by Brendan Gisby
90 pages, Createspace
Review by Pat Black
I’ve met bridges people before. They’re like aeroplanes people, or classic cars people, or (they fit together with bridges people like bank holidays and wet weather) trains people.
I am not one of those people – I am a guitars person - but I am fascinated by one particular bridge. The one that links North and South Queensferry; the one that used to be a punchline for a Sisyphean task, before they invented some fancy paint.
Iain Banks wrote about this bridge. And it is awesome. Were Godzilla to make his way across the Firth of Forth, he might stay his hand a while before smashing it to pieces.
A bridge goes somewhere, but the places on either side don’t. In The Burrymen War, Danny Jaffrey finds himself back in one of these places, in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, attending the funeral of his friend Muldy.
As Danny walks the familiar streets in South Queensferry, he gets to reminiscing. Not just about good times spent with Muldy and another mate of theirs, Lennie. There’s bad stuff in there, too – particularly a murder that haunts Dan. One he was involved in.
There are a lot of laughs in The Burrymen War, but it is a serious examination of a serious subject - a perfectly-pitched look at prejudice and violence in Scotland. Brendan Gisby focuses on South Queensferry, but he could be looking at any number of Scottish towns affected by sectarianism.
You might have a working knowledge of sectarianism in Scotland owing to a well-known sporting rivalry – a topic the tourist bodies do well to stay clear of. I still chuckle at a recent translation of Japanese tourist advice – “beware the green and blue men”. But as Gisby points out, the problem isn’t confined to the west of Scotland. Some might try to convince you that it begins and ends with football. But this is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Sectarianism’s roots go very deep. But we don’t have time to go into that, here.
Back to the story. Danny, Muldy, Lennie and a few others from the Irish side of the street hatch a plan to get one over on their “opposite number” in the town. It’s greens versus blues, if we’re sticking to football analogies.
South Queensferry has a bizarre tradition, still popular to this day, whereby a “Burryman” is steered through the town during the summer fair in August. The Burryman is a monstrous green figure covered in burrs – the seeds of a sticky weed more commonly known as burdock – and paraded through the town by attendants. A man in a suit, basically.
It seems to be a pagan rite which has survived to the present day. No-one quite knows how the tradition started or what it actually refers to. The first recorded mention of the ceremony comes in the 17th century, but it pre-dates that by a long way. It could have something to do with The Green Man, Celtic fertility symbols or any number of things. It could even have its roots in blood sacrifice, but the truth is – no-one knows.
It would certainly scare the weans. The Burryman looks like a Scooby Doo villain, pre-unmasking. I’ve got a few monstrous ideas cooking for this clodding creature. In these visions of mine, the Burryman may be plant-based, but he ain’t no vegan.
Gisby made a much smarter choice in presenting this rite, carried out unthinkingly by its followers on a holiday of obligation, as the basis of a deadly tribal feud.
In the story, the Burryman parade is controlled by the boys in the loyalist pub down the street. So, Muldie hatches a plot to steal a few yards on them by creating a Burryman of their own, and parading it through the town before the other pub begins the actual, official Burryman march. In the process, they seek to give themselves a generous helping of the charitable collection which accompanies the parade.
As you might expect, Danny and co’s rivals don’t take kindly to this. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation.
What I liked most about The Burrymen War was Danny’s sense of regret, remorse and anger over the violence of the past. The author makes it clear from the start that the prank of 30 years ago had tragic consequences – the story shows you the who and how of it.
Gisby also examines misplaced loyalty, something that fascinates me the older I get. Young men form strong bonds with their friends, but sometimes, once the business of jobs and families and children intrude, these friendships can become toxic. They lead us down paths we shouldn’t follow. Once unbreakable ties are severed.
But on the other hand, there’s the purer ideal of sticking by a mate, no matter what the circumstances. What price is loyalty? If you can’t pay it, we are inclined to wonder: what sort of person are you?
The book also examines how bad blood can stain a community for years. Some people only do 10 years for murder. There are some whose actions have caused irreparable, generations-deep damage - but 10 years isn’t forever, and all too soon, they’re back on the same streets, mingling with the same people.
Danny’s conclusion is that there’s really only one firm step you can take to avoid these circumstances.
The Burrymen War is a short but devastating read. It’s the real Scotland, in all its humour, all its contradictions, and all its bared teeth.