We,’ says Thomas, his face all soot, ‘have creosote in our blood.’ In their blood, on their hats, on their boots, down their backs; Thomas Ross and the other men of the Clavie Crew have creosote everywhere, with the exception of their whisky. They take that with water; fine for quenching a thirst but a terrible thing to allow near a bonnie flame.
I am in Burghead on the Moray coast for the Clavie, an annual ritual in which a large wooden barrel full of creosote and tarred staves is set on fire and paraded through the streets. It takes place in the town on January 11th to mark the end of the old new year. When Scotland switched from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1600, the people here, known as Brochers, refused to change, meaning that their ‘Hogmanay’ comes eleven days after the rest of the country. This is the only place in Scotland where Pictish carvings of bulls have been found, and no better beast could represent Burghead folk – born to be thrawn and refusing the yoke.
The barrel is built and carried by the Clavie Crew, led by the Clavie King – a position of great honour held since 1988 by Dan Ralph. At 68, he has no thoughts of retiring. Popes may retire; Clavie Kings do not. ‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘You go until you die.’ As the local undertaker, he should know.
His Crew had gathered, the evening before, in the family workshop. Twenty men, young and old, crammed inside rough stone walls, wood shavings softening the sound of boots on the floor as they stamped against the cold. Rusty barrel hoops hung from the ceiling like an ogre’s bracelets. Dan’s son Lachie had started to build the Clavie just before Christmas, and tonight was the ritual of the finishing touches. Donald Tolmie – retired from the sea and ‘a great Free Kirk man’ – climbed atop the work bench to bang in the nail that connects the barrel to its pine pole. He used as a hammer the ceremonial round stone which, according to the legend, was thrown by Picts in their trials of strength. The nail, too, has a long history; it is a boatbuilder’s nail which each year is picked from the embers and reused.
‘Anither dunt, Donald,’ calls a member of the Crew, encouraging Tolmie as he works. ‘An’ anither ain yet.’
‘Wob’s watchin’ ye,’ says someone else. ‘Big shoes tae fill.’
About Wob. This was the nickname of Gordon Robertson, a great old character who died in October at the age of 89. It was, for many years, his task to hammer in the nail. Tolmie, an ingenue at 71, was taking on the role for the first time. The nail and the stone, venerated objects, have passed through the hands of generations of Clavie men. As one man falls another takes them up.
The finished Clavie is, essentially, a six-foot-tall torch. One can imagine some Doric Statue of Liberty holding it aloft at the entrance to the town’s harbour: Give me your fire, your stoor, your Burghead masses yearning to breathe fumes. When full, the Clavie may be as much as 130 kilos. But no one is quite sure, and in any case the question of precise weight is academic. ‘It’s heavy and it’s on fire,’ Lachie said. ‘There’s aboot an inch of oak between yer heid and the flames.’
Oh, it’s wild, the night of the burning. Sleety gusts of 65mph. Waves bursting over the sea wall, spending themselves in spindrift. The 1000-strong throng following the Clavie through the streets are bridesmaids bearing a train of sparks and smoke. The full moon is all but eclipsed. You could choke on the reek. Each member of the Crew takes a turn carrying the barrel, taking on his head and shoulders the physical burden and the weight of tradition. Firelight dances on Burghead’s low stone houses, casting a sign on King Street – ‘If the Lord will, the Word of God will be preached on Sunday’ – in an orange glow that does not feel entirely Christian. The Clavie is thought to be rooted in paganism, a casting out of wicked spirits. Its meaning these days has more to do with affirming Brocher identity, but there remains something ancient and uncanny about it, too.
They carry it to Doorie Hill, overlooking the sea on three sides, where the crowd cheers as the flames burn higher than ever until, finally, burning out. We push in for a prize – a piece of the blackened embers, which are said to bring luck. Afterwards, I wish happy new year to Donald Tolmie. His face scorched red and black, his white hair smutted dark, he looks exhausted but happy.
‘Och,’ he says. ‘Once a year is enough.’
* * *
Stan Laurel’s mother lies in an unmarked grave in the cemetery behind my house. Visiting the spot recently, I chanced upon a pink granite stone marked with these words: ‘Mark Sheridan, Comedian.’
