It’s one of Scotland’s oddest, most colourful, and most mysterious traditions. In a ceremony dating back to time immemorial, the Burryman walks awkwardly around the town, completely decked in spiky burdock burrs (the prickly heads) and festooned in flowers.
For nine hours, he is paraded around the cobbled streets, calling at houses, pubs and shops, accepting blessings and gifts of money and whisky in exchange for bringing the town good fortune. Local children are warned it’s bad luck to look into the Burryman’s eyes, but that doesn’t stop them following in his trail like a carnival procession.
It’s a fabulous, fun event; the highlight of South Queensferry’s annual August fair. But spare a thought for the volunteer playing the Burryman and the hardships he must endure; first collecting all the spiky seedpods himself (which is one of the unwritten rules of this bizarre ritual), then enduring hours at a time weighed down and constantly prickled.
No one knows where or when the tradition began. Even historic records describe the Burryman as an ancient figure, with some saying he is a Scottish version of the Green Man, the god of fertility and good harvests, and others arguing he is pagan spirit whose burrs collect up and drag away the evil spirits.
But even if you miss the Burryman’s annual appearance, there’s still plenty to draw you to South Queensferry. Sitting on the banks of the Firth of Forth, 10 miles north-west of Edinburgh, the town’s beautiful cobbled High Street is lined with fascinating historic buildings, an excellent backdrop to a leisurely stroll.
Starting from the western end of town, you pass St Mary’s Church, dating back to 1441; the stone harbour (once the centre of a herring fleet; now home to yachts); the 17th-century Tolbooth, then Black Castle, the town’s oldest house, built in 1626. When the sea captain who owned it was lost with his ship, his maid was accused of paying a beggar-woman to cast a spell on him. Perhaps somewhat unjustly, both women were burned for witchcraft.
The main street is lined with shops and restaurants, among which is the outstanding Boat House, which not only offers fresh
seafood, but also has a dining room and outdoor terrace right on the seashore with amazing views over the town’s other chief attraction, the Forth Bridge.
Completed in 1890, after 4,000 men had used six and half million rivets to join together 54,000 tonnes of metal, the bridge was hailed as the world’s greatest feat of engineering. Iconic, instantly recognisable and currently being considered as a potential World Heritage Site, the gigantic red steel structure remains an impressive sight to behold.
Don’t forget to look back at its elegant and much more modern cousin, the Forth Road Bridge, which also commands the South Queensferry skyline. When it opened in 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in Europe.
As you walk along the seashore, you’re certain to see and hear the seabirds; oystercatchers, herons, eider ducks, black-headed gulls and herring gulls are all regular visitors among the rocks and seaweed.
Out to sea
Just a few hundred yards from the town is the Hawes Inn, an ancient coaching inn that was described by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Antiquary. It was also where – in Room 13, to be precise – Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to write his much-loved historical novel, Kidnapped.
Opposite is a jetty, the departure point – during the summer months – for a boat trip to Inchcolm Island. While sailing on the Firth of Forth you can spot seals, puffins and even sometimes dolphins and porpoises. On the island itself you’re free to explore the ruins of the 12th-century Inchcolm Abbey, one of the best preserved monastic buildings in Scotland. Climb to the top of the tower for spectacular views over the island, with its sandy beaches (a great spot for a picnic) and interesting wartime fortifications.
Then it’s back to South Queensferry and the mainland. Perhaps the burr-covered Burryman is still on parade…