Duck Races, Bog Snorkelling, and Cheese Rolling: 5 British Traditions You Might Not Have Heard About

Duck Races, Bog Snorkelling, and Cheese Rolling: 5 British Traditions You Might Not Have Heard About

Britain has its fair share of traditions – some are thought to be ancient, while others started just 30 years ago. From Duck Races in Edinburgh to Cheese-Rolling in Gloucester, here’s a list of six unique traditions you’ll want to add to your bucket list.

1. The Stockbridge Duck Race – Edinburgh, Scotland

Starting off close to home, Stockbridge in Edinburgh hosts a Rubber Duck Race each July to raise money for charity. Susie Gregor started the tradition back in 1989. The money is raised by selling yellow rubber ducks in local shops and cafes. Participants choose a number and enter their details when they buy a duck, then their number is marked onto said duck which enters the race along the Water of Leith. At 3pm on race day, around a thousand yellow rubber ducks are tipped onto the Water of Leith from the main bridge in Stockbridge, and they set off on the race all the way down to the finish line at Falshaw Bridge, cheered on by crowds at the riverbanks. A prize is given to the owner of the first lucky duck that bobs over the finish line. Afterwards, most of the crowd heads to the pub to continue the celebration, meanwhile the ‘duck wardens’ have the important job of making sure all the ducks are collected from the river.

2. The Burning of the Clavie – Burghead, Moray, Scotland

The small Scottish town of Burghead celebrates ‘old Hogmanay’ with the Burning of the Clavie fire festival. It occurs on the 11th of January, which was traditionally recognised as Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 1750s shifted the date to the 31st of December. The origins of the tradition are unknown, and people speculate whether it has Celtic, Pagan or Roman roots. Interestingly, Moray, located on the Moray Firth, may have been the capital of the Picts, and is also home to the ruins of a 4th century Roman fort.

The Clavie is a whiskey barrel filled with wood and tar, and set alight by the Clavie King (a local who is chosen by Burghead residents) so that it looks like a giant torch. The Clavie is carried through the town by “The Clavie Crew”, followed by a crowd of around 1000 spectators made up of locals, as well as tourists who travel to witness the special tradition, to the top of Doorie Hill. Once it reaches the top of Doorie Hill, the Clavie is placed on an ancient stone altar, where it is left to burn through the rest of the night. Locals collect the charred remains from the burning Clavie, which is thought to bring good luck for the year ahead.  

Some say that the Burning of the Clavie symbolises the burning away of past sins, or that it burns away evil spirits. Even though a law was passed in the 18th century to abolish the ritual, describing it as “an abominable heathenish practice”, the tradition has always remained an integral part of life in Moray. 

3. Hurling the Silver Ball – St Ives, England

On the first Monday after the 3rd of February, residents of St Ives, a coastal town in Cornwall, play silver ball hurling, which is an ancient form of rugby. The game is a part of the traditional St Ives Feast (also known as the Feast Day of St Ia), which celebrates the consecration of the Parish Church of St Ia in 1434 AD. 

The tradition starts at 9:30am, when a crowd parades from Guildhall to Venton la Well, where the parish priest blesses the silver ball. Then, at 10:30am, the crowd walks to the St Ia Parish Church yard, where the Mayor hurls the silver ball into the crowd gathered on St Ives beach. 

Participants try to win the ball by chasing and tackling the ball from each other through the streets of St Ives. The winner, who claims the silver ball and returns it to the Mayor by noon at the steps of St Ives Guidhall, is given a silver coin.

In June 2019, a giant 2 metre high Silver Ball was rolled through the streets of St Ives as part of a Tate art project called “Urban Songline” directed by Allard van Hoorn. The ball was rolled through parts of the town which connected the community, such as St Ives Community Orchard and the harbour. The giant ball’s reflective surface mirrors the town, as well as members of the community who look into it, as a way of symbolising and celebrating St Ives’ connection to its traditions and heritage. 

4. Bog Snorkelling – Llanwrtyd, Wales

More and more people each year travel from as far as Australia, America, and South Africa to compete in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd, Wales. Gordon Green, the creator of the annual event, came up with the idea in 1976 over a drink in the Nueadd Arms, a local pub which he owned with his wife. Green wanted to come up with an exciting way to draw in visitors to the smallest town in Wales and celebrate the town’s natural landscape.  

The championship takes place over the August Bank Holiday Weekend, and starts at 10am at the Waen Rhydd bog, just outside of the town.

Participants compete to swim – in snorkels, goggles and flippers – 2 lengths of a 60-metre trench carved out of a peat bog, in the fastest time. Using regular swimming strokes is cheating, so participants have to wiggle and splash through the muddy water to reach the finish line. Some participants opt for fancy dress over a wetsuit, and each year the local press release photos of the wackiest costumes – some of my personal favourites include the women wearing wedding dresses in 2019, and the man dressed as Elvis Presley in 2015. 

Neil Rutter holds the current world record, completing the muddy swim in 1 minute and 18.81 seconds in 2018. He summed up the sport to the BBC in 2019: 

“Bog snorkelling is completely bonkers, it’s just completely nuts […] You’re swimming through mud and the atmosphere’s hilarious and everyone has a great time,[…]You’ll be bumping into the reeds and the muddy edges of the bog, and if you stand in it your feet sink into this disconcerting squelchy mess.[…]Your mind will conjure up all sorts. So you’ll be like: was that an eel? Do we have eels in bogs?” (Source: X)

5. Horn Dance – Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England

The Horn Dance is a folk tradition which takes place in Abbots Bromley, a village in Staffordshire, England. It occurs at the beginning of September each year on Wakes Monday (the first Monday following September 4th). The tradition starts at 8am after the horns are collected from the church. The Horn Dancers, who are made up of 6 ‘Deer-men’, plus a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman and Maid Marian, who all dress in 16th century costumes, dance with the reindeer antlers through the village to music played on a melodeon. Rev. Simon Davis described the tradition as “pagan with a small ‘p’”. The dance, which attracts tourists to the village each year, can be traced back to 1226 when it was performed at the old Barthelmy Fair. However, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding exactly when the tradition started, which means that the dance could be even older. The same reindeer antlers have been used in the dance every year, and some of them have been carbon dated to around 1050 AD. There’s also a lot of mystery surrounding why it is performed each year, some think it could be a pagan fertility ritual, while others speculate that it could have been a hunting ritual and custom tied to Needwood Forest.

6. Cheese Rolling – Gloucester, England (May 29th)

Almost banned in 2010 because of the number of participants who suffered injuries as a result of the competition, you could say that the Cheese Rolling race is the most daring event of the year in Gloucester. The cheese isn’t what attracts crowds to the event, instead it’s the people tumbling head over heels down Cooper’s Hill trying to catch the rolling cheese, which reaches speeds of nearly 70mph.

It begins when the Master of the Ceremony yells “One to be ready! Two to be steady! Three to prepare! and four to be off!” and throws a 7-9 pound round of Double Gloucester cheese (replaced by a foam replica in 2013) down the slope. The winner, who is the first person to pass the finish line at the bottom of Cooper’s Hill, wins the cheese.

The Cheese Rolling event can be traced back to 1826, although it may have been around for even longer. The location of Roman ruins near Cooper’s hill suggests that cheese rolling began with the Romans. Others say the tradition is tied to ancient pagan rituals, in which burning wood, rather than cheese, was rolled down Cooper’s Hill to symbolise the birth of summer.