How One Scottish Town Revived a Local Tradition After 80 Years
The “Stromness Yule Log Pull” is officially back.
Happy New Year! While people around the world celebrated the beginning of 2018 with typical revelry, the town of Stromness in Scotland’s Orkney Islands did one better and revived a local tradition that hadn’t been observed for 80 years. All it took was a huge log and a willingness to indulge in some neighborly rivalry.
Stromness is the second-largest town of the Orkney Islands, and traditional culture is an important part of the local fabric. The Hogmanay (a Scottish term for New Year’s Eve) of 2017 was especially significant as it marked the end of a year’s worth of “Per Mare” celebrations honoring the town’s bicentennial. “‘Per Mare’ is our town’s motto. It means, ‘By the Sea.’ It’s a nod to our geographical location, as well as to how our town survives, which is through fishing and the ferry coming here and such,” says Kirsty Groundwater, who helped organize the year’s festivities. “In Orkney there’s a real love of tradition and a real love of our culture, and a real want to protect that.” To make the closing festivities even more special, the town revived the tradition of the yule log pull.
Likely originating sometime in the early 20th century, the original yule log pull was a sort of town-wide tug of war that took place on Christmas Eve, where a team from the north side of town (Northenders) and a team from the south side of town (Soothenders) would get together and try to pull a massive log over their finish line before the other half of town. Why hasn’t it been staged since the 1930s? Because some locals took things too far.
According to the BBC, in the early days of the contest the town’s youth were tasked with obtaining a suitable tree from which to make the yule log. “It tended to be that boys and young men of the town used to cut down a tree in somebody’s garden,” says Groundwater. Putting “the youth” up to any task that requires stealing from private property is rarely a good idea, and sure enough residents eventually began tiring of the tradition. It became such an issue that people were said to be sleeping out with their trees to prevent them from being taken. The town officially outlawed cutting down trees for the yule log in 1933, Groundwater says. “After that, people used to just give the boys a log to play the game with,” she says. “But because that meant that kind of the most exciting part of the game for those boys had gone, they didn’t want to do it anymore.” With that well-deserved wet blanket, the contest quickly lost steam and was last known to have taken place in 1937.
The idea to revive the yule log pull came from the head of the Orkney Islands Council, who is originally from Stromness. “I thought it was kind of a crazy idea to be honest. But we just ran with it and we got a county committee together to help us,” says Groundwater. Thanks to a government grant from the Winter Festivals Fund, which gives monetary support to communities celebrating Scottish holidays, the yule log pull was a go. To comply with the grant, the event was moved from the traditional Christmas Eve to Hogmanay, but it was all the better. “A lot of people come home to Orkney between Christmas and New Year, so it meant that we were kind of capturing a great crowd that way,” says Groundwater.
During the 2017 revival of the log pull, which took place this past Sunday, around 2,000 people came to the event to watch the two teams muscle it out. Rather than steal the ceremonial log from a local garden, the log itself was brought in from a Scottish sawmill (“Orkney is sort of famously treeless,” says Groundwater). About 80 men and women of all ages assembled on each side of the log, and began tugging.
As the event began, the teams struggled over the almost 12-foot-long log, which weighed over 880 pounds, tugging on the ropes attached to either end and not moving it much at all. After a couple of exhausting minutes, the Soothenders managed to drag the yule log towards their goal. After that, the Northenders managed to stop them a couple of times, but in the end, the Soothenders ran with their lead all the way to the finish line, winning the first Stromness yule log pull for the first time since any of them had been alive.
All said, the competition took only about seven minutes. “We either thought, it’ll take ten minutes or it’ll take two hours. And when it was finished it was less than 10 minutes,” says Groundwater. Since the actual competition had been so short, it was suggested that they try for best of three, but Groundwater says that the assembled pullers were so exhausted by the one attempt, they all balked at the suggestion.
The Soothenders might have taken the day, but Groundwater says that there were no hard feelings. “It was a rivalry, but it was a friendly rivalry, and everyone shook hands and went to the pub afterwards.”
In the end, the newly revived Stromness Yule Log Pull was a short, but meaningful competition. Groundwater says that seconds after it ended people were asking if they can do it again next year, and she’s confident that it will keep going. Some residents were even more moved by the event, seeing it as a link to their past, having heard their parents or grandparents talk about it. “One guy said that his mom was feeling quite emotional about the whole thing because she could remember her parents speaking of it,” says Groundwater.
No matter who wins the contest next year, if it happens at all, it will be a win for the town’s cultural heritage, and Groundwater for one is excited for the custom’s future. “It’s hard to keep these things going, nevermind take it back again, so yeah, we’re really chuffed.”
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