Newburgh: The town that loves its 'wonky' Christmas lights

By Debbie Jackson
BBC Scotland

Image source, Newburgh Action Group
Image caption,
Charley Pearson's 2012 turkey was a triumph

While other towns aim for dazzle and perfection in their Christmas lights, a small Scottish town has chosen a different path to illumination.

Newburgh's displays are innocent, simplistic and sometimes bizarre, but each one comes straight from the imagination of a child.

Each year for almost two decades one primary school pupil's drawing has been selected to be brought to life in a riot of Christmas colour.

And in a year of a pandemic, the Fife town's residents think their "wonky" light display is what everyone needs to bring some festive cheer.

A drive along Newburgh's High Street will show you a blue angel, an impressive turkey, a dancing Christmas tree and a two-legged reinduck.

Image source, Newburgh Action Group
Image caption,
Laura Brister's 2008 reinduck is a favourite

The tradition is now in its 19th year, but no-one remembers who started it.

Shona Gray, head of Newburgh Action Group, who organise the lights, told BBC Scotland: "It might have been that there was a teacher from the local school on the committee that year, but no-one remembers.

"All we know is it became an annual competition and all the schoolchildren entered their drawings, with one being chosen to turn into a light."

Image source, Newburgh Action Group
Image caption,
Rachel Burgess won with her robin in 2007

It is a process that is well established. A shortlist is selected and sent to the light manufacturer. Blachere is a company which creates massive light displays for the likes of Harrods in London and the Blackpool illuminations.

But every year, it decides which of the children's designs will work as a street light and the winner is chosen.

The light is manufactured in France and is revealed to the town as all eyes land on lamppost number 15 for the big switch-on.

Shona said: "Lamppost 15 is always the new light. It's opposite St Katherine's Court where we gather for the light switch-on.

"The winner gets to do the honours and do the countdown."

'I felt like the local celebrity'

Image source, Fiona Ferguson
Image caption,
Isla's blue angel has gone into the display for nine years

Isla Ferguson, who is 15 now, won the competition in 2011 when she was in primary two.

She said: "I was inspired to draw an angel after playing the role of an angel in the school nativity. I also wanted to do a design that the town didn't have already.

"It is a big competition in the school as everyone really wants to have their drawings come to life and light up the town every year. When you do win you get to switch on the lights, there is a countdown and you just feel like the local celebrity.

"I got told I had won at a Christmas assembly in school, it was such a surprise. I was rewarded with a trophy which was engraved with my name. I got to switch on the lights at the middle of the town where the locals gather every year.

Even though it is nine years since she won the competition and she is now 15, Isla says she still feels proud when her light goes up each year.

She said: "I hope to continue to see them when I'm older so I can have that connection to the town and community. I hope we will still be able to keep them up for a long time and get new winners."

Hit by Covid

As with everything in 2020, this year's plans were hit by Covid-19.

The design competition was shelved after schools closed in March and the community action group felt the expense of putting on the show was too much in a year when they were unable to fundraise.

Organiser Shona Gray said: "It costs us about £7,000 to store the lights, put them up, take them down and repair them every year. We decided we couldn't justify it this year and there had been no time for the new light."

But the community was having none of it.

Donations from the local charity shop, bowling club and local families gave them the cash they needed to go ahead and the lights were switched on a week early at the end of November.

Locals were so happy to see their much-loved display, one shared a tweet with photos of the lights.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Poppy McKenzie Smith's tweet went viral, attracting more than 143,000 likes, some celebrity retweets and an article in the international news outlet the Huffington Post.

Image source, Newburgh Action Group
Image caption,
Katherine Porter's dancing Christmas tree won in 2009

The 27-year-old said: "I've grown up with them and first thought everyone had lights like this. But I had friends come to see them and they were like 'what is going on with your lights?'.

"I couldn't believe it when I tweeted the pictures after going for a walk to see them. I woke up to about 90,000 likes.

"I think they are wonderful, the more basic wonky ones are my favourites, like the two-legged reindeer."

Image source, Newburgh Action Group
Image caption,
Jamie Gourlay's angry penguin was a hit in 2003

And like all Christmas stories, this one has a happy ending. Poppy shared a fundraising page for the Newburgh Christmas lights and people from all over the world have been donating despite never having been there, or even to Scotland.

It has reached its target and Newburgh will definitely have a new light next year.

Newburgh Primary kids, it's over to you.

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