Peter Ross at large: After 20 drams, our seedy hero is cut from his burry prison

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The idea is that evil sticks to the burrs and he thus cleanses the burgh

JOHN Nicol, a South Queensferry man living in Leith, returned to his home town on Thursday to make final practical and psychological preparations for the lead role in Scotland's oddest ceremony. By 8.25am on Friday, in a back room of The Stag's Head, one of nine pubs he will visit over the next 11 hours, his transformation into the Burryman is almost complete.

Nicol is a well-built, 35-year-old, six-two in his socks, but disappearing fast behind a jaggy veneer of 11,000 seed pods, or burrs, from the burdock plant being stuck all over his body by friends and family who could not be more chuffed about the ordeal he is about to endure. "We're proud," says his mother, Senga, who has arranged flowers all over his bowler hat. "But I worry all day. It's a hard thing he's going to do."

Her son is standing with his arms folded across his chest, scowling with concentration, his long hair tied back. Over his trousers and T-shirt he has pulled long-johns and a thermal vest to which the burrs are stuck. Next he puts on a full-face balaclava. "Goodbye, honey," says his girlfriend, Emma. It sounds like the sort of joke couples make, but she's in earnest. Once the hood goes on and those final burrs applied, Nicol no longer feels like himself. He has become the Burryman, a creature which some believe has walked the streets of Queensferry on every second Friday in August for the last 900 years. According to Doc Rowe, a folklorist who has been attending Burryman day since 1969 and now directs the dressing process, the first written mention of the ceremony is in the writing of Sir Walter Scott.

Whatever his provenance, the duties of the Burryman are these: walk around Queensferry all day, never sitting down, never eating, never lowering your outstretched arms and never refusing whisky. In addition to the pubs, people come out on the street in front of their homes and offer a dram, holding the straw to the Burryman's lips. Often these straws are green in acknowledgment of Nicol's Hibee tendencies. It is considered a great honour to have a drink with the Burryman and his two supporters, George Topping and Steven Cannon – responsible for helping him get around safely. This duty is compromised by the fact they match him drink for drink, but the lads do a grand job for all that.

Nicol has been Burryman for 11 years and has his eyes on the record of 27 years. When he was first approached about becoming Burryman, the head of the selection committee asked him: "Are you aware of the dangers? Are you fit? Are you able to take on board some whisky? Have you got some sensitivity to the tradition? And are you mental?" To all these, he answered yes.

At 8.55am by the Jubilee Clock. Nicol is led from The Stag's Head, heralded by a 12 year-old boy called Cameron Forrester who clangs a bell and sings, "Hip hip hooray! It's the Burryman's day!" This anthem is taken up by many adults and children as we walk along High Street, stopping traffic, and up a steep hill. Already, Nicol is "melting" inside the heavy costume. Itchy too. The burrs saw into his flesh as he walks. The pain, heat, whisky, lack of food and air, the restricted vision and movement – it's an intoxicating mix. You can black out if you're not careful. Today, the problem is heavy rain which makes it easier for the spikes to penetrate Nicol's clothes. But it's not raining hard enough to stop the wasps from buzzing round his head. One year a wasp crawled in an eye hole and stung him.

At 9am we make the first stop. This is at the house once occupied by the late James Milne, former provost of the town. He used to offer the first dram, and now his granddaughter Donna travels from Belfast each year to stand outside the home and give the Burryman a drink. This commitment is indicative of how seriously Queensferry takes the tradition. The Burryman is part of the town's soul and collective memory. His passage through the streets is a celebration but there's something elegiac about it too. We stop, for instance, outside a house on Stewart Terrace, where whisky has been left on a doorstep beneath a dishtowel. "Drink to Harry on the train," Steven Cannon instructs Nicol. "Harry Docherty was a good Ferry lad," Nicol tells me. He died suddenly on the train back home from Edinburgh and was found on arrival in Dundee. Docherty used to love the Burryman visiting for a whisky and so his widow, Mary, carries on the tradition.

The Burryman seems particularly meaningful for the very young, who regard him as a magical figure, and the very old for whom he is a reminder of their own magic youth. Wee girls wearing angel wings or dalmatian-spot raincoats go up to Nicol and get burrs for luck. At 9.25am, Betty Archibald, 79, offers the third whisky of the day. She's delighted to see Nicol. Her own father, Sam Corson, was Burryman just after the war. "He did it just the one year," she says."They brought him hame in a wheelbarrow, he was that drunk."

Inevitably, there are those for whom the tradition means nothing. A mystified workman laying a new road says: "I nearly shit myself when he came round the corner," and it is left to Nicol's father to explain the Burryman is supposed to bring good fortune. The idea is that evil sticks to the burrs and he thus cleanses the burgh, like some metaphysical nit comb. For Rick Compton, 46, visiting from Florida, the pleasure he takes in this tradition is more basic: "In Orlando, we got seven dwarves, fairy princesses, Mickey, Minnie and Goofy. But we don't have any Burlymen."

At 6pm, after drinking the last whisky of the day, his 20th, in just two sooks, Nicol staggers to the back room of the Stag's Head and, seated in the middle of the dance floor, is cut from his burry prison. His hair is tousled, his clothes sweat-soaked, and he has blood all over his back. But it's the ecstasy on his face as his boots are removed that will stay with me. "Oh!" he slurs. "It's worth it just for that, eh?"