Scottish Sailors Used Real Birds As Candles

Jeff Glennon - April 3rd, 2019

Long before the time of Thomas Edison or any sort of electricity, or battery powered torches; someone out in the night had an idea to keep a flame alight. Why not use a dead oily bird? That will do the trick, just put a piece of string through the bird’s dead carcass and you have a candle.

And the miraculous thing is it really did work. Deep in the arctic seafaring communities of Scotland, just over a century ago, hundreds of sailors would use dead birds as candles. The Orkney and Shetland Islands saw many bird candles being used all over their boats. And apart from the fire hazard that a feathered torch would bring, the idea worked and was practical in its use.

If you did not have any oil left for a lamp or too little wax for a candle, then the Devil Bird would be your savior. The stormy petrel was the bird that was used the most for these types of candles, simply because, they were numerous at this time in Scotland. And Scottish sailors around the subarctic seas were familiar with these little birds.

Though you can still find stormy petrels flying around these regions during the summer and spring, the dead bird candles are now just a piece of Scottish history. Though you can find several photos and may find one in a natural history museum. Normally you can easily spot them as there will be a tarred wick coming out of the bird’s head.

Contrary to what you may believe, the bird’s name has nothing to do with petrol. Experts believe petrel would have stood for pitteral, a word that has fallen out of English use and nobody really knows what it meant – though the theory is it may have something to do with rocks. They were called stormy petrels because they always flocked to ships when a huge storm was coming, and this is why there were many superstitions around this bird. Many sailors called them the devil’s birds or the water witches.

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