From carrying flaming barrels of tar, burning Viking boats to wearing horse skulls, kicking shins and firing shotguns through orchards. The UK is home to possibly the most bizarre collection of ancient traditions and customs. British-born travel writer Matt Brace has witnessed many of them and tempts us with seven of his favourites.
Wassailing, Southwest England
The UK’s traditions and customs kicks off in explosive style on Twelfth Night (January 6).
In the cider orchards of the country’s southwest with Wassailing, locals place cider-soaked toast in their apple trees. Then sing songs, bang pots and pans, and fire shotguns through the branches. ‘Wassail’ means good health. So the whole idea, apart from having a lot of fun on a cold winter’s night, is to bless the orchard. Plus, scare away evil spirits and secure a good harvest for later in the year. Want more information? See the UK’s National Trust site and read about some of the best wassails in the county of Somerset here.
Up Helly Aa, Shetland Islands, far north Scotland
Not long after the cider-drinking wassailers have sobered up down south, people in the northernmost part of Scotland, the Shetland Islands, ignite their annual Viking fire festival.
Taking place on the last Tuesday of January when the sub-polar nights in the Shetland capital Lerwick are roughly 17 hours long. The sky is illuminated by a torchlit procession of hundreds of people dressed in team costumes. These marchers, or ‘guizers’, are led through the streets by the Guizer Jarl, or chief, who is dressed as a god or goddess from Norse mythology.
The procession ends with the guizers surrounding a life-size replica of a traditional Viking longship. Here they hurl their torches and standing in awe as it bursts into flames. It’s a modern-day homage to the Norse belief that dead Viking rulers were cremated in their boats. If you don’t fancy the mass crowds in Lerwick, there are several other smaller Up Helly Aa celebrations around the Shetland Islands.
Weighing the mayor, Southern England
As spring rewards the UK with flowers and warmth after the long winter, a much more genteel custom takes place in the market town of High Wycombe. About a 30-minute train ride from London, the towns new mayor takes office on the third Saturday in May each year. During which a procedure involves publicly weighing the lucky soul on an old-fashioned set of scales in the town square.
The outgoing mayor is also weighed to see if he or she has gained or lost any kilos during the year in office. A weight gain is met with boos from the crowd who assume the mayor has been lazy. But a weight loss prompts cheers and congratulations. As clearly the official has been busy doing good things for the town. High Wycombe has had mayors for more than 700 years. With this tradition, the only one of its kind in the UK, thought to date back to the 19th century.
Cotswold Olimpick Games, Central England
One of the most eccentric of summer customs is the Cotswold Olimpick Games. Which is reputed to have started in 1612, the year Shakespeare was writing one of his last plays, Henry VIII. Along with standard running races and a tug-o-war is the famous Shin-Kicking Contest. Competitors attempt to kick and trip their opponents and wrestle them to the ground. The prize? A cup and the title Cotswold Olimpicks World Shin-Kicking Champion.
In days gone by competitors would pickle their shins for days before the bout. This way to harden them to withstand kicks from steel-toe-capped boots. The boots have long gone and competitors now pad their shins with straw and thick socks. It’s much more civilised but it still becomes pretty violent. Find more details here, including how to buy tickets.
Burry Man, Edinburgh, Scotland
People line the streets of South Queensferry near Edinburgh on the second Friday in August. All to see a mysterious and unsettling figure walk among them.
A local man is covered from head to toe with sticky flowerheads called burrs. Only tiny gaps are left for his eyes and mouth. He is then walked through the streets by two attendants for at least nine hours. Stopping at each pub to drink a whisky through a straw. The custom stretches back many centuries.
Some say the Burry Man represents a powerful symbol of fortune and must be offered gifts (hence the whisky). Others believe he signified an ancient form of punishment, or was even a human sacrifice to the gods.
Whatever the truth, the event creates plenty of goose bumps; I witnessed it once on a bright, sunny, day. And was chilled to the bone when the Burry Man stared right at me. Ferry Fair has all the details on the week-long event during which the Burry Man takes his walk.
Tar Barrels, Ottery St Mary, Southwest England
Probably the most exhilarating of UK traditions and customs happens on a chilly autumn night in Devon. The normally quiet and unassuming country town of Ottery St Mary erupts each 5 November for one primitive, pagan event. Locals from different pubs run through the streets carrying on their shoulders huge barrels full of flaming tar. The ‘barrel rollers’ charge within inches of the crowds who pack the streets. The barrels disintegrate fast, showering sparks and seeping blazing tar. So the rollers need to know exactly when to drop them. The origin of tar barrelling is uncertain and its modern-day event is not for the fainthearted. There’s usually a fair bit of alcohol involved and a real sense of wildness – even lawlessness – in the air. The South Devon tourist site has more information.
Mari Lwyd, South Wales
As the year draws to a close, a macabre creature emerges from hibernation. Between Christmas and New Year in villages and towns across South Wales, you’ll find the spooky Mari Lwyd. It’s a real horse skull festooned with ribbons, beads and bells. Mounted on a pole and carried by a person covered with a white sheet.
The Mari Lwyd is accompanied by singers who perform at houses and pubs. Then welcomed in for a reward of food and drink. If a property fails to welcome the haunting horse, it risks being cursed. Some believe the Mari Lwyd represents a portal between the living and the dead. A particularly good Mari Lwyd to witness is the one in the border town of Chepstow, just across the River Wye from England.
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