These days, the custom of ‘Whuppity Scoorie’ is organised annually by the Royal Burgh of Lanark Community Council. It consists of local children gathering at Lanark Cross prior to 6pm on 1st March each year. The children range in age from tots of two and three, accompanied of course by an adult, up to young teenagers. All of these children are “armed” with a ‘ball of paper’ on the end of a length of string, which is swung around their heads as they run. The run takes place around the Kirk and commences with the first chime of the “wee bell” at 6pm and finishes when each child has completed three laps around the Kirk.
Cash prizes have been presented in the past for the first boy and girl to complete the three laps, but this custom has been dropped in recent years because it was felt that the ‘running’ was much safer for the smaller children if the competitive element was dropped.
After the three laps have been completed, members of the community council distribute, by way of a “scramble” for the older kids and a wee gift for the tots in arms, around £100 in change, previously coppers but these days - thanks to inflation – in silver coinage.
“The origins of Whuppity Scoorie are lost in the mists of time and this “unknown” factor has enabled the tradition to develop a mythology all of its own! Many and varied are the local opinions with regard to its origins, each one providing a seemingly logical answer.
What is inescapable is the traditional date of 1st March, which means that the tradition coincides with the first ringing, in ‘Spring’, of the town’s “wee bell” after a six-months winter of silence. It seems highly likely under these circumstances that the tradition originally was in some way a rite to celebrate the arrival of Spring and the end of Winter.
Whether that ‘rite’ involved the driving of prisoners from the Tollbooth (then the town gaol) for a bath in the River Clyde (i.e. “Whupping” prisoners to the Clyde and “Scouring” them in it) as some suggest, or was based on some pagan ritual to drive our evil spirits by whipping them around the (Christian) Kirk or indeed, was simply a bit of fun and youthful high spirits, is entirely a matter for conjecture. Whichever ‘legend’ you choose, defend it with confidence and no one could easily prove otherwise.
The enactment of the tradition was reported in the local press (The Hamilton Advertiser) from around the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, the ceremony was originally reported under the heading “The Wee Bell Ceremony”! According to these reports the ‘weapon of choice’ of the children in those days (boys only) was to roll their caps up and tie them with string. When the bell first rang, they would then march cheering to New Lanark and fight with the boys from that village who would be marching in the other direction. By 1880, stone throwing had become an integral part of the conflict and the police were required to post men in Braxfield Road to ensure order. The ‘tradition’ was regularly policed thereafter.
It was in 1893 that the Advertiser first referred to “the custom known as Whuppity Scoorie” but the following year it simply referred to “Whuppity Scoorie”. Similarly, the three laps around the church were first mentioned in 1893, although the writer asserted that the custom was 120 years old by then! In 1897, according to the Advertiser report at the time, the Lanark children duly marched to New Lanark but arrived there to find they had no adversaries! They subsequently returned to Lanark chanting, in reference to their only adversaries being the policemen posted to ensure order “We met sixteen policemen and chased them down the brae”.
Source: LANARK: The Burgh and its Councils 1468 – 1880 by A.D. Robertson.
(Published in 1974 by Lanark Town Council).