Queensferry's Pagan Plant Spirit
Queensferry, Midlothian, a traditional pagan ceremony is played out every
year on the second Friday of August. The origins for this mysterious
ritual are lost in the mists of time, but since 1687 the 'Burry Man' has
paraded around the streets of the town, frightening children and fascinating
The Burry Man:
During the local 'Ferry Fair',
held each August, one of South Queensferry's townsmen applies to the local
council for the honour of being that year's Burry Man. The successful
applicant dresses in a full body costume made of flannel. This costume
is completely covered with the hooked fruits of Arctium lappa and
Arctium minus, Britain's two native Burdock species.
The person who plays the Burry Man must collect these 'burrs' himself
(usually from near the local shale bings, where they grow), as well as
any manner of flowers and ferns to ornament both his costume and the two
staves he carries around on his journey.
This widespread member of the daisy family (Asteraceae)
is found in waste places (such as around the old mining areas
which are frequent throughout Central Scotland).
The fruits, or 'burrs' are strongly hooked, in
order to catch the fur of passing animals so that the seeds can
be dispersed. It is these fruits that are worn on the costume
of the Burry man.
Once he is fully decked
out in his heavy costume, the Burry Man leaves from the centre of town
at around nine o'clock in the morning. He parades around calling at each
of the pubs (and nowadays some of the factories) in the town, where he
receives a drink of whisky through a straw. He is also required to visit
the Provost's house where, yet again, he is given a drink. He is accompanied
by two attendants, who ensure that the ordeal is endurable. Even so, after
nine or so hours of slow walking, in a heavy costume, he will have had
a considerable amount to drink and is truly exhausted. For the 25
years prior to 1999, the position of Burry Man had been held by a Mr Alan
Reid. After Mr Reid's 'retiral', the post was taken up by Mr John
Nicol, who was agreed to have performed admirably.
Quite what the Burry Man is meant to
represent has been a matter of debate for several hundred years, with
even Sir Walter Scott being unable to provide (or rather make up) an answer.
It is fairly certain that the ritual has its origins far further back
than the first recorded event in 1687. There are two prevailing
1. The Green Man
As a 'Green Man' character, the Burry
Man may represent a spirit of vegetation and fertility. The Green
Man is seen throughout British (particularly English) folklore and is
thought to be a sanitised, or 'faerified' version of one of the primal
Indo-European gods of the land.
2. The Scapegoat
With the burrs clinging to his clothing,
it is thought that the Burry Man may be a character who takes away the
evils of the town with him as he makes his way around, effectively cleaning
up the evil spirits. In its earliest times, were this the case, the Burry
Man would probably have been offered for sacrifice or banished.
Nowadays the only sacrifice made is a hangover and physical exhaustion.
is some difference of opinion amongst the local children as to how scary
the Burry Man is. To some he is a comic figure, whereas to others
(including a girl now in her twenties) the first sight of the Burry Man
is enough to "scar you for life". Yet more of the town's children
dole out the sage advice not to look into his eyes - presumably it brings
Scotland had a number of similar
festivals to the Burry Man, including a rite to 'raise the herring', carried
out in Fraserburgh up until the mid 1800s. In Buckie, the same was
done following a year of poor herring fishing.