Chasing a myth: Whuppity Scoorie and other obscure folk rituals

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SCOTLAND has no shortage of festivals both brilliant and bizarre, from Lerwick's Up Helly Aa in January to Stonehaven's fireball-swinging shenanigans on Hogmanay.

But none surpasses the Royal Burgh of Lanark, which has the best-named festival in the entire Scottish calendar. Each year, on the first of March, the douce town plays host to Whuppity Scoorie.

It is teatime in Lanark, but few are at their tea. Above the rooftops, the gloaming is coming on. At the foot of the steep High Street, a small raised platform has been assembled in front of the St Nicholas Parish Church, a handsome cream building topped by a golden weather vane hoaching with sparrows.

A 72-year-old in a tweed jacket steps toward the microphone and looks out at a few hundred expectant faces. He has round his neck a chain of office. This is Frank Gunning, chairman of the community council, the man responsible for ensuring that Whuppity Scoorie takes place each year. He is a proud Lanarkian. Although he admits to being born in Bellshill, Gunning believes it doesn't count as he was only there for a week and he was a fortnight premature.

"Thank you for coming to help us re-enact our ancient ritual of Whuppity Scoorie, despite the fact that nobody really knows when it started or what it means," he tells the crowd. "But hey, it's fun and it's aye been."

During Whuppity Scoorie, the children of Lanark run three times anti-clockwise round the kirk, swinging balls of paper on string around their heads. Afterwards, there is a scramble. On the surface, that's all there is to it. Except, of course, there's more. "Apparently it's a paganistic ritual," one woman tells me. Another adds: "They say we're chasing bad spirits down to Kirkfieldbank, the nearest village."

Anne Lothian, who grew up in Lanark but moved away, is here with her children - Emily, seven, and Rebecca, two. Emily is old enough to do Whuppity Scoorie on her own, but Anne will be taking Rebecca round. "It's a community thing for me," she says. "When I come back I meet all the kids I went to school with, and their kids."

Lanark is one of those Scottish towns in which every stone seems clarted with history. Its chief claim to fame is that William Wallace lived here and killed the English sheriff, thus beginning the first war of Scottish independence.

The local legend I prefer, however, is that of the so-called Girnin' Dug. The story goes that one Deacon MacDonald was having building work done on his house on Lanark's Castlegate at some point during the 1830s. This brought him into conflict with a Miss Inglis, who lived over the road, and who found that her dinner was being spoiled by the noise and stoor. In revenge, she poisoned the Deacon's beloved dog. Distraught, he did what any bereaved pet owner would do - he had a life-sized version of the late animal sculpted and mounted it on the gable, where it faced directly into the home of Miss Inglis who, every time she looked out the window, would come face to face with its mournful coupon. The warring neighbours are long gone, but the Girnin' Dug remains in situ, mortared on the corner of the house, a sort of dark Lanarkian version of Greyfriars Bobby.

It is seven minutes to six. The police have closed the roads around the kirk. Whuppity Scoorie is about to begin. Parents urge teenagers to take part - "Aye, c'mon, go for it!" - as if keen that they should not put away childish things just yet. The teenagers respond as teenagers do - with a strop: "I never wanted tae come. I got tolt tae come." The wee ones, meanwhile, are surging into the road, keen to get whipping those evil spirits, or - more likely - determined to secure a good position for the scramble. Whuppity Scoorie is not a race, but there is a stubborn belief among the children that the sooner you finish, the more money you will make.

That is certainly the firm opinion of John Gair, an excited nine-year-old, here with his grandmother, Lesley. "It's gone on for a long time this," says Lesley. "I've been making Whuppity Scoorie balls for I won't tell you how many years." She nods towards her grandson. "He's been coming here since he was two years of age."

This year the Gairs have excelled themselves by sticking two balls together, creating a cone of paper for a nose, and topping their creation off with straw for hair. "This is Mr Whuppity Scoorie," John explains. "I thought I would do this for a change and maybe it'll catch on."

