As a resident of Northumberland, I occasionally see local TV news reports of a New Year’s Eve tradition that takes place annually in Allendale, a village in the southwest of the county. Known as the Tar Barrel Festival (spelled tar bar’l locally), the highlight is a procession of men in assorted costumes, known as guisers, each carrying a cut-down wooden barrel-end on his head that contains a blazing concoction of tar and wood shavings.
I first came across the word guiser, which is pronounced to rhyme with wiser, as a young boy reading Oor Wullie and The Broons comic strips. In those stories, which are set in Scotland, children would put on unusual clothes and go guising at Halloween. This entailed visiting homes and singing a song, or telling a joke, in exchange for a reward in the form of sweets. The practice is a clear parallel to the American version, trick or treat.
The dictionary defines the word guise as, an external form, appearance, or manner of presentation, typically concealing the true nature of something. It is in common use, in such sentences as I went along in my usual guise of peacemaker. It is also the latter part of the word disguise.
A little backstory
One recent New Year’s Eve, I decided to forego the usual excessive drinking on a tour of my local bars, and instead, I embarked on the 45-mile drive to Allendale, in order to witness the event myself. But before I get into recounting that experience, here’s a little back story.
Allendale, or Allendale Town, is a village in southwest Northumberland at the north end of the Pennines, just over ten miles from Hexham. It has a population of about 2,000.
Although the tar barrel procession looks like some sort of ancient pagan ritual that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the film The Wicker Man, its genesis was not quite so deep. The origin of the event goes back to Victorian times when it was traditional for a silver band to play Christmas carols in the village on New Year’s Eve.
One year, when a particularly fierce wind was raging, sudden gusts kept blowing out the candles by whose light players read the music that was attached to their instruments. In 1858, someone put forward the suggestion that a half barrel filled with blazing tar, and carried aloft on the head, might provide a more robust flame that the wind would not find so easy to extinguish. And so, the custom was born.
A highly combustible mix
The barrels for the event are provided annually by a distillery and, once sawn down, each one is filled with a mixture of tar, paraffin, and wood shavings; a highly combustible mix that, once lit, requires the greatest of care to handle.
In the entire history of the procession, however, there have been no reports of any major mishaps, although modern health and safety regulations dictate that stewards monitor the procession, and fire extinguishers are on hand. Each filled barrel weighs about 15 kilograms.
For the procession itself, 45 men from the village, many from the farming community, take part. The custom is an all-male affair, but there was an exception made in the 1950s when special dispensation was granted to allow a woman to participate after she had made costumes for the guisers.
The procession itself is quite a spectacle. Torchbearers lead the way, and the band follows close behind. Then come the barrel carriers, dressed in unusual costumes, and wearing all manner of masks and make-up. The giant snake of fire moves steadily through the streets, to musical accompaniment.
Auld Lang Syne
After a tour of the village, and doubling back on itself, the procession heads for the village square, where the climax of the event takes place. A pre-erected pile of wood awaits, and the marchers filter into a single file as they approach. As each participant passes the structure, he throws his barrel onto the pile to create a bonfire. This part of the proceedings is timed to take place moments before midnight, and on the stroke of that hour, the band strikes up with Auld Lang Syne.
And that was that. The bonfire roared, the band continued to play, and the people milled about. Then, some started heading homeward, and eventually, I too made my way back to the car.
If you think that the tar barrels are a spectacle you’d like to witness, here are some points to consider.
Allendale is a small remote village, so on the night of the procession, car parking stretches in long queues along surrounding roads.
Similarly, bars are full to overflowing on the night. I dare say that accommodation in the village would have to be booked well in advance.
The event is child-friendly, but obviously, precautions should be taken to ensure absolute safety.
I would certainly recommend the Allendale Tar Bar’l festival for a different New Year’s Eve experience.