"The sky was a vivid crimson in every airt.
Great bonfires flamed and the bairns were delirious with delight."
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
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.
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
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
The power of fire was also thought to protect
against the powers of evil in whatever shape or form they stalked