TOPSHAM, Maine — In a decades-long tradition of Scottish Clansmen across the Atlantic, Bill Cunningham hoisted a blazing ball of iron over his head Friday evening and began swinging.
For several minutes, to the awe of a crowd of New England highlanders, Cunningham and brother-in-law Alan Lord hurled the “bonfires on a stick,” before yielding to the burning of the castle.
Hundreds of Scots — in lineage or spirit — gathered at the Topsham Fairgrounds on Friday for the opening night of the Maine Highland Games, a daylong celebration of Scottish heritage marked by athletic events and music. The annual event traditionally has begun with a clan dinner, but this year, members of the St. Andrews Society of Maine decided to try something different — a “clan gathering and uprising,” along with a ceilidh featuring singing and dancing.
The fireballing was a success — particularly for the younger members of the clans.
Clad in a long, red dress with the Innes plaid draped over her shoulders, Ce Ce Redford, 8, of Reading, Mass., held her blunderbus — a traditional musket-like weapon — and stared in wonder as Cunningham and Lord swung the fireballs around and around for several minutes before slowing and lowering them to a metal platform, then dousing the cages in water.
The Innes clan joined the others in shouts and applause before Bill McKeen of the St. Andrews Society of Maine lit an elaborate cardboard castle afire.
“The Scots love fire,” Cunningham said. “They love burning castles. It’s in their blood!”
On a visit a decade or so ago to the village of Stonehaven, on the east coast of Scotland, Cunningham learned first-hand about traditional fireballing. On New Years Eve, Scots march down Main Street, swinging fireballs two feet in diameter before throwing them out over the harbor.
When the St. Andrews Society decided to alter their traditional opening night, Cunningham emailed Martin Sim, the “chief fireball engineer.” Over the past four months, Sim taught Cunningham how to build a fireball.
Held by a four-foot wire handle, the ball of chicken wire holds “rags, old underwear, cardboard and pine cones,” he said. “Then you put a pint of kerosene on that, hold it over a small fire to light it, and start swinging it through the air.”
Although Cunningham and Lord have practiced for months, they’re not quite ready for that level of excitement. But Cunningham hopes this year’s demonstration ignites enough interest to spark a repeat performance.
“It’s the first time fireballing has ever been done in America, as far as we can tell,” Cunningham said. “We hope it will catch on.”