Martyn McLaughlin: The curious customs of Scotland’s towns and villages

One-year-old Edith McQuatt and her mum Laura meet the Burryman as he takes to the streets of South Queensferry as part of the annual ritual.
One-year-old Edith McQuatt and her mum Laura meet the Burryman as he takes to the streets of South Queensferry as part of the annual ritual.
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Since leaving city life behind to plant one foot in the countryside, I’ve found summer is a time to marvel at the idiosyncrasies of rural Scotland and its inexhaustible social calendar. Every other weekend of the season is dominated by festivals, fetes, and Highland Games, staples that draw in the punters and a parade of Mr Whippy vans.

But there is a ubiquity to such gatherings. It is the smaller, unheralded events, so numerous in number yet distinct in character, that lend a sparkle to the long, light days, and demarcate one place from the next.

This weekend, for example, Eaglesham, Scotland’s first conservation village, will mark the sestercentennial celebrations of its origins.

It was in 1769 that Alexander Montgomerie, the 10th Earl of Eglinton, struck upon the idea of constructing a planned village around the Orry, a pretty, rolling expanse of common land nine miles south of Glasgow.

Mongtomerie, unlike so many landowners of the day, was a visionary and largely benevolent figure. He was a vivacious soul to boot, introducing his good friend, James Boswell, to the nocturnal diversions of 18th century London, thanks to his pad in Mayfair.

A man enlivened by community spirit, as well as those of the alcoholic variety, would doubtless have approved of the Eaglesham Fair taking place on Saturday in the very streets he designed.

Already, Gilmour Street, the village’s handsome main thoroughfare, fizzes with the colour of bunting, intricate crochetwork, and shrubbery, a testament to the hard work of the charitable body which organises the fair, and local volunteers motivated by nothing other than civic pride.

In a few days’ time, the scene will be enlivened further by the quirks which lend the fair its unique character, such as the Kilmarnock Bunnet Race.

The origins of this particular event are uncertain, but long involved a footrace which set off from the Eglinton Arms, up Polnoon Street, along Mid Road, and back down Montgomery Street to the village cross. The exertions were, of course, lessened with regular stop-offs at hostelries along the way.

The 2019 event promises to be considerably drier, though no less entertaining. The chances are, few folk outside of Eaglesham will be aware of its distinctive celebrations. But then, why should they be? The purpose of such an event is not to lure in tourists, welcome though they are. It is to celebrate an independent spirit and history.

At a time when vexed questions surrounding national identity are uglily severing the country from Europe’s side, there is something emboldening in the way villages and towns cast aside their auld claes and porridge. There is pride in being a place apart, while remaining bound to a greater whole.

On the day the Eaglesham Fair takes place, so too does the marvellously named West Linton Whipman, part of the grand Borders festivals tradition, one which celebrates horsemanship and Common Ridings.

Or, also on 1 June, the Renfrewshire enclave hosts its Lilias Day, an event which acknowledges the village’s pre Christian history as well as some famous sons and daughters, including William Brodie, the stonemason who laid the foundation stone for the Statue of Liberty.

Like the Eaglesham Fair, the gathering fell away in the early 20th century, but having been revived, finds itself going from strength to strength, raising not insignificant amounts of money for good causes.

Saturday’s spectacles are merely the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the summer, there is no shortage of local observances which revel in their eccentricities.

Come August, for example, the young men of the North Ayrshire town of Irvine will follow in the footsteps of long-forgotten ancestors in attempting to ascend a 35 feet-high pole smeared in grease. The prize awaiting the victor is a hulking joint of ham, bound in black bin bags.

Men have been known to break ribs, legs even, in pursuit of the meat. In post-Brexit Scotland, one suspects the competition will be even fiercer.

Or then there is the Burryman in South Queensferry, where one willing individual covers himself in thousands of prickly burdock seeds, enduring a multitude of scratches and cuts, on top of which is foisted a final indignity of having to sip whisky through a straw.

These curios were faithfully recorded by Florence Marian McNeill, a vice president of the SNP who made an indelible contribution to Scottish life with The Silver Bough, a painstaking four-volume study of the country’s festivals and folklore.

Even in the 1960s, she was acutely aware of the need to protect and promote these traditions, realising how their whimsy often obscured a deeper, more vital purpose.

“I do not believe that you can exaggerate the importance of the preservation of old ways and customs, and all those little things which bind a man to his native place,” she wrote.

“Today we live in difficult times. The steamroller of progress is flattening out many of our old institutions, and there is a danger of a general decline in idiom and distinctive quality in our Scottish life.

“The only way to counteract this peril is to preserve jealously all these elder things which are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. For, remember, no man can face the future with courage and confidence unless it is solidly founded upon the past.”

It is a passionate, perhaps idealised ode to that which sets us apart, but I suspect the 10th Earl of Eglinton would have toasted its sentiment. .