Our new intrepid blogger, Helen Moat, puts a fire under her new wild and exciting life at the Stonehaven Fireball celebrations in Scotland
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life"’ Mary Oliver.
I stumbled across the quote this week, tweeted by the adventurer Alastair Humphreys, on Twitter above all places. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, but I’ve not come across this quote before. Yet it feels that this question had been lurking in my mind throughout 2013 and even before that.
So I’ve given up my teaching job and decided I’m going to grasp this ‘wild and precious’ life. I’ve chosen to live my life as fully as possible. My new bike has been delivered and I’m busy planning my route to Istanbul from the Hook of Holland. I’ve contacted friends who live near the Rhine or the Danube to tell them I’m dropping in.
This is a mad project: I am no Alastair Humphreys. I'm a middle-aged, overweight and completely unfit woman. I don't cycle much and I have a particular aversion to cycling uphill. However, like Baldrick, I have a cunning plan: I’m going to cycle along the Rhine and the Danube and avoid as many hills as possible. I told my brother I was going to take three to four months to do the trip. He wasn’t impressed. He reckons you could walk it in that time. But I'll drop in on those friends for a glass of wine – and a bed for a night or two – or three or four...
I’m also bringing my son who hates cycling – but he's agreed to come with me because I''ll get lost otherwise. I'm hopeless at reading maps. The project feels doomed before it even starts, but there's one thing on my side: I'm stubborn and usually see my madcap plans through. I'll finish this cycle even if it kills me. Famous last words!
The trip doesn’t start until July and I’m not planning to leave Britain until then. But I’ve still got a desire to grasp this ‘wild and precious life’ and not waste one single minute – right from the start of this year. Where better to begin than Scotland, spending a mad night on the streets of Stonehaven?
So there I was on New Year’s Eve down by the harbour. The cobbled road was empty until a man appeared from the shadows, trailing a large sack of cat litter. He opened the bag under the lamplight and emptied its contents, spreading cat litter across the cobbles with his feet. A second man arrived with two large plastic containers. Together the men filled measuring jugs with the liquid, the acrid smell of petrol filling the air. Beyond them, the waves lapped on the harbour slipway and the orange glow of the streetlights spread across the bay like marmalade on a buttery ocean. There was an air of expectancy.
Then bit by bit, kilted men swaggered onto the street, their shoulders as broad and angular as coat-hangers, their torsos like tree trunks. Faces set like bulls, they had a look of determination and anticipation. They huddled together in small groups, clasping wire mesh cages filled with firewood and old twisted rags. Just before midnight, they doused the cages with petrol and ignited them. With a whoosh, the kindling and rags burst into flames. Great tongues of fire flared out, licking the street cobbles like beheaded dragons.
The men (and the odd trousered woman) on the street are the fire-swingers of Stonehaven. This is a unique tradition that takes place in this small fishing town, south of Aberdeen. It used to be very much a local occasion. Now travellers come from all over the world to watch this weird and wonderful street celebration.
At midnight, the fire-swingers lifted their fireballs high above their heads and slung them around their bodies, first slowly, then faster and faster as they gained momentum. The fireballs shot across the black sky, curving and sweeping in the darkness, leaving a trail of red streamers, kilts and sparks flying.
I could feel the movement of the damp salty air, followed by the intense heat of the fireballs as they were slung in my direction. The heat burned my cheeks again and again with each rotation.
“Happy New Year and blast o’ fire in yer face,” the girl behind me giggled.
The swingers headed down the High Street, fire dancing between the stone houses of the old town. For the fire-throwers, it’s a great honour to be allowed to participate. They spend the days approaching the New Year creating the perfect fireball, fashioning it to the greatest weight they can bear to lift and swing above their heads for half an hour. Putting together the optimal combination of wood and rag, they hope their fireball will last longer and burn more brightly than anyone else’s.
Finally the fire-throwers returned to the harbour. Exhausted, they lifted their fireballs for one last time. Round and round they swung them, the words ‘Happy New Year’ flying from their mouths, along with the fire. In one final act, the fire-throwers made their way to the water’s edge on the harbour slipway. With the water lapping their boots, they threw their fireballs out to sea. Sparks and flames spread out over the ocean until the cage hit the water and was snuffed out: one year had expired and another has begun.
So I’ve started the year celebrating in a fitting way. How about you? How did you start another year of your ‘wild and precious life?’ Tell me about it in the comments below.
Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad's Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland - all for a soggy, sandy sandwich and a quick runaround on a damp beach before returning home on the same day. Strangely, it didn't put her off travelling - quite the reverse.
This year she plans to cycle from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul even though she's not that keen on cycling and hasn't a clue how to fix a puncture. And we'll be following her every step of the way. For more information, visit her website.