Force Fire: an antidote for the ills of our age


Tim Knowles created a contemporary reworking of the folklore ritual Force-fire as an antidote for the ills of our age at Helmsdale’s Highland Games 2015.

Force-fire or Teine-éiginn was a folklore ritual used in the Scottish Highlands, which was believed to be an antidote against bewitching, plague and murrain (infectious disease in cattle and sheep). When it was thought that bewitching, plague or murrain had struck, the whole parish would extinguish every single fire and gather together; working in teams doing shifts they would then generate fire by friction. From this new “clean” fire embers would be distributed to relight all the hearths in the Parish, so warding off the evils. The custom seems to have died out around the time of the Highland Clearances with one of the last recorded Force-fires taking place in Helmsdale in 1818.

Using basic timber construction Tim Knowles has constructed a contemporary Force-fire device which will be employed by participants from the community to create fire at the opening of the 2015 Highland games. This is not a historic re-enactment but rather a contemporary reworking and from this newly kindled ember a fire burned for the duration of the game. In a second element to the project effigies and objects representing contemporary ills were burnt.

Force-fire served as an antidote for the ills of our age both in it’s construction by the artist and assistants – working with hand tools and simple methods to construct a large, robust object which functioned as both a sculpture and a tool or mechanism that acted as a catalyst to bring the community together in a communal effort to create fire by friction – and in the ritual of burning ills, invited people to consider the problems facing society and our present world and made a gesture to rid ourselves of these contemporary evils.

This project was developed from Tim’s first visit to Helmsdale and the Helmsdale Highland Games in 2013, when Timespan hosted Post Box, an exhibition of Tim’s work in our Gallery.

IMG_0867 (1) from Timespan on Vimeo.