A mystery that focuses on an obscure folk practice in South Queensferry, Scotland sounds like it would probably be a cozy one. Like most cozies, there is a great deal of small town life with the usual sorts of characters. I expected the folklore content to be the aspect of this novel that I would find most interesting. Yet there was more simmering beneath the surface of South Queensferry than I had imagined.
Below is my review of The Burry Man's Day by Catriona MacPherson.
The Burry Man is a man covered with burrs who walks about the town of South Queensferry once a year receiving offerings of money and whiskey. This is an actual folk practice that is still alive in South Queensferry. Catriona McPherson portrays the Burry Man as a subject of controversy. In her book, some citizens of South Queensferry disliked the Pagan nature of the practice. Temperance advocates objected to all the quaffing of alcohol. In an author's note McPherson states that this opposition to the Burry Man was her invention to add drama to her tale.
In the 1920's, when this novel took place, the festivities were also dampened by the losses that many families suffered in WWI. For this reason, The Burry Man's Day shares common themes with some of the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear that also deal with the impact of WWI, and can therefore be considered somewhat darker than the typical cozy mystery.
Unfortunately, McPherson's heroine, Dandy Gilver, seems rather shallow compared to Maisie Dobbs, nor does she have the elegance and devil may care unconventionality of Phryne Fisher, the 1920's mystery heroine from Down Under created by Kerry Greenwood. I found Dandy Gilver far less appealing than either of her fictional contemporaries.
Yet the folklore and WWI aspects did keep me reading. The resolution was unexpected. It also added depth and power to the novel as a whole. I was glad that I read it and would be willing to read another by this author provided that the case deals with elements that attract my interest.
Resources About The Burry Man
Those who are interested in learning more about the Burry Man, can consult the following web pages:
The Burry Man Writers Center Scroll down for an account of the walk of the Burry Man from 1865 and a You Tube video of the Burry Man's walk in 2011.
South Queensferry's Pagan Plant Spirit This is a page on the Flora Celtica website that describes the custom, the plant from which the burrs are derived and the possible origins of the Burry Man in the context of Pagan religion.
All Hail The Burry Man! is a British folklore blog by Leah Gordon. At the far right of this page is Leah Gordon's account of her experience of the Burry Man.
Burry Man Article in The Scotsman A description of the walk of the Burry Man in 2009 which deals with how the Burry Man custom is viewed in South Queensferry.