Monthly Archives: August 2018

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.

See the source image

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!

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Custom survived: Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor, Carmarthenshire

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I get the feeling that Llansteffan is a bit of a little known treasure – a quintissential slice of Welsh, a village dominated by a mighty castle, boasts a secretive ancient holy well with itself having its own ritual, a lovely slice of sand and perhaps the less known a mock mayor.

Now followers of this blog will know that I have an especial interest in this curious form of custom which is more prevalent that is first known, often because, it is essentially a local custom for local people – Llansteffan was no exception

With this in mind I felt rather daunted attending this custom. It certainly was a popular one held in a large marquee on the cricket field – more of later – everyone in the village appeared to be there! My first thought was would I understand it. Now in this case this did not just mean would I get the references but was it in Welsh!?

Said to start at 7 – it didn’t – the organiser spoke – in English. First hurdle passed. Now would I understand the references?

Mock-up

Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor is held on the Friday before the village’s big Fiesta Week. Like many mock mayors finding concrete details are difficult. The custom is unrecorded in any folk custom book I am aware of. Locally it is said to have at least dated back to the 19th Century being first recorded by William Waters his History of Llanstephan. He notes that the Mayor was:

“carried on chiefly by Glamorganshire visitors … on or about August 8 … The so-called mayor is drawn by his friends in a carriage for some distance, the procession generally terminating in the wood near the beach, when his representative announces to the audience that the “newly elected mayor”

Yet others have claimed it goes back to King John in the 13th Century. This is not unlikely because Llansteffan’s status as a borough was confirmed by King John in 1200 meaning two fairs a year could be held, Ffair Fawr and Ffair Fach. However, that may have resulted in the position of the Mayor, it does not explain the mock part!

It is recorded that the village tenants would meet regularly to give taxes to the local landowners and that this evolved into a social occasion relieving the effort of paying tax, those congregating would elect one of their member as a Mock Mayor and would then parade him around on a cart perhaps to make a mockery of their landowners!

This would be slightly different from other origins which are often in response of a nearby village becoming a town and adopting a Mayoral system despite the nearby town being older or bigger see Woodstock

To begin with the crowd warmly welcomed the current Mock Mayor Roger Penycoed , he was accompanied by a mini Mock Mayor, his grandson. Both wore bright red and white fur lined and gold ribbon robes with tricorn hats resembling old medieval mayoral garments. Then the County counselor was called on stage who then went to ceremonially disrobe him so that the election could begin.

A Mayor go round!

Then the hustings begun. Of course recent international politics meant there was a rich harvest to parody. It was evident that this was an event which allowed local characters and show people to entertain the group, the first up had apparently stood four times before (and lost) and styled himself Lord Cutglass. Amongst his many election pledges he suggested bringing back the Court Leet from the 13th century. where only men over 30 with an acre of land could vote, boos could be heard – no women county councilors- a dig at their current councilor. However his main thrust was the ‘corruption’ of the current Mock Mayor and his balcony to cries of ‘drain the swamp’ stolen from the Trump presidential campaign. The Ferry was a particular sore point, claiming that it allowed those from St Ishmaels and Landyfaelog to ravage our women, steal our cockles and talk with a Landyfaelog accent! It a direct parody of the ongoing EU Brexit situation. A suggestion of a wall between Llansteffan and nearby Llanbryn again neatly parodying recent political events. But he said the village need not worry as he had made trade agreements with the King of Lundy for pickled It was all in jest but one could see that the ferry was a bit of a sore point!

Then came the second candidate which in fact was two Watcyn and Hugh and with a routine based on a vox pox of local people roars and cries of laughter came when people were recognised. The audience were in tears from the performance. I did not know any of the background but there were common themes…a local man who is obsessed with exercise portrayed with his swimming cap on and glasses, another who kept repeating ‘100 %’ (and who doesn’t know someone whose response is always the same), a traditional welsh lady and another…well I all I can say it appeared Northampton was a popular source of derision….all done in that confused quick changing that would not have been out of place in a Tommy Cooper sketch! Despite these being local jokes the characterisations meant it was easy to work out who they were parodying from the audience and it was remarkable how similar characters are. Even in 1875 the tongue was already firmly in the cheek!:

“will soon effect great improvements in the ancient “maritime borough” at his own expense; such as erecting an iron bridge from the Castle Hill to St Ishmael’s, purchasing a large number of bathing machines, and establishing coffee taverns on the sands!’”

At this point a swingometer was brought on and demonstrated. Was this the way it was decided?

The final contestant again two entered to the jangling sounds of Turning Japanese in came the next candidates, The Japanese unified globe party; or JUGS, (!Insert joke there!) two locals dressed as Sumo Wrestlers, excusing their Welsh accents for being educated in a local college. They aimed to bring Macron, May and Merkle over for an economic summit in the village but despite their combined economic powers they could not book the village hall. They mentioned Hollywood coming Dame Judy Dench and Eddie Izard, but the big surprise they were allowed to park outside someone’s house. They claimed that two big Hollywood stars file for bankruptcy after buying around in a local pub! Which received cheers and claps from the audience as a clear response of some gentrification of their local for the tourist no doubt!

