The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Superstitions in Burray

Taboo words when going to sea

Long ago it was taboo to mention pigs, rabbits or ministers when at sea. The minister was referred to as "the man wae the dog collar". It was thought that to mention any of these would bring bad luck and the fishing would be poor.

It was also regarded as a poor omen if you should meet any of these while making your way to the boat. Some very superstitious people would even turn back on such occasions.

One brave, or some may say foolish, man, paid little heed to this and was the first man in Burray to defy the superstition. He would take the minister on board his boat or take him from the island of South Ronaldsay to Burray as a passenger. Apparently a fishing boat differs from a ferry in cases like this.

A disapproving person sent a rabbit’s tail to the offender as a symbol of bad luck so he nailed the tail to the mast of his boat. What would happen now? Well, that summer he had the best season’s fishing of any boat owner on the island of Burray. This persuaded a number of people to turn their backs on the old superstition.

The New Year’s Song

In 1910 there were at least 120 pupils attending Burray School. On Hogmanay it was traditional for small groups of  school children to walk around the houses near their homes singing The New Year’s Song. They received cakes and pennies and had a thoroughly good time.

This was restricted to pupils only and, as soon as they left the school, they could no longer take part. The custom continued into the early 1970s.

Funeral day

It was traditional that when a body left the house the door had to stay open, and no one was permitted to shut it until bedtime. This was to prevent the spirit of the deceased coming back to the house.

The custom of pall-bearers carrying the coffin all the way to the ceremony continued until shortly after World War II.

Women did not go to the graveside, unlike in the village of Longhope, where as many women as men would attend the funeral. They often helped to carry the coffin and it is believed this is because there was a shortage of men. Many were at sea fishing or had joined the navy.