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The fiery cross is an English language term for a wooden object, such as a cross or baton, carried by a messenger and used by Northern Europeans, for example in Scotland and Scandinavia, to rally people for things (assemblies) and for defence or rebellion.
In Scotland, the "fiery cross" (Scottish Gaelic: Crann Tara) was used to rally clan members to arms. The practice is described in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. A small burning cross or charred piece of wood would be carried from town to town. A widely known use was in 1745, during the Jacobite Rising though it was used more recently in Canada, among Scottish settlers during the War of 1812, and among Clan Grant in 1820. Crann Tàra – “The gathering beam, a signal formally used on occasion of insult or impending danger, to summon a clan to arms. It was a piece of wood, half burnt and dipped in blood, in token of the revenge by fire and sword awaiting those clansmen who did not immediately answer the summons. It was passed from one permanently appointed messenger to another, and in this manner the alarm was spread across the largest districts in an incredibly short time. In 1745 the crann tàra traversed the wide district of Breadalbane, upwards of 30 miles in three hours.” In 1820, over 800 fighting men of Clan Grant were gathered, by the passing of the Fiery Cross, to come to the aid of their Clan Lord and his sister in the village of Elgin.
When an enemy had arrived, fiery crosses (Old Swedish: buþkafle (sg.)) were sent in all directions. In Sweden, they consisted of clubs, or just wooden chunks, and they were charred on one end and had a string attached to the other end, as a sign. In Norway, it was an arrow. Olaus Magnus (1555) relates that the one who did not bring the cross to the next village would be hanged and his homestead burnt down.
The objects were signed with runes or other marks in order to indicate the reason for the assembly (e.g. election of king at the Stone of Mora), and who had sent them. During the Middle Ages, using buþkaflar was the official method of assembling people, and they were only allowed to be carved by certain officials, e.g. governors and sheriffs.
They were especially efficient, however, when they were used to levy people against royal oppression and high taxes. After the great Dance of Dalarna uprising, there were strong checks placed on the use of fiery crosses.
In Sweden, the fiery crosses were standardized during the village reorganizations in 1742, and it was at the village level that they were frequently used. During the 19th and 20th centuries, more specific messages were attached to the clubs or inserted into a hollow space. Still in the early 20th century, there was a paragraph in Swedish law that stated that the fiery cross would be sent between the villages if there was a forest fire.
- Dwelly, Edward (1973). The Illustrated Gaelic English Dictionary (8th ed.). Glasgow: Gairm Publications. page 264
- "Clan Grant History & Facts".