READERS will have heard many times all the old stories told about the Bo’ness Fair, the most common one being of the two Bo’ness men stranded in the desert with the sun blazing down and the one asks the other if he realises that this is the ” Fair Day ” to which the other replies; well they are getting a great day for it!!!
Many a true word spoken in jest and twelve years during which my wife Margaret and myself have enjoyed the great pleasure and privilege of being part of the Fair I have absolutely no doubt that when eleven o’clock strikes on Fair morning and Maria McIntosh is crowned Queen there will be natives of Bo’ness, certainly in the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand and some I know in South Africa, whose heart and thoughts are at home in Bo’ness and will see just as clearly as those of us present in the park, the crown being placed on the head of Queen Maria and will hear, just as clearly as those of us in the park the words “Bo’ness has a new Queen”. It’s the magic of the Bo’ness Fair.
My introduction to the Bo’ness Fair was not in fact the Fair itself but speaking at the Fair Burns’ Supper some twenty years ago. Even then in the early part of the year while commemorating the anniversary of the birth of Burns much of the talk is of six months hence and the preparation for the great day itself. At that time I had never been at the Bo’ness Children’s Fair and while like many others, I had seen the coronets displayed near the approaches to the Forth Road Bridge, where alas they are no longer displayed because of various factors, I had never attended the event to which the coronets referred. Time itself took care of that and in 1981 I was invited to attend the Fair for the first time. In twelve years that followed I missed only one Fair Day.
As the people of Bo’ness know, my home is in Fife and so we came to the Fair not knowing what to expect and even less sure of how the event would unfold. We need not have worried, from the moment we arrived at the Town Hall on Fair morning until the time we were made to feel part of Bo’ness.
Over the years I have watched with interest and admiration how four different groups of people are welded to gether by the atmosphere of the Fair. People who have lived in Bo’ness all their life, people who have moved to live in Bo’ness from some other area, people who have left Bo’ness but have returned as so many do for Fair Day, and people like me who have never lived in Bo’ness at all are welded together in a friendly spirit that defies description by the Bo’ness Fair. No one should take that achievement for granted because from my wide experience the family atmosphere to which I have referred is quite unique and quite remarkable.
Sometimes, I am sure the good folk of Bo’ness must wonder how ” outsiders ” like myself view the Fair. Let me be honest and say that in the first year and perhaps the second as well, I suppose I could say that it was very much a ” spectacle “, you need time to be able to grasp the tradition of the Fair and there is no shame in saying so. It would be quite remarkable if the tradition of the Festival, built up over a great many years, could be grasped in two years and in many ways it would be demeaning the whole history of the Fair to even suggest that it could.
Almost without you noticing, the tradition and history of the whole event begins to take hold of you and before you realise it the Fair Day has as much special meaning for you as it does for the people of the town itself. We take our place on the area set aside for the guests, the crowning stage itself is empty, the band begins to play and soon the first of the children arrive, the excitement grows as the platform fills, colour blends with colour, the innocent sight of the happy children waving to their parents and friends and soon the platform is full to present one of the most moving and spectacular scenes you could ever wish to see. The Queen who still is Queen for a few minutes more and then the Queen Elect arrives and when the band begins to play the Bo’ness Fair song you would need to be a person without feeling to remain unaffected by the spirit of the Bo’ness Children’s Fair. The moment we have all been waiting for arrives and the Queen is crowned and at that moment, those who work year in and year out, see the reward of all their efforts and celebrations begun the night before on the Fair E’en, step up a gear and this without doubt is the children’s day.
As readers will appreciate, my wife Margaret and I have had the great honour and opportunity of seeing the Fair from a different setting in that Margaret enjoyed the great honour of crowning Queen Gayle in 1987. I can remember quite clearly the evening our ‘ phone rung at home and at the other end was David Brown on behalf of the committee inviting Margaret to crown the Queen.
Over my years in public life I have had ‘ phone calls from two Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, asking me to accept Ministerial Office in government. In May of last year I had the ‘ phone call which invited me to accept a Life Peerage and in all the instances to which I have referred the moments of hesitation before I accepted were almost unnoticeable. Hard though it may be to believe, the invitation to Margaret to crown the Queen was given much greater consideration. First of all the invitation is so unexpected, which is not always the case in politics!! and secondly, if the reaction of Margaret is anything to go by, you are not quite sure whether you will be able to carry out such an important task and do justice to the Queen which, you will not be surprised to read, is not always the case in politics either!! However, after two or three days Margaret accepted and from that moment on I was in more ladies dress shops than I realised existed. Shops from Berwick-on-Tweed to Aberdeen, from one end of London to the other and even in Strasbourg, we were told about the ” Bo’ness Fair ” as the search continued for the ensemble for the great day and from that moment on I developed a great sympathy for the husband of the lady crowning the Queen!!
As far as the weeks leading up to the crowning were concerned, we need not have worried because everyone was so kind and helpful, from Mrs. Andrews, who was Headteacher at the Public School at the time and from where the Queen was elected, to David and Jean Brown, who welcomed us as guests in their home, the generous help and kindness was of the highest order.
We both have our memories from both the Fair E’en and the Fair Day itself. From the Fair E’en, the way in which people opened their homes and welcomed us in, the hospitality and friendship were beyond description and as the clock ticked away its minutes you found it difficult to move on to your next call where the hospitality and friendship were repeated and remembered that an early morning lay ahead, together with a very full day, the home of John and Barbara Johnston, whose home seems to be as much a part of the Bo’ness Fair as the Town Hall itself, had to be our last call for the evening. An evening of meeting and enjoying the company of so many nice people.
Fair Day itself dawned in glorious sunshine and for us both the crowning and then the tour of the town were moments we will never forget. I can even remember a lady stepping off the pavement and rushing over to the car to ask Margaret where she got her hat!! In days gone by we could have said the Co-op but alas no more. In case the lady concerned remembers the incident and reads this, she might be interested to know that Margaret wore the hat again two weeks later and it got ruined in the rain . . . so much for the nice hat.
Among many memories of that particular Bo’ness Fair one other stands out for me, the Pipes and drums of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders march along Braefoot Road at half past seven in the MORNING, not something that I am used to but a sight to behold and never to be forgotten.
Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival has, over the years given us much pleasure and left us with many happy memories and if, with the impertinence that only a politician can show, I can make one plea to the good folk of Bo’ness, it is never to regard the Fair as an annual ritual. Remember always that the Queen and her Retinue and all her attendants and Presentees, the Archways and decorations in the streets, the bands playing and the parade of the floats, the family gatherings in the evening which are a very important part of Fair Day. All these things and more are not some kind of ritual but are part of the preservation of the heritage that is Bo’ness. Bo’ness it its people and its people are Bo’ness, the Children’s Fair Festival is a public demonstration of that fact and as the Crown is placed on the head of Queen Maria she is being crowned on behalf of generations of the past, generations of the present and generations yet to come. Bo’ness has earned its place of honour in Scotland and much further afield. A Happy Fair Day to you all.
LORD EWING OF KIRKFORD ( Harry Ewing, formerly MP for Falkirk East )