Music, Castles, Mars Bars, Fireballs: Stonehaven, Scotland

People have been making their living from the North Sea in what is now Stonehaven on the eastern coast of Scotland since prehistoric times. They have done a few other things there too: created a tradition of whirling fireballs on chains round the streets on New Year’s Eve, built a castle which has stood for more than eight centuries, hosted poet Robert Burns, and Mary Queen of Scots…and invented the deep fried Mars bar. They also have a lively music festival in July of each year.

This year, The Stonehaven Folk Festival happens on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of July, with headline acts including the trad energy in overdrive band Session A9 and top notch Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, along with a roster of regional acts. In Scotland, the world ceilidh refers to a lively gathering with music, dance, and lots of high spirits. There are several of these during the festival, including one called the Aqua Ceilidh, which is held in the town’s outdoor swimming pool. Think a minute about geography: Scotland is in northern Europe, and Stonehaven is on the same latitude as southern Norway. Not so many outdoor pools in Scotland.

The folk festival helps keep things hopping in the summer, but when it comes to New Year’s Eve, it’s the fireballs. Members of the town’s internationally respected bagpipe band march — some of them, in recent years, even bravely marching at the front of the parade — as citizens of the town whirl balls of fire constructed of wood, pitch and other flaming things, through the streets and down to the harbour, where they throw them into the sea as the new year is rung in. Linked in idea to ancient winter fire festivals, Stonehaven’s has been going on for more than a century.

Dunottar Castle, just outside the town, has watched more than a few fire festivals: it was built in the twelfth century as a strategic lookout across
the north sea. Maintained as a historic area, the buildings of the castle have been left mostly the way the years have taken it. A walk among its ruins, accompanied by the crash of the sea and the cries of sea birds, quickly evokes other times and other places.

Then there are those Mars bars. The folk at the Carron Fish Bar, formerly known as the Haven Bar, lay claim to invention of this treat, in which a Mars candy bar is deep fried in the sort of batter used for fish, chicken and the like. They fried up their first one in 1995, so the story goes, and its popularity has only grown since. So while you are in Stonehaven, you will want to keep your ear out for good music, try a fish dinner fresh from the sea, take a walk through the historic castle, and you may just want to pay a visit to the place where the deep fried Mars bar was born.

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