IN 1960, or thereabouts, I used to visit all local primary schools in Bo’ness in my capacity as an itinerant Art teacher. Mr Alex Ritchie, that great stalwart of the Bo’ness Fair, was at that time Headmaster of the Grange School. He it was who approached and persuaded me to join the ranks of the judges of the Decorated Arches, and I have been performing that task every year since then.
I started learning the business under the expert tutelage of John Cannon who had many years experience in judging arches. He seemed to know everybody and was greeted as a friend by all. He would often give a ticking off to arch builders who had not entered for judging. This is a great pity as a lot of artistic , creative and hard work goes into their making. Also, the children and even the adults in the house are thrilled and proud to have a winner’s card tied to their arch.
When I receive my list of entrants my first task is to arrange them into the order in which we intend to view them. If I didn’t do this, we would be dodging back and forward all over Bo’ness, getting caught up in school processions and marching bands. I personally like to do a quick survey of the entrants on the Fair E’en. Not, I hastily add, to prejudge, but to make sure my proposed route is the right one and the most direct one. It would not do on the Fair morning to waste time vainly searching for one or two arches and, believe me, this can happen. My two fellow judges and I set off at 7.30a.m. on the Fair Morn and, even after all theses years, I feel a certain tingle of excitement. We each have our clipboards and several sheets of marking paper with four headings, each worth a possible ten marks. The headings are: General Appearance; 2. Colour, 3. Workmanship; 4. Originality; and a total of a possible 40 marks. It is wise not to mark too highly or you will end up with many arches with the same total of marks. A good idea is to write short comments about each arch, as this will refresh your memory later on. After looking at 30 or 40 arches, your mind can become a trifle confused. We have three prizes for small arches. Then we have six special prizes we can award. Often, there are only two large arches and so we just return the third large arch prize. Technically, a large arch should be one under which a vehicle could be driven, but the way some modern schemes are laid out this is not always possible. We used to have about 40 arches to judge, but nowadays it is usually around 30. This is because more people are going in for Decorated Frontages. Some people enter and arch and a frontage. I think this is to cause confusion between Jim Aitken and his judges and us. When we reach the end of our route, we have to settle down and compare marks and decide on prize winners. This can cause some differences of opinion. Very often we are in complete agreement about first prizes and sometimes on the second, but the third prize and the special prizes can be difficult decisions. Having picked our winners, we then have to go back and attach the prize cards and deliver the prize money. All this takes a good few hours. I haven’t managed to see the Crowning at the Town Hall for many years.
Many will still remember the old style arches made of strips of wood, lovingly covered with boxwood greenery. Unfortunately, I understand, boxwood is very slow growing and is now very scarce. however, ever adaptable, the arch builders were quick to see the advantages of ferns and paper flowers. This style was popular for some time, and then stone patterned wallpaper was used extensively. This saved a lot of hard work with paintbrush. I would like to point out that the judges don’t just look at the front of the arch, but also give close examination to the back. Take note! We ourselves are conscious that we are under close scrutiny from behind the twitching curtains. Contrary to popular opinion, we are not offered liquid refreshments.
When talking of arches, one immediately thinks of the late Bobby Heath, who created many beautiful arches in his own inimitable style. Bobby was a craftsman and a painter. A true artist in every way. Nowadays, when walking round the arches on the Fair E’en, one soon becomes aware of the number of lights used for decorative effect; especially effective when darkness falls. Not only lights, but with appropriate musical accompaniment. Truly, the ingenuity of the Bo’ness arch builders must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. What an atmosphere there is in the town on the night before the Fair.
If you meet a Bo’nessian who now lives in England or even abroad, and you talk about the old town and its people, as you inevitably will, you will see a puzzled look come on their faces when you mention Braefoot Brae, Pennelton Place, Greentree Lane, Chestnut Grove, Sandpiper Walk, or any other new streets. It is at such moments that you realise how the town has grown. We are all familiar with the Town, Carriden, Kinneil, Grangepans, and even Maidenpark and Grahamsdyke, but in the last 10 to 15 years a great deal of building has spread our boundaries to the south. This growth of the town means we have to travel many miles before we complete our task. In places like the Mingle and Dawson Place, it si difficult for arches to be seen to the best advantage. Many lovely arches are tucked away in quiet corners where people won’t see them, which is a shame. The house numberings in Liddle Drive and Pennelton Place is a nightmare for the judges. This is why I find it important to spot the entrants the night before the competition. If it is a Kinneil Queen, the majority of arches are in Maidenpark or Deanfield, and if it is a Grange Queen most of them are in Grangepans or Grahamsdyke, with a few others scattered round the town. This understandable, but from the point of view of the public it would be better if there was more even distribution, such as happens when it’s a St. Mary’s Queen. On the other hand, when there is a concentration of decoration in one area, it makes a wonderful sight. All those arches and frontages and the rows of little bunting flags, bearing a remarkable resemblance to shirt material, are quite breathtaking.
One Fair Day we were vainly searching for an arch in the Deanburn Walk area and were on the point of giving up when a lady in nightie and dressing gown and waiving her arms, shouted “It’s over here”. True enough, we found a lovely arch, beautifully constructed and decorated. We might have missed it. How many others did? On another occasion, my route plan failed me. We motored down Gauze Road on our way to Hadrian Way and then on to Harbour Road. I had it all worked out. We turned right along Academy Road and found ourselves surrounded by a huge brass band from Moosejaw Saskatchewan. We had to abandon ship and walk along to Hadrian Way and come back for the car later. The most worrying moment occurred many years ago. We had made our decisions and were going back to deliver the prize money, when I couldn’t find one of the prize envelopes containing £12. We searched the car but it was gone . I must have dropped it getting out of the car to inspect some arch. Thank goodness there are still honest people in the world. That afternoon I got a phone call from the Police Station to tell me that a lady visitor from Canada had found the envelope in the gutter and handed it in.
Let me correct one misapprehension. The Queen’s Arch does not always win first prize. Very often it does, but not always.
Bo’ness arch builders have always maintained a very high standard of workmanship and creativity. The ingenuity, the delicacy of colour, and the decorative features employed, continue to delight the eye. The Great arch makers of the past would not be ashamed of their modern counterparts.
What of the future? Bo’ness, it is predicted, will tourist centre with much to offer the visitor – The Steam Railway Preservation Society, the Museum of Communications, the Heritage Trust, and the wonderful views across the Forth. New housing will bring new residents with new ideas to contribute to our Festal day. I am sure we can look to the future with a happy heart and a great deal of confidence.