The Burry Man Festival, South Queensferry: Warding Off Evil Spirits, Connecting With Nature, and Celebrating Local Identity

Carole M. Cusack


Each year on the second Friday in August the streets of South Queensferry, a village on the Firth of Forth, play host to a mysterious figure, the Burry Man (sometimes given as ‘Burryman’ or ‘Burry-man’), as he wanders in silence from approximately 9 AM to 6 PM, collecting money and nips of whisky from the townsfolk. On the next day the town celebrates the annual Ferry Fair. The origins of the tradition are obscure, as is its meaning. Only a man born in South Queensferry may perform the role of the Burry Man, variously characterised as a village guardian warding off evil spirits and other enemies, a nature spirit akin to the Green Man and guaranteeing prosperity to the burgh, a source of luck for fishermen, and a scapegoat purging evil from the community. Being the Burry Man is a demanding commitment, with the weight and discomfort of the heavy costume of burrs (which requires two assistants to help carry it) intensified by Lothian’s variable summer weather (if the day is warm it becomes unpleasantly hot, and if rainy it becomes unpleasantly heavy). Yet on 13 August 2010, John Nicol served his twelfth year as the Burry Man, and his predecessor the late Alan Reid was the Burry Man for twenty-five years. Nicol has publicly mused on the significance of his role, concluding that ‘The fact that the reason behind it is a mystery is a reason for me to do it’.1 This article explores the historical evidence for the Burry Man Festival and antiquarians’ accounts and explanations of it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then its continued popularity and local relevance are located in anthropological and sociological studies of a trend, observed since the 1970s, toward revitalized local festivals and ritual celebrations as markers of identity for communities (in-group motivations) and as attractions for an increasingly important tourism industry (out-group motivations).2

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