this would make them thrive. In much the same manner there are also records of houses being circled with torches of burning heather.

The power of fire was also thought to protect against the powers of evil in whatever shape or form they stalked the land.