The Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL) defines boney simply as “a bonfire”. Michael Munro, in The Patter Another Blast (1988), records it thus:
“bonnie. A local word for a bonfire: ‘Mister, kin we go through your skip fur stuff fur wur bonnie?’”.
In Scotland, boneys took place on two occasions - the traditional November fifth Guy Fawkes night, and Victoria Day. In Scotland, Victoria Day was a holiday to mark the birthday of Queen Victoria on 24th May 1819.
Dae Ye Mind?, a books of reminiscences published in Edinburgh in 1991, records:
“Bonfires came round twice a year … This led to an upsurge in tribalism, and the boundaries were finely divided. ‘Easty’, ‘Westy’ (Arthur Street), Adam Street, etc. – all had gangs out foraging for bonfire wood (and perhaps helping themselves to other people's ‘boney’ when backs were turned!)”.
Collecting material and building boneys could be a very competitive activity. One writer in the Edinburgh Evening News of April 2015 recalls:
“If we happened to find another street's bonfire collection, we might plan a ‘boney-raid’. Armed with cudgels (more for show than anything else) we would attempt to relieve them of their booty in order to fuel our own”.
Irvine Welsh also had fond memories of this, as he writes in Marabou Stork Nightmares (1996):
“I’d always liked fires. Boney nights were the best nights of the year in the scheme, Guy Fawkes because you got fireworks, but Victoria Day n aw. ... You would get cudgels and stanes and try to defend your bonfire against raiders”.
Nowadays these activities have passed into memory – modern-day parents would shudder in horror at the prospect of their children rootling in skips for wood to pile up in the street and set fire to.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Pauline Cairns Speitel, Dictionaries of the Scots Language https://dsl.ac.uk.