Tag Archives: folklore

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

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Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

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“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

Custom contrived: Lord Conyer’s Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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It is a fairly nondescript lane, and dare I say it in a non-descript part of Yorkshire, and driving by one might wonder why so many cars were parked on the verge…but the eye alights on a group of people awaiting at the edge of a small woodland just beside the road. Cars and woods? Is this a mass dog walking exercise or ramble? No the crowd await something quite magical – Lord Conyer’s Morris Men’s rendition of the fabled Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

Horny subject

An account on line entitled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER IN TODWICK (As witnessed by one Tobias Jugg around 16:40)

“Passing through the South Yorkshire village of Todwick during the late afternoon of the last Saturday before Christmas, a strange sight befell us. My companion and I, weary and tired of the road as we headed south towards Newstead, stumbled across a small crowd of like travellers, numbering about twenty-five in all, and gathered by the wayside. Each did gaze silently into the nearby wood, close to the site where Robin Hood’s Trysting Tree does stand.”

What is Robin Hood’s Trysting tree you may ask? Well firstly it no longer stands and its replacement also went in 1973. Lord Conyer’s Morris men website relates:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century at Todwick in South Yorkshire, an ancient oak known as the Trysting Tree blew down in a gale. This tree was connected to the legend of Robin Hood and is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel ‘Ivanhoe’. The Duke of Leeds decided to replace the stricken tree, both to mark the turn of the century and to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, the Marquis of Carmarthen, and on the 3rd October 1901 he planted a sapling grown from an acorn which had fallen from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. The day was declared a holiday and all the people from the Duke’s estate were invited to the ceremony. A sit-down meal was provided for the guests in a large marquee and in return the villagers then presented the Duke with a silver rose bowl to mark the birth of his son.
And there it stood, at the edge of Bluebell Wood at Kiveton Hall Farm, until 1973 when the council, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cut down the tree whilst widening the road nearby. Then, a Mr Bishop, who was at that time tenant of Kiveton Hall Farm, planted a third oak complete with iron fence to protect the young sapling; the Trysting Tree was back again.
Then the Kiveton Park Folk Club erected a stone post furbished with a brass plaque nearby, the occasion being commemorated by G.F. Young, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and the legend was back also. On the 18th May 1974 the folk club held a trysting fair with music, dance and song; stalls, working craftsmen, and, of course, the marquee with food and drink….”

As they note:

“The legend of the trysting tree is now in the safe hands of Lord Conyers Morris Men who have danced at the site every May Eve at dusk and every May Day at dawn without fail since 1974.”

The removal was clearly a controversial subject but one which was the catalyst of a custom. For it has been since 1978 on the last Saturday before Christmas Day the twilight crescendo of a day of carols, sword dancing and Derby Tup – a sort of pick and mix of Christmas calendar customs of the North one could say.

Taking it by the horns

The Lord Conyer’s Abbot Bromley Horn dance is one of two imitations and there is no doubt to my mind this is the most evocative; more so perhaps than the real one! I had read of the custom but in a way had thought as I had been to the real one why see the imitations but I feel I was wrong so last year I decided to organise myself and go along and see.
There was a curious and eerie feel standing at the edge of the wood. The sun was setting spreading a red light across the landscape as a mist developed all around and the air became chilly. The account beautifully summed it up:

“It was dusk. It was cold, and it was damp and misty. We dismounted to see what the crowd were looking at but could see nothing; only the dark outline of trees against the grey mist. Just then, strains of music emanating from deep within the wood began to reach our ears; a strange mediaeval-sounding tune being played on a solo fiddle. Some minutes later a group of figures began to emerge from out of the dank mist as the music became louder. The crowd we had joined, their eyes transfixed on the scene before them, stayed silent as if in awe and there was an unearthly atmosphere about the place to which the music only added.”

The performers maintain the mystery by preparing and dressing out of sight. The first we experience is that weird sound which moves like the mist slowly enveloping the crowd. There’s an unworldly menace to the dancers who weave in and out holding their antlers aloft from a far. They appear to be stuck in the distance the full moon picking off their antlers and firms. As they came closer one could start to see the group’s form. The team comprise of six men carrying large red deer antlers with others bearing smaller fallow deer antlers. Together with these is a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a bowman – presumably Robin Hood. The last to be seen as they move down a path between the dense undergrowth despite them first to be heard. All in all they appear to be completely different to the Morris men I had seen earlier doing their sword dancing.