There are various competing theories to explain what Whuppity Scoorie is all about. Some say it is a pre-Christian rite, a driving out of evil and a welcoming of spring. Another theory claims that it derives from the 17th-century practice of taking prisoners from the nearby Tolbooth and whipping them round the kirk before scouring them of their sins in the River Clyde.

A third notion is that, during the 19th century, local youngsters would march from the kirk in the direction of nearby New Lanark, where they would fight and throw stones at boys from that rival town. Thus, it is quite possible that today's charming Whuppity Scoorie has its roots in the violent territorial disputes of yesteryear. As a Glaswegian, it is pleasant to think that a century from now our present gang-fighting may have evolved into something similarly bloodless and ritualised. Chibbity squarego, perhaps.

Whatever its real origins, the truth is that Whuppity Scoorie's obscurity and vagueness is a significant part of its charm. You don't know why you take part but you take part anyway. "That's the great thing about it," says Frank Gunning. "You make up your own myth."

Whuppity Scoorie is one of three very old traditions observed in Lanark. The first is the Het Pint, dating from 1662, which sees droves of pensioners claim a free glass of mulled wine at the Tolbooth on the morning of New Year's Day. Whuppity Scoorie is the middle ceremony. Finally, in June, comes Lanimer Day, which in fact lasts for five days and is a tremendous and much-loved pageant, similar to some of the Common Riding festivals of the Border towns but grander in scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Lanimer Day is the "lorries"- the local name for the procession of floats, though that particular "f word" should never be used in the hearing of a Lanarkian as they dislike its association with common galas. "The lorries" are quite a spectacle, some of them highly elaborate and mounted on the back of trucks or tractors and trailers. The outstanding lorry wins the Silver Bell Trophy, for which competition is fierce.

Beth Brown, 63, is steeped in the town's traditions. She was Lanimer Queen in 1960, her sister was Lanimer Queen in 1955, and her daughter held the title in 1982. Brown is also a stalwart of the lorries. She has put one out every year for the past half-century, each bigger than the last. "It takes up about nine months of my life and costs about 2,000," she says. "This year we're doing a Vegas theme and I am making costumes for 102 people including showgirls, Elvis and Michael Jackson. The lorry will be based on Caesar's Palace. It's got 90,000 paper flowers and the front part will be a great big grand piano with Elton John playing it. No, we're not going to build a model of his new wean."

At precisely 5.55pm, signalling the start of Whuppity Scoorie, the "wee bell" of the church begins to peal, the children begin to squeal, and they all rush off, swinging their paper balls round their heads as the cameras flash. Attendant girning dugs whine and strain their leashes, keen to get in on the action. The kids run round the church and the adjoining building, past the tattoo and piercing parlour, giving those evil spirits a real doing. One little girl in a pink anorak and skirt falls in the street and rises in tears, her mum scooping her up out the road of the stampede.

Most of the paper balls are the size of a large man's fist, and the traditional thing is to make them from four pages of the Lanark Gazette. However, Amy Sloan and Aimee McKay, both 13, are carrying between them a Whuppity Scoorie ball so large that they have had to resort to an entire Daily Record and its Saturday supplement. "This is brilliant," says Aimee. "Well funny."

Next there is the scramble. The global recession has not yet hit Whuppity Scoorie. There is 100 up for grabs, dished out in silver and coppers. In the twilight, the kids can't see the money very well, but they can hear it fall, and wriggling scrums form instantly around each scattered jingle. If only the Scottish rugby team could muster such determination and ferocity. Weston Todd, 66, passes through the crowd, a crutch in his right hand, furtively dispensing coins from his left pocket. "I just keep walking. If you stop, you're surrounded," he says. "Nothing against the kids, but I've seen vultures no as bad as this."

What strikes me more than ever, having attended Whuppity Scoorie, is the wrongheadedness of Perth's present bid for city status. At their best, Scottish towns are perfect units of cohesion, tradition, pride and shared identity. They are the right size. I love Glasgow, but I rather envy the Lanarkians.

Afterwards, over tea and pieces in the Tolbooth, Frank Gunning reflects on another successful Whuppity Scoorie and the values of his town. "David Cameron's trying to reinvent it the now and call it the Big Society," he says, "but that's what we've had in Lanark all along."