As far as the thousands of visitors who crowd into Bo’ness every Fair Day are concerned, Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival is an exciting one-day spectacle, beginning with the sound of the brass bands in the early hours of Friday morning and the ending with the sound of the dance bands in the wee sma’ hours of Saturday. But what many of them fail to realise is that to ensure that this day of days in the Bo’ness calendar goes off without a hitch does indeed involve a “fair” amount of work on the part of a great many people ranging from Fair Festival Director Mr. George V. Renton to well known “Fair” hands such as Bobby Heath, George McFarlane and Bill McLucas.
Since the time when the Fair represented the only holiday which the local miners enjoyed in the whole year, it has been tradition in Bo’ness that as soon as one year’s festivities are over thoughts immediately turn to making the following year’s celebrations even better than the ones before, and such is still very much the case today. Throughout the winter months plans are laid for floats and tableau, ideas are mulled over for ever more original presentees and fathers tentatively pencil in sketches of arches, just in case their daughters are chosen as fairies, flower girls, or even ladies in waiting when the annual voting takes place at the end of March.
The election of the Queen is the signal for thoughts to be turned into actions and by the first Monday night after Easter fathers are busily at work in the shed below Bo’ness Public School at the first of what are to begin with weekly sessions and later become nightly sessions to ensure that the school’s decorated float is, as always, one of the most spectacular in the grand procession. These fathers and the many others who shortly afterwards begin work on other lorries and floats to represent other schools, associations and local works are in fact all keeping alive one of the Fair’s oldest traditions, for even in the days of the miners’ Fair it was the custom for many Bo’ness carters to bring up the rear of the procession.
The reason that the carters of Bo’ness were so numerous and so well known, was that they covered the whole of Central and Southern Scotland transporting loads to and from the ships which made Borrowstounness the second most important port in Scotland. No matter how busy the harbour was, however, the carters always found time to spruce up their big heavy wheeled wagons to take part in the Fair procession. Nor was it only the carts which were painted and decorated. The horses, too, came in for their “Fair” share of attention and so elaborately plaited were their manes and so colourful the tassles on their tails that they gave rise to the old Bo’ness saying, “She’s all dressed up like a Fair horse”.
Today, sadly, the horses are no longer a part of the Fair scene but happily the local haulage contractors still sacrifice considerable amounts of work to ensure that Bo’ness bairns can continue to enjoy the thrill of a hurl on a decorated lorry. While the haulage contractors and lorry owners contribute directly to the Fair many other Bo’ness businessmen contribute financially, while local electrical contractor Mr. George MacFarlane leads a varied assortment of Fair enthusiasts whose Informal Entertainments Committee, during the weeks before the Fair, organises a range of events which this year includes everything from the very childish pleasures of a gird race to the very adult ones of a night out at “La Fabrique”, the town’s new luxury night spot, and from dinghy racing to piano smashing.
Whether the event is one of the preliminary fund raising efforts such as the clay pigeon shooting or the actual events of the Fair Day, itself such as the big parade or the afternoon revels in the Douglas Park, safety is, of course, all important where children are concerned and this is where many more Bo’nessians could help by working as stewards. In addition, the Fair is always an occasion when the local members of the St Andrew’s Ambulance Brigade are to the fore, while several other public spirited citizens help the local police force by acting as Special Constables. Their duties range from crowd control at the Glebe Park to traffic rerouting during the procession and Police Inspector Meldrum has great praise for the tactful way in which these volunteers help his men handle the vast holiday crowd.
The huge crowd also means a great deal of work for the Town Council’s direct labour force, for in addition to erecting all the decorations and platforms in the Glebe and Douglas Parks they are also responsible for all the safety fences and crush barriers which are required, to keep back the adult spectators.
Essentially, however, the Fair is a Children’s day and it is the children whom the crowds flock to see, but it is well worth remembering that the precision and discipline of the children taking part in the coronation ceremony is most definitely not achieved without a great deal of practice and rehearsal under the direction of the teachers of the Queen’s school. Areas of the school playground and the school hall are carefully marked out with the exact measurements of the platform in the Glebe Park, so that no matter what the weather, the drilling of the principal characters can continue throughout the summer term, until the Lord in Waiting knows his every step and the Herald every syllable of his proclamation.
For the remainder of the pupils the Fair really comes to life when the festival’s Musical Director arrives in school to rehearse the well known Fair songs. For twenty-five years these rehearsals were conducted by Mr. James Cuthell until his retirement in 1972. Now he has been succeeded by two of Scotland’s best known brass band conductors, Mr. Alex Fleming of Kinneil Colliery Silver Band and Mr. Joe Hempstead of Bo’ness and Carriden Band. It is indeed fitting that such well known musicians have been entrusted with the Fair songs, for there can be few parts of the whole Fair Festival which Bo’nessians hold more dear and they have been sung in all parts of the world wherever Bo’nessians meet and even at Hampden Park when Bo’ness United won the Scottish Junior Cup. Originally the Fair crowds used to sing “Scots Wha Hae”, “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue” and “Auld Lang Syne”, but shortly after Provost Stewart completely revolutionised the Fair in 1897 with the introduction of a schoolgirl Queen, Grace Strachan from the old Anderson Academy, it was felt that a special Fair song was needed and so “Our Festal Day”, with the words by Robert Fleming and music composed by Mr. E. C. Schofield, was introduced. It proved so popular that a few years later, in 1903, “Hail to Our Queen”, written by well known Bo’ness poet Hope Thomson and with music by Mr. L. Dyer Appleby, was added to the proceedings and these two songs have been sung at every Fair for the past seventy years.
It is interesting to note that such sentimental value was attached to the Fair songs that, even during the years of the Second World War, when it was impossible to hold the Fair, the teachers of Bo’ness ensured that, towards the end of each summer term the words of “Our Festal Day” and “Hail to Our Queen” were still faithfully taught to every Bo’ness boy and girl, and many of these wartime bairns still recall how they made their own opportunities to sing these songs by holding an almost endless succession of “Wee Fairs” in various parts of the town throughout the long stay at home summer holidays.
With the wartime rationing in force these back court festivities must have taxed many a mother’s ingenuity but home made iced Empire biscuits and jam wafer biscuits were produced by the dozen and helped fill the gap left by the unavailable sweets and chocolate.
Many Fair memories must indeed be conjured up by the mention of food from strawberries and ice cream eaten in a crowded Serafini’s while waiting for the procession to pass, to steaming hot steak pies, which still make up the traditional Fair lunch in many homes. For the Fair has always been a time for family reunions with all the work which they entail before hand for local housewives with “Fair” cleaning every bit as important as spring cleaning in Bo’ness homes and huge meals very much the order of the day.
There can be few Bo’ness homes in fact where many members of the family get much sleep o the Fair E’en, with mothers putting the finishing touches to everything from fairy dresses to jellies and trifles and fathers working desperately to complete arches ready for the breakfast time judging.
From making thousands of paper flowers to decorate arches and floats to making sure meals are ready for hundreds of hungry bandsmen and from ensuring that every sequin on a fairy dress to ensuring that the “Royal Command Performance” in the Douglas Park runs without a hitch does indeed demand a “Fair” amount of work from a “Fair” number of people, but as the Town Hall clock chimes eleven and yet another Bo’ness Fair reaches its triumphant climax, then indeed does it seem so very worthwhile.