The Morris Men portray the dance well. It is simple one enacting the fighting of deer with the dancers facing each other in a line. The antlers raised up and down facing each other silently and smoothly. The chime of a bell as they go to fight. The repetitive nature of tune making the whole experience hypnotic! The account again describes it well:

“The dance itself appeared to reach a chilling climax as it approached the Trysting Tree, at which point the procession turned and headed slowly back from whence it came. One by one the dancers melted away into the mist, leaving us spellbound until the last haunting notes of the fiddle died away into the distance.”

All in all a great re-enactment and one which deserves notice in folklore calendars. A copy it may be, but one which has developed its own mythos, for atmosphere it cannot be beaten!

Custom transcribed: Polish Andrzejki or St Andrew’s Day love divination

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“ The St Andrew Day –

Young girls hope and pray…”

The UK’s burgeoning Polish community has added and as well augmented our calendar customs. In many cases they have revived those customs which fell into abeyance at the Reformation due to the prominence of Catholism but in some cases they have introduced something unique. The Polish observance of St Andrew’s Day eve is one.

The observations on St Andrew’s Day or Andrzejki is about games associated with the future romantic encounters of the participants. Today these observations are perhaps not done in earnest but as a piece of juvenile fun. I was invited to see these prognostications one St. Andrew Day evening to a private party of young girls who had planned to celebrate the evening accordingly with some music, laughter (there was a lot of giggling) and predicting their love life…oh and giggling. Did I mention this? They weren’t keen on being photographed but were happy for me to photograph their activities

Paper kisses

When I turned up the girl’s dinning room was set up with paper, pens, keys and bowls of water…as well lots of sweets and cups for drinks. I asked them what the paper was for. I discovered that they planned to write all the names of the boys they all knew (jointly I imagine for what it entailed). With lots of chatting, much due to it being Polish, unintelligible, the girls closed their eyes and taking it turns one of the girls help up the paper and then another with a pin closed her eyes and inserted it into it..it missed a name. One of the girls examined it and decided it was Alex and then they went on becoming more and more giggly especially when one of the names transpired to be a boy who the older girl did actually fancy!

Soul mate

Then the girls turned sat down and took off their shoes. They then decided from the back wall to place them in sequence, a shoe at a time, along a line to the door. As the door got nearer there was genuine excitement to see who’s would cross the threshold. It was Amanda who was embarrassed to found she’d be the first to marry.

Sincerely, I love you, without wax

But wax will help! A few drinks later and the evening ended with the girls picking up a key and as she held it over a bowl of water another tipped a candle over the it and it flowed through the key and into the water. The other girls looked intently to try and work out what shape the wax had cooled and solidified into…it looked like an S, was it Symon? Clearly as the giggles developed one who was already again favoured. Each girl took turns and tried to interpret which in the main looked like an S or a splodge!

See the source image

Why St. Andrew’s Day?

As St Andrew’s Day often came with the start of Advent in the Catholic Church it was a good time for reflection, and prayer to  develop spiritual contact with God. As a result St Andrew became a patron  of young girls looking for love guidance as such since at least the 16th Century in Poland such fortune  telling has been recorded. St Andrew’s Eve was also the last day when dancing parties were permitted. Therefore, understandably with discussion of future spouses enterprising people have identified the night as an opportunity to have discos and club nights encouraged by the idea that any partner found on that night would be the one.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Sheriff’s Ride

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In a 1553 Charter of Mary Tudor’s reign she bestowed upon them their own Sheriff and separated it from Staffordshire being its own County. Amongst the duties of this newly appointed post was to oversee the boundaries of the fairly newly instated city and such the Sheriff’s Ride was established:

“perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

This was confirmed by Charles II which read:

“the balliffs and common councilmen shall annually on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin perambulate the boundaries of the city and county of Lichfield and the precincts thereof”

….and it has continued ever since. The Sheriff’s ride rather than taking place on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary…the 8th of September it is the nearest Saturday. And despite Lichfield becoming party of Staffordshire back in 1888 the ride still goes on! An early reference is from 1638 in St Michael’s church registers which reads:

Paid for an horse for Mr Hobbocke the curate at ye Perambulation xii d”

Ride on time

I arrived in Lichfield just as the party was leaving the Guildhall. They were moving at quite a pace and the sight and sound of 50 riders on the hard road surface was something to witness. Of they were to go around the 20 miles of the border. In the morning the group followed the northern and eastern boundaries and stopped for lunch at Freeford Manor. After their break they returned to their horses and surveyed the western and southern areas and again stopped for tea at Pipe Hall.

