Scotland knows a thing or two about how to celebrate Hogmanay and so it should – after all it’s had a few thousand years to perfect a celebration that has its roots in ancient Celtic and Pictish traditions, with a smattering of influences brought by Viking invaders.

The modern New Year’s Day owes its existence to the Roman, Julian calendar – established by Julius Caesar in 45 BC and subsequently replaced by the Gregorian Calendar of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Prior to that there was less precision regarding when one year ended and another began. It had more to do with the recognition of changing seasons and the realization that summer had ended, and winter was upon us. In these darkest of days, it was fire that brought light and warmth to the land. It was around a fire that carcasses were carved, cooked, and eaten, mead drunk, and stories told. Although nowadays we celebrate December 31 as the last day of the year with midnight marking the transition to the new year, festivals rooted in ancient traditions can be found in a number of locations across Scotland during the winter months. These include Edinburgh’s Samhainn, Paisley’s Halloween Festival, Stonehaven’s Fireballs, Burghead’s Burning the Clavie, Dundee’s Hooley, and Shetland’s Up Helly Aa with its decidedly Viking overtones. All these events have one thing in common – fire! When Inverness’ Hogmanay celebrations get underway this year with what is being promoted as the ‘largest Hogmanay ceilidh on the planet’ the tradition of fire will again be to the fore. Scotland’s PyroCeltica will lead a torchlit Procession through the streets of the town ending with a fire-fueled performance of flaming theatrics.

Founded in Edinburgh in 2011 by Ron Oliveira – and today recognized as one of the country’s top, fire-performance troupes – there are few Scottish fire festival events that PyroCeltica has not performed at. In addition to the aforementioned, the troupe has led Edinburgh’s Hogmanay torchlight procession and performed for five years at Falkirk’s Fire and Light festival.

Recently, I caught up with 43-year-old Oliveira by Zoom at his family’s Shempston Estate near Elgin and asked him how it all began. He laughed, “By accident to be honest. It was the late 1990s and I was an 18-year-old student studying hospitality management and working in a bar in Edinburgh when I saw an advert for a local organization seeking fire performers. I knew nothing about pyrotechnics, but I discussed the idea with a couple of student friends and we just thought – why not? Let’s give it a go!”

For Oliveira it proved to be a life-changing decision. It launched him into a world of circus performers and theatrical entertainment. He recalls,

“There is something primal about fire. It has the ability to captivate and enthrall and I came to realize that when combined with storytelling, music and costumes a potent magic is produced that has the ability to transport audiences into imaginary worlds.”

With a whetted appetite, Oliveira left Edinburgh and spent three years travelling the world, learning along the way. His sojourns included Thailand – where he performed with fire on the beach at the monthly, world famous Koh Phangan full moon parties – and at Australia’s Byron Bay, a diverse community embracing fire artists, jugglers, dancers, and all manner of theatrical entertainers. He also spent time travelling in the USA before returning to Scotland. In 2011, a local pyrotechnics company that he had been working with went out of business and he made a successful bid to buy up their redundant equipment. That marked the beginning of PyroCeltica. Today, the troupe has thirty members, including fifteen regular performers, a six-man safety and technical crew, and the remainder involved with music, costumes, make-up, props, and videography.

As the name suggests, the group themes its performances around Scottish history and culture – fire with a Celtic twist – pioneering storytelling that seeks to push the boundaries of circus, music, dance, and theatre. Along with purpose-designed costumes, unique musical compositions, and choreographing their own performances, they design and build incredible, fire-breathing sculptures that bring a sense of scale and wonderment to their performances. These include arches of fire, flowers that emit tongues of fire, a larger-than-life, fire-breathing lion and rideable dragon, spinning tornadoes and twisting helixes with multiple torches, fountains of cascading flames, oscillating Rubens flame tubes, turbo flambeaux, and assorted flame throwers. In addition, they utilize an impressive range of hand-held and smaller scale devices such as burning staffs, snake rope poi, hula hoops, fire fans, fire whips, devil sticks and flaming swords. A variety of different fuels and special effects ensures audiences experience fire in a bewildering display of sparks, flames, and smoke.

With the assistance of funding from Creative Scotland PyroCeltica has performed in the USA at Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and Lake Tahoe’s Flow Art. Already well established within the Scottish grassroots music scene, and having performed at Knockengorroch World Ceilidh, Down the Rabbit Hole and Belladrum, more recent crowd-pulling shows include Garden of Fiery Delights and Tam O’ Shanter’s Trail – both undertaken in partnership with Edinburgh based Trotwork Events. The former features a walking trail through a mystical forest inhabited by mythical creatures including fairies, fawns and strangers who speak in riddles, and all accompanied by a variety of fire-based theatrics. The latter brings Robert Burns’ famous poem to life inviting the audience to follow Tam and his faithful mare – Meg – as they make their fateful journey from Tam’s local tavern to Alloway Kirk where, in his semi-intoxicated state, he stumbles upon witches, warlocks, and the Devil himself. Inevitably, this imagined hell overflows with fiery magic. In addition to these purpose-created, large-scale events PyroCeltica offers ‘off the peg’ themed activities such as Wrath Of The Giants and Clash Of The Clans. The group can also arrange circus and fire-training workshops, private parties, and team-building exercises.

As with many businesses Covid lockdowns had a large impact on the performing arts. Bookings dried up and save for a few small, outdoor events when restrictions were partly lifted PyroCeltica went through a difficult patch. For Oliveira it provided an opportunity to rethink the structure of the group and come up with new ideas in preparation for the country opening again. Speaking optimistically about the future he notes, “Although the group was, and to some extent still is, Edinburgh based, my own circumstances drew me back to my family estate on the Moray Firth. This has made us re-evaluate how we operate, and we have become more of a collaborative group of individuals spread across the country who pull together as necessary based on the skills required for any specific event. Moving away from Edinburgh has also given me the opportunity to think how we may host events on the grounds of the family estate at Shempston.”

In 2023, PyroCeltica toured with its Here Be Dragons show. The centerpiece of this show is Eris – a sizeable and stunning, purpose-built, metal dragon capable of supporting an actor – or two – on its spiny, winged back. With glowing, red eyes and fire-emitting breath it typifies the mystical qualities that Celts attributed to these legendary creatures. When Oliveira isn’t touring and performing, he is thinking ahead to the next project. At present plans are afoot for a reworked and even more elaborate telling of Tam O’Shanter’s tale. No matter the storyline, if you attend a PyroCeltica production, prepare to be wowed by a stunning array of costumes, haunting music, colourful make up, mystical beings, and larger-than-life demons. Above all, expect to experience theatrical storytelling at its best and to witness the magical artistry of performing with fire. ~ Story by Tom Langlands

(All photographs supplied by PyroCeltica)