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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter II

The Curfew— Curious Foot Ball Custom at Coldingham—Hand Ball—Rural Festival at Lochtie—Old Scottish Funeral Customs — Burgess Customs at Selkirk — Customs at Forfar commemorative of Queen Margaret—Charitable Feast at Kirkmichael — Singular Custom at South Queensferry—The Burry Man.


OF our numerous ancient customs now rapidly falling into disuse with the March of the Centuries, none is more regretted by us than the cessation of the tolling of the Curfew. Musical Curfew ! cradled amid the din of the Norman camp—dying out in our more peaceful Victorian era; in charming unison with the sweet calm of a summer’s evenings are thy soft notes floating on the breeze. And yet of what a memorable and stormy epoch in our history do they not remind us? They tell of the time when our land was invaded by an invincible host who changed for us “our manners, our laws, our language, and our Kings ”•—of the days when the curfew of less troublous times was the Couvre-Feu of a Conqueror.


On a particular day of the year set apart for the purpose, it was formerly the custom for the husbands and bachelors belonging to Coldingham to arrange themselves in opposing factions on the moor, and engage in a severe contest at the game of football; the former playing eastwards, and the latter towards the west. The sea shore formed a boundary for the married men ; that of the un-married men was more difficult to get at, being a hole in the earth about a mile and a half west from the town. Latterly, the bachelors aimed at the barn-door of a farm steading which had been erected on the same site of ground. Under these favouring circumstances it is almost needless to say that the Benedicts were invariably victorious. Old and young turned out to view this favourite and exciting pastime, and the entire day was generally devoted to some kind of rural merry-making.

Foot and hand ball have long been favourite games with the people of Scotland. In olden times nearly every district had its annual ba-playin. The more expert at the pastime in one parish used to challenge those of another, and a sharp engagement was the result. The following were the rules observed on those occasions : It was not allowable to touch the ball with the hand after it had been cast upon the ground. An opponent might be tripped when near the ball, and more especially w hen about to hit it with his foot, but a competitor could not be laid hold of, or otherwise interfered with when at a distance from the ball, the party who out of three rounds hailed the ball twice was proclaimed victor. English forays were frequently conducted under the guise of football and handball matches. In the year 1000, Sir John Carmichael, Warden of the Middle Marches, was killed by a party of Armstrongs on their return from a game at football. Handball was more popular in the Southern districts, the most celebrated match of this last mentioned game which took place in modern times was played at Carterhaugh in the year 1813, the promoter of the match being the Earl of Home.


On the summit of Benarty, which rises above Loch Orr, in the parish of Lochtie, in Fifeshire, there were formerly held games in which the Fifeshire herdsmen and those of the neighbouring counties were the performers. These came to the place of meeting accompanied by their wives, daughters, and sweethearts; and there being no lack of provisions, the fete was kept up for a few days, the revellers bivouacking during the night. Their chief games were the golf, the football, and the Wads (a pledge or hostage), what with howling, singing, and drinking, after the manner of the modern Irish, they contrived to spend a very happy time.

This rural custom is now abandoned, the number of herdsmen being much diminished, and the position not being of such convenience owing to the increased number of fences.


Much time was lost and no small expense incurred by the way in which funerals were conducted in the parish of Avondale and elsewhere, receiving their “service” in the barn or place of meeting. Though “warned” to attend at twelve o’clock, the guests seldom made their appearance till much later, and did not leave the place with the body before two o’clock. In general, three services were given; two glasses of wine and one of whisky or rum. Formerly, vast numbers of the friends and neighbours assembled to see the “chesting” or body put into the coffin. After which they generally drank tea, perhaps in the same room with the coffin.

In former times the ceremonies attendant on funerals were of a most singular nature. These varied according to the district. At the ancient Lyke-wake much unseemly mirth and revelling wore formerly indulged in. In some of the more distant parishes the proceedings ended in a festival at the chesting of the corpse. Not unfrequently dancing as well as music followed part of these entertainments at Highland funerals, and when such a pastime was indulged in, to the relatives of the deceased was assigned the honour of opening the ball. While engaged in the duty of watching the dead prior to the funeral, the more sedate Lowlander generally confined himself to a silent process of drinking. The convivialities attendant on the death of a Highland chieftain in some instances proved nearly ruinous to his descendants. A succession of “Services”, such as these in vogue in Avondale and Carluke, were common amongst the poorer classes in later times, and until very recently it was customary for crowds of beggars to come to the house from which a funeral had just departed, and receive the pence put aside for that benevolent purpose.


A great trade in shoemaking was once carried on by the inhabitants of Selkirk, of which the only existing memorials are the old familiar song of the “Souters of Selkirk,”—

“Up wi’ the Souters o’ Selkirk
And down wi’ the Earl of Home;
And up wi’ a' the braws lads
That sew the single-soled shoon,

"Fye upon yellow an’ yellow.
Fye upon yellow an’ green;
But up wi’ the true blue an’ scarlet,
An’ up wi* the single-soled sheen.