Mayored up

It is stated that the influx of tourists gave the Mock Mayor tradition a new lease of life being a popular event for the holiday makers coinciding with Miners Fortnight a holiday for Rhondda miners. This resulted in anyone being able to stand as the Mock Mayor and as such many holidays were crowned! Canvassing became important and candidates even had agents. The election followed national trends when in 1916 women were allowed to vote and women could become mock mayors. One of the most notable being in 1954 a Madam Lloyd George, no relation! In those days it was held close to y Gegin Fach were there are remains of a stage used for elections. During the early part of the 20th century the summer season encouraged by a local Carmarthen to Llansteffan bus meant that the custom remained as popular as ever. A notable Mock Mayor, top hatted wearing W.H. ‘Bonny’ Lewis, his election promise included a daily air service from Llanstephan to Llansaint and another for `a huge Observatory to be erected on the Castle Grounds to publish weather conditions for farmers and shoemakers. As such he was voted Mock Mayor in 1932 and 1953. Another `Paddy’  Trench suggested that mermaids could be employed in the bay to attract bachelors and gold plate all cockles raising their value. Such characters created great pre-election crowds to hear them speak.

De-Mocked

Despite the considerable popularity of the Mock Mayor ceremony times were changing. Tastes were changing. Holiday tastes were changing. The 60s and 70s saw the custom nearly completely disappear but it did not completely die out and was revived thanks to the Llansteffan Football Club who continue to organise it. The tourist numbers had perhaps fallen, attracted to the exotic beaches of the Med not doubt but this did mean that the Mock Mayors would return to local people. A custom like this lives or dies with both the enthusiasm of those involved and the ‘characters’ involved. The 80s saw these characters return and even the TV when to coincide with the 1987 General Election local character Des Cridland was to be unseated by the so called Morality candidate Peter Jones, only to have him disgraced by the appearance of a pregnant women who claimed Jones was the father. The TV cameras distilled all these dirty tricks and outrageous electoral pledges which may have been not far off from what was really going on at Westminster! The TV attracted more interest and clearly pride in their unique custom and since then the custom has been in very rude health. From the laughter cheers and effort made by the unsuccessful candidates it does not appear in any danger of disappearing!

Mayor have a word?

After the new candidates spoke it was time for the present incumbent to speak accompanied by his robed grandson with a placard vote Roger. With much lose he gave an impressive if slightly Bacchus sponsored one drawing on some more serious points peppered by the grandson chanting vote Roger. It was clear that there was warmth for him from the congregation and it soon became evident that this was more pantomime than politics.

Then after the outgoing Mock Mayor spoke it was over to the results and despite no phone numbers being released or time given to vote, a tally was given as the candidates waited feverishly on the stage. The vote gave Lord Cutglass the lead but then in rushed a postal vote from Patagonia (Patagonia? There is a large ex-Pat Welsh community there)…the postal vote sent it over the edge and the old Mock Mayor was voted in Roger Penycoed cheered and went to the front of the stage. The county councilor came back up on stage and put back his insignia, robe and tricorn hat he thanks everyone assembled and said ‘Please please last time never again!’

Llansteffan Mock Mayor’s ceremony is something I believe many communities need a lighthearted irreverent knock about where local people can identify what really annoys them in a typically British way. It is evident the lack of Cricket, empty houses in the town and the cost of drinks in a local pub are matters that do matter and so in typically British way comedy is used to identify them.

Custom demised: Shooting the silver arrow, Harrow School

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Our historic independent school are a rich source for calendar customs and indeed many still survive. Formerly Harrow schools Silver Arrow competition was annually held, to be shot for by the scholars of the Free School at Harrow. The following extract is taken from the Gentlemen Magasine 1731, vol. i., p. 351 :

“Thursday, August 5th, according to an ancient custom, a silver arrow, value £3, was shot for at the butts on Harrow on-the-Hill, by six youths of the Free School, in archery habits, and won by a son of Captain Brown, commander of an East Indiaman. This diversion was the gift of John Lyon, Esq., founder of the said school.”

An archery scorecard, showing a contest with spectators watching contestants at the left shooting at targets. 1769 Etching with engravingThe origins of the custom are described by Paul Goldman, in Sporting Life’ BM 1983 cat.2 who states that:

“In 1684 Sir Gilbert Talbot presented a silver arrow worth three pounds to Harrow School as a prize for shooting. The contest eventually became a regular fixture and although interrupted by the reign of James II, lasted until 1771. The tradition lives on, at least in name, in a rifle match called the Silver Arrow Competition, and as part of the crest of the school which bears two crossed arrows.”

It was abolished by a headmaster called Heath for unknown reasons but it is not forgotten. For such a relatively short lived custom, just over a 100 years, its impact on the school psyche is considerable. It is immortalised in its emblem, a Harrow song and remembered as a trophy in an annual sailing, but the competition did not survive, part of the reason no doubt being that the school is closed now over August; being the school holidays.