The Flambeaux Celebrations
The origins of this mysterious celebration lie in the misty swirls of time. It is the cause of much speculation. As a mid-winter festival many have suggested that the Flambeaux celebrated customs from the time of the Druids. They suggest that the Druids held it to celebrate the changing of the seasons and to drive away evil spirits. To accomplish this rather Herculean task they bound and swathed the tops of birch poles in hessian or canvas, covered them in pitch, and then set them ablaze carrying them through the village preceded by a pipe band. This sounds rather fanciful. Others favour the notion that after the Vikings visited our community principally in search of plunder and sack it was instituted for celebratory purposes. Questions have been raised about this philosophy as well.
However, the reality is that there was no mention of Comrie as a village prior to 1750 although it was known as a meeting place since around the twelfth century. It was a meeting place of roads, rivers and people. As a place it stands at the junction of two roads – the Crieff to Lochearnhead road, and the Braco to Loch Tay road through Glen Lednock. It was bridged at Comrie over the River Earn, in the seventeenth century by a three-arched bridge. This was replaced around 1770. This bridge, the Dalginross Bridge, was a six-arched bridge and lasted until 1904, when it was replaced by the current spanned bridge. The upriver two-arched bridge in the west called the Ross Bridge was constructed in 1792, and the bridge over the Lednock in 1799. As a place it had a Church, a graveyard with the earliest grave dated 1603, and perhaps one or two small houses. During the period from 1750 it grew considerably as the populations of the glens diminished and started building and settling in what is now Comrie. Here two great languages also came together, Gaelic and Doric.
There had been a clachan, now long disappeared, at the Laggan, and the village, which was a planned village, stretched towards the west following the north bank of the River Earn out to the Ross Bridge. To access the Ross there was a ford, called Ath Nan Sop, as well as stepping stones. The ford was no longer used after the bridge was built and sometime later the Ross incorporated, creating Comrie and District.
There had been no mention in the records before 1750 of a fire festival called the Flambeaux in the village. It was during the period 1750 to 1820 that Comrie grew into a village. Concomitantly the population consisted of many unskilled people coming out of the glens – the ’45 finished the clan system – and something had to be done.
For several centuries before there had been small steadings that grew flax (Linum usitatissimum) to make cloth. The process was laborious and essentially consisted of growing flax in the fields in isolated areas around Comrie. Once the seeds had matured into stalks about three or so feet high they were harvested. They display a beautiful blue flower when ready for this part of the operation. They are then cut down and placed in retting (rotting) ponds with the smell being quite unpleasant. There they were kept for about six weeks which ensured that the flax could be separated more easily from the stems of the plant. Throughout this process the flax would be turned to allow for the release of bacteria as well as ensuring uniformity of decomposition.
It was then bundled and “Scotched” This entailed beating the flax strips to remove clinging residue (Tow and Boon). Tow were short fibres and used in paper making or insulation whereas Boon was used as fuel for fires and broken flax used to stuff chairs and seats. Once this was done it went through a Hackling process. This called for the fibre to be drawn through sharp-toothed combs ending up with the final product called Strick. Hackling required a fair amount of skill as the fibres were brittle. Flax in this condition is like hair and attention has to be made to ensure it does not tangle. Once this was accomplished it was spun into yarn becoming linen where it is stretched and boiled and spun on a spinning wheel. An excellent site for understanding the whole process can be found at http://www.maggieblanck.com">www.maggieblanck.com
The weavers of Comrie and Highland Strathearn made clothing, tablecloths, blankets, shirts, trousers, cravats, handkerchiefs, as well as sending on materials which went into the making of uniforms for the army, sail for the British fleet, paper-making, and all manner of sundry items. Weavers in clachans were set up in most areas around Comrie and one can see their remains. Many consist of a one story building with two small windows on one side of the doorway. Here a loom was placed. The second window allowed for additional light. The windows were small because the government taxed glass very highly.
Throughout time dozens of French-speaking Flems from Belgium were imported from the Low Countries to teach the local people about the rendering and preparation of flax, and the skills required in the weaving trade. This evolution allowed for countless numbers of Scots to pursue employment opportunities in the textile industry. Around Highland Strathearn can still be seen evidence of retting ponds, lime kilns, weaving cottages and mills.
It seems therefore not unreasonable to suggest that a mid-winter fire festival coinciding with the traditional Scottish celebration of the New Year had many advantages to all. It brought Highlanders and Lowlanders together as well as the Flems (Fleming is not an uncommon name in Highland Strathearn). To this day the New Year in Comrie is still celebrated with an elaborate Fire Festival, the “Flambeaux.” The French name means means “beautiful flames, or fire.” In Great Britain it is a very unique occasion and attracts many people from the outside to the village, many of whom still display typical Viking characteristics!
The traditional route was to move to the East down Drummond Street then south by the Glebe in Dalginross, East and North on their return and then onto the West from the Square. In effect the village was exorcised…and there’s nothing wrong with a good “exorcise” every now and again!
Flambeaux in Drummond Street, Comrie