“Up wi’ the Souters o’ Selkirk,
For they are baith trusty an’ leal;
An’ down wi’ the men o' the Merse,
An’ the Earl may gang to the deil.”

and the singular customs observed at the conferring the freedom of the burgh. Four or five bristles, such as are used by shoemakers, are attached to the seal of the burgess ticket. These the new made burgess must dip in his wine and pass through his mouth in token of respect for the Souters of Selkirk. The only instance of any remission of this disagreeable ritual was in favour of Prince Leopold (of course not the late Prince of that name), who was made a burgess in 1819. It is said, there is every reason to believe that the words of the old song allude to the battle of Flodden, and the different behaviour of the Souters, who distinguished themselves by their valour at Flodden, and of whom few survived to return from the fatal field, and the behaviour of Lord Home upon that occasion. At election times, when the Souters begin to get merry, they always call for music, and for that song in particular. A standard, the appearance of which bespeaks its antiquity, is still carried annually on the day of riding the Marches by the corporation of weavers, by a member of which it was taken from the English on the field of Flodden.


It would appear from ancient historical records that the old county town of Forfar owed much to the munificence of Margaret Atheling, Queen of Malcolm Canmore, w hose piety and good works won for her the proud designation of St. Margaret of Scotland. And tradition, it is said, celebrates her attention to the instruction of the young women of Forfar. In order to evince their gratitude to their beloved Queen for the many benefits conferred upon the town, the inhabitants made a holiday of the 10th of June, in memory of her, and instituted an annual ball in her honour. St. Margaret, did much to overcome the natural roughness of the Scottish nobles, as well as their carelessness in the matter of religious observances; and it was the law of her table that none should drink after dinner who did not wait the giving of thanks. Hence the origin of the phrase, known throughout Scotland of the Grace Cup.


“Bear ye one another’s burdens” seems to have been one of the Bible precepts that were formerly reduced to practice by the inhabitants of Kirkmichael. It is recorded of the old parishioners that when any of the poorer classes were reduced by sickness, losses or any other kind of misfortune, a friend was sent to as many of their neighbours as they thought requisite, to invite them to what they called a drinking. This drinking consisted of a little beer, with a piece of bread and cheese, and sometimes a small glass of brandy or whisky, previously provided by the needy persons or their friends. The guests assembled at the time appointed, and after the people of the house had received from each a shilling, and perhaps more, the company amused themselves for about a couple of hour with music and dancing, and then went home. Such as could not attend themselves usually sent their charitable contributions by any neighbour who chose to go. These meetings sometimes produced from five to seven pounds for the distressed person or family.


A singular custom observed even at the present day amongst the youth of Queensferry has been supposed to commemorate there the passage of Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret to and from Edinburgh to Dunfermline, and to indicate the origin of the place. The observance referred to is the annual procession of the “Burry Man,” got up on the day preceding the annual fair, amongst the boys of Queensferry, and which was thus described in the Journals of the day— The annual saturnalia of the ancient port of passage over the Firth of St. Margaret the Queen, came off on Friday 9th August, having been preceded on Thursday 8th, according to ancient customs by the singular perambulation of the Burry Man, i.e., a man or lad clad loosely in flannels stuck over with the well-known adhesive bur of the Arctimus Bardana (the bur thistle) of Bums, though in reality not a thistle but a burdock as botanists can aver.

The burrs are found in considerable profusion at Blackness Point in the immediate vicinity of Hopeton House. A few plants also grow in the neighbourhood of New Halls Point, and beyond the rocks of the opposite shore of North Queensferry where we have found it on the Links near Inverkeithing; and from all these and even more remote places are they gathered if necessary, for this occasion. So essential are they deemed to the maintenance of the curious ceremony, the origin and object of which are lost in antiquity, and long ago foiled the antiquarian research of Sir Walter Scott. Tradition at present connects the custom with the erection of Queensferry into a royal burgh, which did not take place till the time of Charles I., and even points to the previous constitution as a burgh of regality, alleged to have been originated under Malcolm Caen-Mohr, in which case the representation of the burgh by the Burry Man would amount to a whimsical, practical pun. The custom in question can be traced back to the period of the last battle of Falkiik; for an old woman of 80, whose dead mother was aged 13 at the date of the battle (1746) stated that the observance haw been unaltered from then till now.

On the day preceding the fair, the Burry Man, who requires to be either a stout man or robust lad, is encased in flannels, face, arms, and legs all being covered ho as to resemble as closely as possible a man in chain armour from the close adhesion of the burrs. The hands as well as the tops of two staves grasped with extended arms, are beautifully adorned with flowers. The victim thus accoutred is led from door to door by two attendants who likewise assist in upholding his arms by grasping the staves. At every door in succession a shout is raised and the inhabitants come forth bestowing their kindly greetings and donations of money on the Burry Man, who in this way generally collects, we believe, considerable sums which are equally divided and spent at the fair by the youths associated in the exploit.

Sometimes there are two persons thus selected and led in procession from door to door, the one being styled the King and the other the Queen, in allusion to the passage of the royal couple through the burgh. An ingenious author adapting his description, to the royal visit of 1822, has even gone the length of adducing the particulars of the burgh arms as confirmatory of the origin of the observance under Malcolm III. The town’s arms consist, 1st, of a ship ; 2nd, of a fine figure of a youthful female in the act of landing ; 3rd, a cross to represent Margaret’s attachment to the Christian faith, and four or five sea fowls said to have appeared near the spot where the Queen landed. It is, or used to be, a popular belief that the giving up of this quaint custom would be productive of misfortune to the town.

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