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The authors propose a cross-layer approach, which exploits distributed beamforming in the physical layer and token passing in the media access control (MAC) layer, to improve quality of service (QoS) for secondary users (SUs) with bursty traffics in cognitive relay systems. In this scheme, source-to-destination transmissions are relayed by some SU nodes, which can form a distributed beamformer to forward messages in busy timeslots while completely eliminating interference to primary users (PUs). In contrast with previous cognitive relaying protocols, this scheme can utilise more spectrum resources, namely idle timeslots (or temporal spectrum holes) as well as busy timeslots (or spatial spectrum holes). Based on a token passing mechanism, an opportunistic scheduling protocol is then developed to dynamically balance available spectrum holes between the source and the relays, and hence adapts to bursty arrival of secondary traffics and random presence of PUs. By formulating a tandem queueing analytical framework, the performance of the proposed scheme is then analysed using a multi-dimensional Markov chain model. Numerical results demonstrate that the proposed scheme can achieve significant QoS gains over conventional cognitive relaying protocols that utilise only idle timeslots.