The Burryman of South Queensferry!

This may have been the event that started me on this journey.  During our courtship my soon-to-be husband would send me wild, weird or groovy tidbits about the land which I would soon call home.  The Burryman of South Queensferry grabbed him in particular as it was under five miles from where he spent most of his life and he had never heard of it before, despite having been orchestrated for hundreds, if not potentially upwards of a thousand years!

Welcome to the beautiful town of South Queensferry just 8 miles from Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth.  It was awarded its name by Queen (later Saint) Margaret who first established a ferry for pilgrims visiting St. Andrew’s, and then officially by her son David I upon the Queens death in 1093.

The Burryman Parade is always celebrated on the 2nd Friday of August and is now a stand out part of the week-long “Ferry Fair” which has its origins in the 12th century.  This is the be-decked High Street of South Queensferry as a few of us stalwarts gathered to welcome the Burryman on his annual cross town escapade.

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The tradition of the Burryman seems to have stumped academics looking for hard fast dates of inception.  There are references to the elevation of the town to royal burgh (hence a possible play on word of burgh-y man) from both King Malcolm of Canmore (1058-1093) and more recently during the reign of Charles the I (1625 – 1643).  However the guy is literally covered in the prickly burrs of the Burdock plant so that seems a bit of a stretch.

There are other suggestions of the Burryman playing a ‘scapegoat’ or ‘sacrificial victim’  role as his burrs gather all the bad luck of the town (it is considered very good luck to pinch a few of his burrs – I certainly grabbed some). Other suggestions that have to do with similar ceremonies that had existed in other fishing villages such as Fraserburgh or Buckie on the Moray coast that had to do with “raising the herring”.   There are some notable links with other ancient festivals in Europe and in England such as Jack in the Green , Castleton Garland Day, and the Whittlesey Straw Bear, but the Burryman of South Queensferry is the only festival of its kind left in Scotland.

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Curiously, on the day itself, every person in town will tell you the same thing.  They claim that the ceremony dates back only a few hundred years when a fisherman washed up on shore after a wreck.  Dressed only in his under-crackers (a union suit for you Yanks) he sought to maintain his modesty by covering himself in the handy and abundant burrs before heading into town to ask for help.  Upon receiving said help, he bestowed good luck on all the towns people as thanks.  Now, I don’t know too many fisher folk that would a) be that fussed about their modesty after a wreck, or b) choose really spiky, itchy burrs to protect their hypothetical modest, but hey – that is the party line from the people who have spent their lives in the town.

A few fun facts, very recently a 10,000 year old settlement was found on the outskirts of town putting human habitation in the area right back to the end of the last ice-age, and the burrs grow locally near the grounds of Hopetoun House.  Just thought I would throw that into the mix as some elements that could indicate a very old local origin indeed.

So, on this glorious August morning we gathered outside the Stag’ Head Hotel to await the mythical Burryman.

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And after being dressed in a comfy outfit of heavy woolens, a balaclava and a bowler hat, then plastered with sheets of burrs and finished off with local flowers, the Burryman of 2013 (Andrew Taylor) emerges from the pub with his close friends and attendants to begin the big day.  For many decades the Burryman outfit included a Rampant Lion Flag ( the Royal Standard of Scotland)  around his waist.  When I asked about its absence, the past & current Burryman stated that after looking at historical photographs where no flag was present, they were trying to keep things old skool.  Only men (or stout lads) born in the town can play this important role, and most that take up the post  maintain for several years.  This was Mr Taylor’s second year but his friend in the white t-shirt John Nicol had previously held the role for 15 years!

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So at about 8:45 am the Burryman supported by his attendants (Andrew Findlater and Duncan Thompson) were warmly welcomed to applause and people jostling for the first few photographs of this year’s event.

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A few tentative steps later and the Burryman, his attendants, some family, friends and a Crier shouting “Hip…Hip…Hoor-ray, it’s..the Burry..Man’s…Day” with associated bell ringing,  all head off to their first stop on their over 8 mile journey that will last the whole day.

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The first stop is at the town Provost’s house for their first (of which will later be uncountable) drink of whisky.  Due to the prickly nature of the get up, the Burryman is provided a straw to help is this task.  Apparently, the group can’t eat or sit down all day and can only drink whisky, so…a good time is had by all.  PS the attendants drink at each stop as well so I don’t know how much help they are by the end of the day!

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John Nicol (left), Burryman (1996-2011) & Andrew Taylor, Burryman (2012 – )

The procession continues around town all day and takes a wee breather at The Moorings pub at about 4:00 pm.  Silly me thought that this is where things ended, but oh was I wrong.  While at The Moorings I was able to get this picture of past and current Burrymen side-by-side.

After a brief rest from their tour round the houses, the group headed off back to the High Street.

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Beginning with this lovely owner of the local ice cream shop, the Burryman continued his whisky sipping extravaganza through the gorgeous cobblestone waterfront of the town.

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Stopping to bestow good luck and pausing for pictures with the first of several brides along  the way.

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As the day wound down, the procession began to pick up some serious crowd action as we reached the far end of the town.

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At the edge of the waterfront sits the historic and iconic Hawes Inn, which is said to have hosted one Robert Louis Stevenson whilst he was writing Kidnapped and subsequently features in the book.  As it was after 5.30 pm I thought surely this is where things would wrap up.  I know that I was beginning to wane and I hadn’t been the one walking a 10k with burrs in all my nooks and crannies.

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But after posing for pictures with a few terrified children, some very surprised tourists and scoffing his requisite whisky, the group turned around and headed back to the town again.   It was then I realised he had only partaken at all the pubs on one side of the High Street, and had to go back and do the same again all the way back on the other side!

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Luckily, a piper was ready and waiting for him for this last leg of his journey, which certainly helped to raise the spirits of the crowd as well as the procession’s.

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And after 10 hours and nearly as many miles, countless drinks and a bevy of brides, the crew finally arrived back at their original destination of the Stag’s Head Hotel.

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Huge cheers arose from all for an impressive feat and an amazing day, which has been a part of this town for longer than anyone can confidently document.  At this point  more than a few folks emboldened by the crescendo (or maybe a bit of drink) came out of the crowd to grab wads of burrs off the guy’s suit as good luck keepsake until next year.  He was then helped back into the pub for a disrobing and I am sure a welcome sit down.

So,  just as it has for hundreds and perhaps as long as a thousand years or more, bad luck was gathered up and good luck bestowed on all who cheered on the Burryman of 2013.

Hip…Hip…Hooray…It’s…the…Burry…Man’s…Day!

Comments (2)

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  1. Colin says:

    I’m grateful to finally get an overview of this bizarre local event, hopefully I’ll manage to make it along next year!

  2. jess says:

    possibly the best holiday ever. i love this!!

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