Horsing around and around

F. W. Hackwood (1924) in their Staffordshire Customs, superstitions and folklore records that in 1921 it:

“was large as ever. The assembly (which included the Mayor, the corporation nd the city officials) met at the Guildhall where the Sheriff Councillor F. Garratt entertained his friends with light refreshments before starting. A number were mounted on horseback, but every other known means of road transport was also brought into use, a curious admixture of the ancient and the modern”

This must have been an odd if slightly dangerous site and although people follow with cars it is now at a respectful distance and the perambulation is only done by horses who pay £30 to join. Recently a so-called ‘Alternative Sheriff’s Ride’ with push bikers has been established and one day perhaps it might take over! I was also amused to see the Sheriff wearing a day-glo jacket as if 50 odd horses isn’t as noticeable on their own cantering down the road! Hackwood (1924) continues:

“The route lay up Beacon street to cross-in-hand lane, and on to the Stafford Road at Lyncroft Hill. From thence to Lea Grange the way lay across fields till the lane leading to Elmhustr and Stychebrook was reached, and hence in the direction of Curborough to Brownsfields. After traversing more fields the way lead to Gosling land and then on to the Trent Valley Road; the railway was crossed and thence by way of Darnford Mill the party came to Horse and Jockey Inn at Freeford where they were entertained at luncheon by the sheriff with all he customary festivities.”

It is interesting to note that the party has a more upmarket luncheon location!

“Resuming the Ride the way led across fields to Knowle, then to the Birmingham Road, through fields again to Aldershawe, Sandyway, Pipe Grange, Maple Hayes, and Pipe Green and so out to Abnalls Lane back to Cross-in-hand Lane. Here a touch of the picturesque was lent by the presence of the Macebearer and other uniformed attendants, aided by the glorious weather of a fine autumnal day.”

Very little has changed. Except I imagine the smarter dress of the participants who must wear hunting or dressage and indeed there is a prize for the best dressed. At around 6 the perambulators arrive back at the city where the ceremonial sword and the Macebearer still met them now with the Dean of the Cathedral and then ceremonially leads the retinue down back to the Guildhall where a crowd was waiting to welcome the tired party and their even more tired horses!

It is worth noting that the length of this boundary appears to change according to who reports it. Hackwood states its is upwards of 16 miles, Jon Raven in his 1978 The Folklore of Staffordshire states it is 24 miles and latterly 20 miles is quoted – they appear to be doing more that perambulating if the length is increasing.

What is unusual is that this ceremony takes place in September which is a less convenient and less calendrically significant time. It seems likely that the ride was a possibly originally done at Rogation and by church authorities before the charter but no evidence can be found. And it was probably not a ride – but a walk – a rather long one…which would have been difficult to do in one day no doubt!

 

Custom demised: Little Coxwell’s Educational Charity

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Henry Edwards in their 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes on the 29th of September the village enacted an unusual custom. He noted that:

“the Rev. David Collier charged certain lands in the hamlet of Little Coxwell with the payment of eight bushels of barley yearly…. for teaching the poor children of this parish to read, write, and cast accounts, for three years, when they were to be succeeded by two others to be taught for the same term, and so on successively for ever, and he empowered the vicar and churchwardens, or the major part of them (the vicar being always one) to nominate the children.”

This was back in 1724 and those these were the times when the poor were rarely educated and as such a benefactor who provided money to enable education would be gratefully received. Edwards notes that:

“The payment has been regularly made, sometimes in kind, but latterly in money estimated at the price of barley, at the Farringdon market, the nearest to the day when the annual payment becomes due. The payment is made, under the direction of the churchwardens, to a schoolmistress for teaching three children to read, and, if girls, to mark also. The number of children was formerly two only, who were further taught to write and cast accounts.”

However by the time of Edwards the charity was already appearing to die out in reference to teaching them to write and cast accounts:

“but this part of their education was discontinued many years ago in consequence of the inadequacy of the fund, and, instead thereof an additional child was sent to be instructed with the others.”

Now education is free and as such the provision of the money has long gone.

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!