Scottish Fire Festivals

Fire retains its power, even in our world of light and technology. For as long as anyone can remember, fire has been part of human culture, lighting up the darkness at the turning of the year at Yuletide and New Year, the arrival of midsummer on St John’s Day, rites of passage, and for its cleansing properties. This talk looks at three contemporary fire festivals in Scotland – the Stonehaven Fireballs, the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead, and Up-Helly-Aa in Shetland. Beyond offering compelling imagery, these events bind communities together, define who belongs, provide an excuse for a little misrule, and light up the darkest time of the year, which in northern Scotland is dark indeed. We’ll be looking at the history of these events, their practice, and their meaning, function, and relevance in today’s artificially lit world.


Thomas McKean is a folklorist specializing in Scots and Gaelic song, along with custom and belief, community craft traditions and their relevance in today’s world, and fieldwork methodology. Of particular interest is the relationship of traditional practices to the individual, the role of creativity in tradition, and how traditional skills can help build individual and community resilience in challenging times. His research topics include ballad and song traditions, boatbuilding and other manual work, language and memory.

He is Director of the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, a centre for the study of Ethnology, Folklore, and Ethnomusicology with a remit to research, celebrate and promote the culture of the North-East and North of Scotland. The Institute works closely in partnership with community groups and individuals to draw attention to the cultural riches o the area.

As part of the James Madison Carpenter Project team, he worked with cylinder and disc recordings of North-East singers made between 1929 and 1935, leading towards publication of a critical edition of the collection. The project has been funded by the British Academy and the National Endowment for the Humanities under the auspices of the American Folklore Society, and in association with the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Ongoing research with boatbuilding traditions looks at the idea of ‘knowing by doing’: how people young and old learn embodied craft skills by imitation, proximity, and osmosis, and how these skills enhance people’s cultural confidence and self esteem.

In 1993, he established the North East Folklore Archive at Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, as part of his work as Traditional Music Resident for Banff and Buchan District Council (now Aberdeeenshire), 1993–1996. The archive has continued to develop and much of the fieldwork material is now available on the web at the Banff and Buchan Collection.

don’t worry if you miss it – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day