Compared with the English, the Scots seem altogether too sensible to indulge in not-for-profit traditions. But when they do come up with one, it's a real lulu.
- 'True Brits', by JR Daeschner.
Whether they know it or not, every child in Britain is aware of 'burs'. These are the sticky, spiky heads of the burdock plant, not only designed to stick to passing mammals by the wonders of nature, but also apparently to be used in a great childhood game. Children up and down the country throw burs at each other, or sneakily stick them on one another at break-time. Some know them as the 'velcro-plant' - indeed, Velcro itself is reputed to have been designed when Swiss inventor George de Mestral took his dog for a walk and returned home to find both he and his canine friend were covered in them. A fun and inventive plant. Very odd. The Burry Man, however, is a much odder prospect indeed.
A Strange Custom
Dating from at least 1687, and probably much older, the Burry Man Parade takes place on the second Friday in August every year at Queensferry near Edinburgh and according to a book written by WW Fyffe in 1865, the ceremony hasn't changed much since 1746. And why should it? This is Britain at its most wonderfully odd and obtuse.
For a week or so before the big day, the volunteer Burry Man goes out into the neighbourhood and collects as many burs as he can lay his hands on. The burs are left to dry, any stems or odd bits of grass are removed, and lingering insects are allowed to escape - these could cause him great(er) discomfort, as we shall see! Once dry, the burs are stuck together in square or rectangular 'patches', ready to become the Burry Man's unusual clothing.
...an accident between a man, a big jar of honey and a gorse bush...
- Diane Maclean, The Scotsman newspaper; this website also shows a great photo of the custom.
At around dawn in Queensferry Town Hall, a dresser begins work on getting the Burry Man ready. Apart from a pair of boots, a flowery hat and his bare hands, he will be covered head to toes in bur patches, which readily stick to his flannel underclothes. The whole process of dressing him takes about two hours, and presumably greater care is taken over dressing some parts of his anatomy than others.
By 9am, he is ready and walks out onto the High Street. For the rest of the day, he will not speak a word. He is accompanied by two attendants, and a boy walks in front of him ringing a bell to let people know he is on his way. Clutching two staves covered in flowers, with his arms outstretched from his sides, he makes his way to the Provost's1 house. There, he receives his first drink of the day; a glass of whisky, which he sips through a straw. His attendants will also receive a small donation of cash, which will be shared among the four at the end of the day. He continues through the whole town of Queensferry, and for the rest of the day will have money and whisky offered to him on a regular basis, until he manages to stagger back to the Town Hall at about 6pm. Edinburgh City Museum says:
The task of being Burry Man is extremely demanding, requiring stamina, a strong bladder, an indifference to the discomfort caused by more penetrative burs, and a conviction that this ancient custom should not die out.
The ritual is now the start of Queensferry's 'Ferry Fair', although it probably pre-dates the fair's 17th Century origins.
Nobody knows exactly when or why the ritual began. It may be a relic of pagan times, with some people pointing to ancient fertility rituals and the mysterious Green Man for explanations. Perhaps it is connected to a similar event which continued until the mid-19th Century further north in Fraserburgh, where a Burry Man helped to ensure a good catch for the fishermen (other ceremonies have passed into legend around Scotland's east coast, such as Aberdeen's uncannily similar Burrey Man). Or maybe it was that the Burry Man was a scapegoat for the sins of the town, and the original Burry Man had burs pelted at him until his clothes were covered in them. The origins are so distant in time, we may never know.
He is certainly believed to spread good luck, and this can only be encouraged by the gifts he is proffered. Giving up the festival would have brought poor luck; a belief almost certainly encouraged by the entourage, as the privilege (and therefore financial reward) often passed from father to son! Another way to bring bad luck, according to some warier local children, is to look into the Burry Man's sunken eyes.
The first year I saw the Burry Man I burst out crying. I was really petrified of him. He walks about with his legs apart, rather him than me! He's supposed to ward off the evil spirits, but he's getting a bad job now since the town's expanded.
- Reminiscence from Queensferry History Group.