Category Archives: Midlothian

Custom contrived: Edinburgh Beltane Fire festivals

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Beltane is an ancient festival day which until recently had been largely forgotten it would seem but due to a neo-pagan revival to have been increasingly observed. One of the earliest and certainly most vibrant is that established in 1988 by a musical collective called Test Dept as their website records: 

“The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit……Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators’ research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department’s drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).”

In a way of the custom is a sort of revival as Edinburgh had a tradition of beltane celebrations located on Arthur’s seat of which the washing in May Dew is the last remnant. However, anyone who has been to the told of Arthur’s seat would attest it is big on scenery but small on space! Thus the location was moved to Carlton Hill. The first Beltane fire festivals were a success:

“Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.”

Popularity has brought its challenges as the website notes:

“Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements… the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.”

It certainly is a vibrant and busy event. I followed ticket in my hand the throng of people, devotes to the fire festival as they snaked up the hill. Once in you really do feel this is an immersive experience everywhere there is action, sounds, sights, smells and excitement. However, getting that killer photo is more of a challenge! 

The event starts with a procession of a resplendent white May Queen with a foliage covered green man with as their website states:

“followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny.”

If it wasnt them it was the throng of onlookers jostling for a position! The May Queen signifies the beginning of summer physically emphasized by the lighting of an immense bonfire. Once this has happened the performers move around the site integrating with great aplomb and flashes of red, white and toplessness! Writhing bodies and jumping in and out of the crowds creating a magical. Many doing the traditional jumping through the fire for luck and causes woops and cheers from the crowd. 

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After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. As the website notes:

“There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming.”

The sound was indeed incredible and all in all this is an amazing event custom a must to experience and be part of. Less of an event to experience what Beltane was like in the pre-Modern years I would add but that is beside the point Edinburgh should be justly proud of this fantastic addition to the folklore calendar. A must! I left a bit before it finished and looked back at Carlton hill the spectacle of rich reds and oranges pours across the Edinburgh skyline creating an exciting vista. 

Custom survived: The South Queensferry Burryman

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At the time I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe – but that’s another story – and as a break from the incessant publicity I decided to take myself to find the Burry man. These were the days before the Internet and asking at the Tourist Information in Edinburgh they thought it was some sort of Fringe event..but I thought it is only a few miles out I would try and find it.

The Burryman is perhaps the most bizarre of our customs. A man covered head to toe with burrs with a flowery hat of roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. No skin is visible. Just a slit for the mouth. So much that his humanity appears to stripped for him, from a far he is most alien only a cummerbund adorned with a red lion suggesting he is human. He walks with two smartly dressed attendees, who help him hold onto to two hydrangea filled poles.

I located the Burryman easy enough propped outside of a pub like a rag doll. He appeared to acknowledge me but did not say. A few moments later a man appeared with a glass of something – whisky –  what else? Of course drinking the Whisky was a challenge; he only had a slit for a mouth. A straw was provided and it was steadily consumed..one of many it would appear.

As I followed him around some local children cheered his arrival, others watched from behind their parents more suspiciously. The lack of sound perhaps making it more curious for unlike every other similar custom, there is no associated music, no accordions, no violins, no bagpipers and no Morris!

Burry little clear on the origins

History is silent on its origin. Being linked to the local fair, which although medieval in origin only established a charter in 1687 suggests that it dates from then. Very unlikely I would feel and the two has become coincidentally associated. Some state it has a 900 year origin but it only has a recorded history since 120 odd years ago. Interestingly, the date 1687 was when the town became a burgh – burgh – burr – was this a local joke go on and on?

The Burryman is clearly a very odd folk figure. If there was a list of scary English folk figures he would be up there with the Straw bear and Bartle. Indeed, some believe that was part of its function, a mechanism to ward off evil spirits. One belief is that he is a sacrificial scape goat, much akin to the theory of Burning Bartle and the custom’s date being close to the ancient Lammas it is not difficult to reason with its association with harvest fertility, rebirth and regeneration. Certainly, the lack of speech and painfulness of the whole process suggests sacrifice as Brian Shuel notes in his 1984 Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain:

“It has to be said that by the late afternoon the Burry Man’s attendants were proping him up. Exhausted and full of whisky he was extremely relieved to get back to the Town hall where they stripped him in moments and left him comatose in his underpants for ten minutes before his wife, Julia, managed to prod him back to life. Suddenly he revived and in no time was himself again.”

But why here and why no-where else? Well it was found associated with Scottish fishing communities on the Moray Firth and was used to protect against poor fishing seasons. In Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the 1860s and their Burryman was on horseback and travelled through the town with a piper. In Buckie it appears to have been only done in response to a failure of the fishing fleet but curiously it was a Cooper who was wheelbarrowed around the town.  Queensferry is near the Sea so it is understandable it would survive there. But why the burrs? The provision of whisky is said to give the provider good luck; a clever way to ensure a free supply.

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Burrly able to move

There are many foliage people – Jacks, Straw men etc – but the Burryman has got to be the most strikingly unusual and uncomfortable. He is covered head to toe with sticky flower heads of the burdock. These being collected on the Friday morning before the parade These burrs, of which 11,000 is the average number which cover him, would be almost impossible to bear on a person’s normal clothing so he is covered head to toe in thick longjohns, vest, heavy sweeter and a balaclava which in August must be just as bad as being covered it spikey foliage! The burrs also cause the wearer to walk awkwardly with an open leg gait and arms outstretched which adds to the curious appearance! As if being covered with burrs and wearing a balaclava is not bad enough the Burryman has to walk a seven-mile route which usually takes nine hours!

The whole event begins in the Staghead Hotel at around 7am. The Friday previous the Burryman collects burrs and places them on newspaper make A3 size burr squares their natural Velcro like ability enables them to form ready-made fabrics. Overall 25 are made. The would then be placed on the volunteer and slowly but surely he becomes the Burryman. His first stumbling steps make it to the Town Hall where traditionally he receives his first dram of whisky.

Only locals can be the Burryman and despite the discomfort they are repeat performances one man Alan Reid having the pleasure for 25 years. He was only a few years from retirement when I ‘met’ him in the 1990s. Since 2012 an Andrew Taylor has the honour.

Burrly there!

I spent a couple of hours in the middle of the day which the Burryman, watching as he was greeted with great enthusiasm from pubs, shops, passerbys and a local factory. At lunchtime his attendees arrived at a local pub, where after having some difficulty getting him through the doorway, left him in the hall way again propped against the way – he could not sit down. Half an hour passed and he was still there but appeared like a forgotten rag doll! After a number of drams he looked decidedly jaded, although his foliage had jet to droop! In the bar I managed to speak to renowned custom hunter Doc Rowe and it is great to know Doc has returned regularly ever since. He was particularly amazed when in less than a month later he recognised me at Abbott Bromley at the Horn Dance and the mad search for customs has not stopped since!

With the modernity’s shadow of the Forth Bridge looming over the town, the curious juxtaposition survival of ancient and modern are very clear here. As the bizarre Burry man parades pointlessly around the town – the fair it was associated with long gone – it is evident that the locals need him like they would the whiskey he imbibes or the cars they drive. He is part of the fabric of the community. A mysterious almost mesmerizing old custom, one which would drag people back to see it again. It has been over 20 years since I experience the Burryman and I feel a revisit is long overdue!