Sheridan was a music hall star. His real name was Frederick Shaw and he came from County Durham. A fading photograph shows a man in heavy make-up wearing bell bottoms and a comically oversized bowler hat. That we all know ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ is because of the popularity of his 1909 recording. Nine years later he was dead, taking his own life in Kelvingrove Park while on tour in Glasgow.
A visit to the Mitchell Library furnishes the Glasgow Herald report, from January 16, 1918: ‘There was a bullet wound in his forehead and a Browning revolver was lying beside the body.’ Sheridan had left his hotel in time to attend a noon rehearsal, but never arrived. At 2.20pm, his corpse was discovered by two men out walking. ‘The spot where the tragedy occurred is an unfrequented part of the park on the west side of the Kelvin. The body was lying on the footpath.’
Sheridan’s burlesque Gay Paree – in which he played Napoleon – had just opened at the Coliseum on Eglinton Street. His daughter and two sons had parts in the show, and his wife, Ethel, was on the road too. Shortly before 7pm, the curtain was about to be raised when police informed the theatre manager of his leading man’s death. He made a sombre announcement and the audience filed quietly out. Sheridan was buried in Cathcart Cemetery two days later.
Received wisdom has it that this desperate act was prompted by bad notices for Gay Paree, which is odd as the Glasgow Herald’s review on the day of his death observed that it ‘admirably fulfils its purpose of mirthmaking, and is in every way an attractive entertainment’. The following November, in a court battle with an insurance company, lawyers for Sheridan’s widow argued, unsuccessfully, that he had not intended to end his life. Ethel Shaw claimed her husband had gone into the park to rehearse a scene in which he had to fire a pistol, and while doing this ‘the unfortunate accident’ occurred. George Robey, later famous as Falstaff in Olivier’s Henry V, gave his view that Sheridan ‘was not the man to commit suicide because his play was not a success the first night’. It is all very curious. Little wonder there are rumours he was murdered.
A fellow performer once recalled: ‘When you saw Mark Sheridan sing ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’, it was something more than someone singing a good, rousing song … As he strode across the stage, singing lustily in his Tyneside voice and slapping the back-cloth with his stick, he was a man full of fresh air and vigour and health, striding along the promenade.’
Strange – as we approach the centenary of his mysterious passing – to think of this fellow of infinite jest buried so far from home, beyond the sound of the silvery sea.
* * *
Driving over the Kingston Bridge, kids in the back, we see four swans flying upriver in formation, a clutch of feathered Concordes. They must be eighty feet above the Clyde, about to pass overhead, and we’re mid-gasp at this glorious sight, when, horribly, one clips a streetlight and tumbles, neck twisting, to the road. The car in front has to brake and veer around the injured bird. The bridge is too busy for anyone to stop, and what could we do in any case? So we drive past, slow and sorry. One of its wings looks broken, and we later hear that it has died.
This feels karmic, a balancing of birds. Not so long before, I had been walking along a beach in Northumberland, a hop and skip across the water from Lindisfarne Priory, when I heard a scuffling coming from near the dunes. It was an oystercatcher, caught in orange plastic netting stretched out to keep people from stepping on tern eggs, which are hard to distinguish from pebbles.
I love oystercatchers and had never been so close to one before. So here was a task but also a gift. I sat down and put out a nervous hand. That long bill can shuck shells; what could it do to fingers? The bird flapped around a little, but was hopelessly tangled, one wing bent backwards, wire biting its legs. I picked it up. We regarded one another. Its eyes were an astonishing haemorrhage red. I could feel its heart racing – or was that my own pulse? – but it allowed me to carefully begin to unfankle the knots. It took ages. I worried I was hurting it. At one point I had to set it down and scrabble around for bits of razorclam shell to saw through the net.
One last cut and the bird felt itself free. It flew straight for the sea. Oystercatchers can live for a long time, thirty years or so, and it would be pleasant to think that mine is out there now, pecking at the strand where St Cuthbert knelt and prayed. It seemed at the time like I had saved a life, but it appears to me now that it was just a trade. Death, reaching out for a sea bird, had settled for a swan.