The first time I was aware of the Burry Man was watching a Channel 4 documentary ‘The Future of Things Past: Dark Into Light’ (1986) directed by Elizabeth Wood. The Burry Man was featured along with many other luminaries of British folklore traditions. I was entranced by the vision of the Burry Man and vowed to photograph him one day.
Twenty four years later I check into the Staghead Hotel, South Queensferry, with a great view of the two bridges spanning the Firth of Forth, where the Burry Man will get into costume (and character) the next morning at 7am in the back bar.
You can read about the Burry Man on the Ferry Fair website
Over 11,000 burrs, the seed pods of the burdock plant, have to be collected in the preceeding week for the costume. Encroaching urbanisation and the use of insecticides are making the annual harvesting of the burrs for this tradition increasingly difficult. Which I guess can show how traditions can act like monitor fish for nature, the land and the environment. The tradition is over 900 years old and the current Burry Man, John Nicol, has been walking out for twelve consecutive years.
The Burry Man in costume is an amazing sight but I wasn’t really expecting how affecting the tradition itself, the eleven hour walk around the Burgh of South Queensferry, would be. On one level it is so surreal, a mythical man/plant hybrid walking through typical British 1960’s council estates flanked by his two smartly dressed pole bearers, trailed by a small band of followers and announced by a young bell ringing boy crying ‘Make way, make way, it’s the Burry Man’s day’.
© Leah Gordon
The Burry Man was deeply profound in an oddly prosaic, underwhelming way. Ten minutes into his route we encountered an elderly lady sitting on a dining table chair placed on the pavement with a small table by her side. On the doily covered table there was a tray upon which sat three glasses of whiskey, the centre glass with a short straw. ‘Good morning to you Burry Man’, she said, and her patience, politeness and attention to detail moved me.
The Burry Man seemed to know everyone on the route and accepted a whiskey off everyone that offered. I heard mothers explaining to crying children, ‘don’t worry I was scared of the Burry Man when I was your age’. I sensed that the Burry Man cements this community, binding together history, family, ancestors, nature and myth in this one act of mask, psycho-geography and endurance.
Euro Techo Pop Aside
This story starts with a folk instrument, an accordion, an accordion riff sampled inside a Euro techno pop track heard floating from a high window in a backstreet on Giudecca Island, Venice. The song then haunted me, choosing odd portals into my consciousness, from the Waltzers at a fairground in South Queensferry, the night before I met the Burry Man, to a taxi from the station to my isolated B&B in Abbotts Bromley, whilst I started making journeys around Britain to document the people who take part in traditions. Somehow it meant something to me. I finally found it by googling techno and accordion and after going through a list of six to eight possibles found it. It is now irretrievably bound up with this project.