Remember remember the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.
Last Sunday night was of course Bonfire Night. For one night a year, the increasingly darker night skies light up in an array of spark and wonder. But the night is not a fun occasion for everyone. Violence, anxiety, and injury are common occurrences, and calls for increased regulation are repeated in the aftermath every year.
In light of the violence witnessed this year, my colleague Kaitlin has already discussed the social implications for young men for our column published in The National this week, but I’d like to reflect on the use of fireworks in communities themselves, is it about time to reassess how we celebrate Bonfire Night?
In the first Bonfire Night since the Scottish Government introduced the Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Act, I thought I would take this week to reflect on some of Sunday night’s proceedings, and ask what place should such an historic event have in our communities going forward?
We all know the origin story: a celebration ordered into law by Protestant King James to mark the foiled assassination attempt by Catholic activists in 1605. Since then, the proceedings have evolved from compulsory bonfires to just another winter staple, another way to pass a dark night between Halloween and Christmas.
There are very few celebrations in the world whose origins aren’t mired in controversy, and Bonfire Night is now happily enjoyed in most communities, marked in one way or another with a complete absence of religious connotations.
Celebrations were severely scaled back in the years during Covid, and now, much like a lot of aspects of our lives we dearly missed during that time, they are back, bigger and better than ever, people desperate to cling onto traditions which remind them of how pretty life can be sometimes.
But of course, like most celebrations, Bonfire Night just isn’t for everyone.
In recent years more attention had been drawn to the impact the noise of fireworks has on our beloved pets. We’ve all seen the videos and read the stories of animals in distress. But of course, they are not the only ones.
I’ve always had a little trouble with my nerves. I was often the butt of the joke in my retail and service jobs, colleagues jumping out to frighten me for laughs, and of course it was indeed funny, I’m fairly thick skinned and can take a joke. But sudden, loud noises are still my Achilles heel, so you can imagine that the lead up to Bonfire Night every year simply fills me with dread. Hours of sudden, loud noises from neighbours who have been purchasing fireworks at the local supermarket from the day the designated kiosk opened, just practice runs for the big night.
On Sunday night itself I found myself stuck in nose to tail traffic on my way home from dinner with my parents. A free, local display which attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators every year brought the entire town to a standstill, and a journey which normally takes less than fifteen minutes took almost fifty. The main source of disruption was controlled entry to the event venue, with police diverting traffic and closing normally busy lanes on the road to accommodate event goers, leaving local residents to contend with the increased flow in and out of town.
So here we already have two problems: the private use of fireworks causing nuisance, and the poor planning and infrastructure of the large, organised displays we’re actively encouraged to attend instead. There are no good options out there that offer a compromise on how to celebrate Bonfire Night both safely for those who wish to participate, and peacefully for those who don’t.
And this is just my own, personal experience this year. Every year the cycle repeats itself, and more people call on the government to intervene as stories emerge of violence and injury at both organised public displays and private events.
The Scottish Government’s Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles Act was introduced last year in response to this usual uptick in incidents, and yet falls miserably short of addressing it since it makes an exception to the sale and distribution of fireworks in the run up to the two days of the year where these incidents are most likely: Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve.
This is a clear cut failing, a typical smokescreen from our government to make it look like they’re doing the work, make it look like they care, but in the end it’s just more meaningless words on meaningless paper.
Does this mean we should ban Bonfire Night if we can’t do it right? Of course not. However, something needs to change.
Supermarkets have been praised for their sale of so-called ‘silent fireworks’, which contain less gunpowder and therefore produce less sound when fired. But while bigger and better prospects are still for sale right beside them, they still simply won’t appeal to the people they need to.
Furthermore, you can restrict the sale of fireworks to certain people at certain times until the cows come home, but until there is an outright ban on their sale to the public, those who set out with the intention to cause nuisance already possess the disregard for community welfare to do so anyway. These are not the people who would be deterred by restrictions, they need to be outright unavailable for general use, as more and more poll respondents are beginning to agree.
There should also be more stringent safety checks and regulations in place for those who organise these larger events to further ensure public safety both within the venue and outside within communities. Locals should have more of a say in what goes on, especially when they have the potential to cause such disruption.
Yes, it is a night steeped in tradition, and a source of enjoyment for many. But when we look at the bigger picture, see beyond our own wants and needs and start to consider the impact on others, perhaps we should consider forgetting the gunpowder treason, and rethink how we can each bring our own little sparkle to our dull winter nights.