WATCH: Whalsay’s Christmas tar barrel procession 

An old Christmas tradition continues to triumph in Whalsay – the Brough tar barrel.

Every Christmas morning a tar barrel is towed throughout Brough to the sound of bells and horns.

The event has been labelled as a tar barrel, but in spite of its name, the barrel always contains wood.

This old tradition goes back a long time, but precisely how long remains unclear. Whalsay History Group’s Andy Sandison says the exact number of years are unknown.

One suggestion is that it came from an idea by a man named Andrew Moar, who was married to Mary Hutchison who came from the Brough house known as the Tip.

Mr Moar was a Whalsay man who had spent some time in Lerwick and witnessed the tar barrelling that took place there every Christmas.

Upon his return to Whalsay, it is believed that he suggested a similar practice should be held at what would have been the new Brough houses which were rebuilt in the 1840s.

To begin with, an actual wooden barrel filled with timber was used and carried around on poles.

At the time, the barrel would have posed a significant fire risk, as houses had thatched roofs and back yards were filled with peat stacks and stooks of corn.

Due to this risk, young boys at the tar barrel were always told to follow at a distance and check if any of the sparks had landed on a peat stack, stook or thatched roof.

This traditional method was used until after the Second World War when a set of wheels were introduced to the barrel.

Tar barrel organiser Andy Hutchison recalled a wooden set of wheels being used during his childhood.

“When I was peerie they worked with the old wooden wheels and then sometimes they would jump on fire.

“Then when we used rubber tyres they would melt with the heat that’s in the barrel,” he said.

However, since introducing wheels with a new material, their job has become much easier.

“This new een we’ve made has muckle steel wheels on it. It’s the big round wheels off a fire engine thing they used to have at the air strip.

“It’s really easy to tow when you’re going along the flat. Two of us can tow it and if the wind’s the wrong way we can turn around and push it.

“Then when you go up the Knowe hill we have a length of rope that two other eens take hold of, and four of us take it up the hill. That can pull it no bother.”

This year's Brough tar barrel. Photo: Chris Maddison 
This year’s Brough tar barrel. Photo: Chris Maddison 

The route takes around an hour and a half to complete and the only years its been cancelled was in 1995 due to a heavy snowstorm and 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.

The procession started at its usual time of seven in the morning.

Though it is an early start, Mr Hutchison says he can remember this always being an exciting date in his calendar.

“It’s splendid, I just completely look forward it.

“I’ve been going to it for as far as I can mind, when I was peerie I couldn’t rise fast enough to open my Santie sock and win oot to the tar barrel,” he said.

Read the full story in this week’s Shetland Times. 


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