The Burryman

Share this article

EVERY year on the second Friday of August, during the Ferry Fair, a strange spectacle can be seen walking round the town of South Queensferry, West Lothian. What appears to be an accident between a man, a big jar of honey and a gorse bush wanders round and round collecting money and getting drunk. It could only happen in Scotland.

The Burryman is an ancient tradition, dating back to at least 1687, and is said to bring luck to the yearly fair. During the day, a local man is dressed in a full-body costume made of flannel, before completely covering himself in burrs – (the hooked fruits of Arctium Lappa and Arctium Minus, to be precise). The Burryman must collect all these burrs himself, as well as flowers and ferns to decorate his costume. Once covered in his Arctium suit, the Burryman finishes off the ensemble with a flower-covered bowler-hat, a flag cummerbund and two staves of flowers. It is a sight to be seen.

Where this outlandish tradition came from is a bit of a mystery. Some people associate it with a fishing ritual, to celebrate the fruits of the sea and propitiate the gods for further bounty. There has been a suggestion that the Burryman is a representative of the Green Man who pops up in many English folklore traditions and represents vegetation and fertility. Yet others maintain that it commemorates the landing of Queen Margaret, from whom the town took its name, and whose husband hid from the English in a gorse bush.

Whatever the origins, his function is clear. The Burryman is there to vacuum up evil and spread good fortune for the coming year. It is an onerous undertaking.

The Burryman starts his day early when he sets out with his two attendants. These aides hold his arms stretched out, which is not part of the elaborate look, but a necessity when you consider the weight of the costume and the adorned floral staffs that he carries. The two are also the eyes, ears and mouth of the Burryman, as he can scarcely see and hear and is not allowed to talk the entire day.

It is considered lucky to give him money and a drink, and that is how his day starts. He leaves the centre of town at nine o’clock in the morning and immediately begins to fortify himself for the rigours ahead. First stop is the local pub where he is given money and a glass of whisky, which he drinks through a straw. Then it’s on to the next place, and the next and … you get the idea.

If anyone out there is tempted to think the Burryman a lucky bloke doing an enviable job, then consider the one big drawback. He has to stay on his feet all day. Drink all day. And it is absolutely impossible to go to the loo. Still think it's a job in a million?

Nine hours walking (very slowly) round the town, drinking and remaining silent is utterly exhausting, but the role of Burryman is considered a privilege. Often the the job is inherited and can remain within the same family for decades.

It is an odd job, requiring stamina and a certain degree of nonchalance. Not everyone would willingly dress up in flannel and burrs with the aim of frightening small children. There are advantages to wearing the suit of burr. There's all that free drink for one, and the Burryman and his attendants are allowed to keep the money that they collect.

Still, he probably needs to spend most of it paying for a heavy detox session to counter the effects of all that drink!

Back to the top of the page