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Grid reference: NJ116688
Location: 57°42’2"N, 3°29’5"W
Population: 1,640  (2001)
Post town: Elgin
Postcode: IV30
Dialling code: 01343
Local Government
Council: Moray
Website: burghead.com

Burghead is a small coastal town in Morayshire, found about 8 miles north-west of Elgin. The town is mainly built on a peninsula that projects north-westward into the Moray Firth, so that most of the town has sea on three sides.

The present town was built between 1805 and 1809, destroying in the process more than half of the site of an important Pictish hill fort. General Roy's map shows the defences as they existed in the 18th century but he attributed them to the Romans. The fort was probably a major Pictish centre and was where carved slabs depicting bulls were found; they are known as the "Burghead Bulls". A chambered well of some considerable antiquity was discovered in 1809 and walls and a roof were later added to help preserve it.

Each year on 11 January a fire festival known as the Burning of the Clavie takes place; it is thought that the festival dates back to the 17th century, although it could easily predate this by several centuries. Burghead is often known as The Broch by locals; confusingly, Fraserburgh is also known by this name.

A recent dig just beyond the boundary of Burghead at Clarkly Hill has uncovered Iron Age circular stone houses, Pictish building foundations as well as silver and bronze roman coins. A gold finger ring possibly from the Baltic region was also found. Significant evidence of large scale Iron smelting has also been found, providing evidence that iron was probably being traded from this site. The National Museum of Scotland have carried out significant exploration which leads them to believe this is a significant site of interest.


Burghead Bull slab at the British Museum
Inscription stone at Burghead

Iron age fort

A vitrified fort of the Iron Age lies on top of a headland which commands extensive views of the Moray Firth. Originally believed to be Ptolemy's Castra Alata, later 'Ptoroton' and the 'Torffness' of the Orkneyinga Saga, it is now known to be of Pictish origin and is thought to be the oldest Pictish fort. It encloses 7.4 acres and is three times as large as any other fort of the same period in te region. The fort was defended on the landward side by three banks and ditches which were destroyed during the creation of the harbour and modern village; their age is therefore uncertain.[1]

Six striking carved slabs known as the "Burghead Bulls" were discovered during excavations. Four of the originals are held locally in Burghead Visitor Centre and Elgin Museum and one each in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh, and the British Museum in London. Much of the fort was destroyed during the building of the village from 1805 to 1809.

The Doorie Hill, which marked the junction of the citadel and the bailey, is the only remaining piece of the southern ramparts. Lengths of the eastern and northern ramparts are also still visible.[2][3][4]

A view of Burghead chambered well from the approach

Chambered well

The Burghead Well, which lies within the perimeter of the promontory fort, was discovered in 1809. It consists of a flight of stone steps leading down to a chamber containing a tank fed by springs. There is a frieze in the upper walls, a pedestal in the southeast corner and a sunken basin in the northwest corner. The chamber is 11 feet high, and 11 feet across with a ledge 4 feet wide around the edge, and the tank is 4 feet deep. The discovery was made during excavations for a possible municipal water supply after an elderly fisherman recalled a tradition of a well in the vicinity. Various additions such as re-cutting the steps and deepening the tank were undertaken, but the flow of water proved to be insufficient for the proposed new function.

At the time of discovery it was assumed that both the fort and well were of Roman antiquity and it was described as a 'Roman bath'. Later in the 19th century it was suggested that it was an early Christian baptistery possibly associated with the cult of St Aethan, but its origins remain obscure to this day. It is almost certainly of Dark Age provenance and clearly had some ceremonial significance.[2][3][5] It is possible that its main purpose was as a water supply for the fort.

Burning of the Clavie

The Clavie

A fire festival called the Burning of the Clavie is held on 11 January each year, except when the 11th is a Sunday, in which case it takes place on the 10th. The event starts when the Clavie is lit on Granary Street at 18:00 and normally ends by 19:30.

The burning of the Clavie marks New Year’s Eve by the Julian Calendar; in 1752 Parliament adopted the Gregorian Calendar and lopped 11 days from that year, but the folk of Burghead retained their old date, which had become 11 January.

The practice has survived clerical condemnation. On 20 January 1689, the young men of the village were rebuked by the church courts for "having made a burning clavie, paying it superstitious worship, and blessing the boats after the old heathen custom."[6]

The Clavie is a barrel cut down to 17 inches, which is filled with tar and bits of wood. It is nailed onto a pole [which is 4 foot 6 inches long] with a specially forged nail. It has to be specially made to leave a space for the carrier's head to fit between the staves (6 in all) and allowing him to rest it partly on his shoulders while he carries it. A group of about 15 men known as the Clavie crew, traditionally fishermen and headed by the Clavie king, take turns to carry the burning Clavie on a set route clockwise round the streets of the old part of the town. The Clavie crew stop to present bits of smouldering embers to certain households and the three public houses in the village to bring them good luck for the following year. There are also two set points where they stop to refuel. At the end of the route the Clavie is put onto a stone altar (which was not constructed until the 19th century) upon Doorie Hill,[2] and more fuel is added, often setting the whole side of the hill alight in the process. The barrel eventually collapses and the blazing embers are scattered all over the hilltop before they are collected and given out for good luck,[7] although it is said in the past the embers were kept as charms against witchcraft.[8] It used to be customary to carry the Clavie round every boat and vessel in the harbour, but this part of the ceremony was later abandoned,[9] presumably because it became impossible as the harbour became busier, and blazing barrels are not good friends with tarred rigging nor petrol tanks.


Burghead and the Morayshire coast in general are heavily dependent on the two Royal Air Force stations, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss, which are located at roughly equal distances on either side of Burghead. In 2005 the stations contributed £156.5 million to the local economy, of which £76.6 million was retained and spent locally. The stations are responsible for providing, directly or indirectly, 21 per cent of all employment in the Moray area.

Other sectors offering significant employment are local authority, construction and real estate, food and drink, transport, tourism, business services and wholesale/retail.

In the past fishing, particularly herring fishing, was a very large part of the economy of Burghead. Langoustine fishing, mainly for the Continental market, now contributes very little to the overall economy; in 2001, fishing accounted for just 2.12% of employment in Burghead.

There is also a large malting plant located in Burghead and a large modern distillery was completed at the junction of the Burghead/Kinloss B9089 road in 2009.

Just outside Burghead there is a large radio transmitter owned by National Grid Wireless, the Burghead transmitting station.


  • Football:
    • Burghead Thistle
    • Burghead United

Burghead once had a third football team, The Burghead Anchors.

Outside links


  1. The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders (Dennis William Harding)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Sellar, W.D.H. (editor) (1993). Moray: Province and People. London. Robert Hale. Pages 142-4
  3. 3.0 3.1 Burghead Well. (1968) Ancient Monuments of Scotland. Crown copyright leaflet.
  4. Burghead. (c. 1990) Grampian Regional Council leaflet.
  5. Historic Scotland - Burghead well
  6. Sellar, W.D.H. (1993). Ibid. The quotation marks are his, but no specific citation is provided.
  7. Happy New Year
  8. Notes and Queries (1860)
  9. A Study in Magic and Religion (1913) (J.G. Frazer)