I WAS born in East Castleoan, Bo’ness in February 1950 amongst the close knit community of hard working miners, their wives and families. Later I moved to Lothian Street in the Newtown area of Bo’ness where I lived until joining the Army at the age of fifteen. Although I have many memories of my early years, tow factors influenced my life and career – ” The fair ” and ” Kinneil Colliery Pipe Band “. Both of these important factors were unquestionably linked as I will explain later.
My memories and feelings for ” The Fair ” are varied and unusual, but I hope to relate just a few very personal moments that my mind conjures instantly when making a conscious effort to analyse and compile these thoughts.
It may seem strange, but my first recollection of ” The Fair ” was of having a bath! A real bath in what seemed to be a huge, white zinc tub, I imagine my Mother will not thank me for revealing this truth, but up until this particular time in my memory I had always been washed in the large kitchen sink. Now the night before the big event my sister. Anne and I were having a bath in the real bath. It’s now a standing joke in the Tomkins family that we only ever had a bath once a year and that was for ” The Fair “.
Living in Castleoan my Mum used to drop me over the back of the wash house wall into the old Kinneil Primary School and it was there I first enjoyed the experience of the hustle and bustle of the lead up to the Big Day. I remember stairs and fences being painted, wooden arches being built by Mr Kennedy and ferns from Kinneil wood collected to wrap around the wooden frames. Paper flowers were by the thousands and long afternoons in the school playground were spent practising the fair songs. The songs and our school cheers had to be perfect for Mr Cuthell when he came round to listen to us.
The ” Fair E’en ” was an event in itself, walking round Bo’ness looking at all the arches and being really fed up as a wee boy when my parents stopped to chat with what seemed to be the whole of the town. There were advantages though. ” Here’s some money for the shows Bert ” – Thank you very much!! At last though it was time for bed and the anticipation of the Big Day.
” Eat your bananas before you go ” was the order of the day in the class room prior to setting off for the Glebe Park. The magical ” shillings ” were issued and reluctantly I had to hand mine over for safe keeping. There was music echoing from all parts of the town with everyone being drawn to the park like bees to the hive.
Those early days at the old Kinneil Primary School, then the new building, were great and the family atmosphere of Castleloan will always live with me. In 1958 we moved to Lothian Street and I enrolled in the Public School where in 1962 I was to have the privilege of being the sword bearer it was to be a day I would never forget or want to. Unfortunately the day of the dress rehearsal was very warm and standing up on the rostrum the heat and nerves got to me and I fainted, I still say to this day that it was the tights that did it.
I received much sympathy and concern, so much so that on the day itself I was overwhelmed by the level of support from relatives, friends and all who had heard of my problem the day before. Even more money for the shows! It was a day to remember – the colour, music and friendship of the occasion are engrained in my heart as I am sure anyone who has participated as a presentee will confirm. One specific event on that day, in retrospect, had a bearing on the rest of my life.
The crowning ceremony was over and I marched round the town holding my sword high on the cushion as if it was the most important job in the world. During the afternoon’s entertainment in the Douglas Park. Kinneil Colliery Pipe Band played. I listened and watched in amazement to the music and, in particular, to the Drummers. For some reason that day I decided I wanted to become a drummer. The very next week I duly found the band practice hut and announced to the Pipe Major that I wanted to join the band. From that moment on my family’s life became a misery as I drove them all to despair playing my drumsticks on anything and everything. I suppose it was a relief for them when I left home in April 1965 to join the Scots Greys as a Drummer.
The first seven years of my service were normal as any service life can be. I had been promoted, married Catherine in Carriden Church and was enjoying playing with a particularly good army pipe band. In 1972 the Scots Greys were amalgamated with the 3rd Carabaniers and a new regiment ” The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards ” were formed. It was decided to record an album of Pipes and Drums and Band music to commemorate the history of the Greys and in the old gymnasium of Redford Barracks, Edinburgh we recorded ” Farewell to the Greys “. At the end of the recording session we discovered that we needed another three minutes of music and the Band Master decided to put on a piece of combined music that we had rehearsed for a church service – ” Amazing Grace “.
The rest, as they say, is history. Amazing Grace was played on a late night Radio show and the demand was such that R.C.A. our recording company, decided to release it as a single. Unbelievably the record shot up the charts and before we knew it the band was on Top of the Pops and was Number One for six consecutive weeks.
Suddenly the band was catapulted into the world of show business and instead of playing in town and village halls around Scotland our venues changed to the Albert Hall, London and Madison Square Gardens, New York. We toured extensively all over the world, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and on most of the tours the band members names and home towns were printed on the programme. Now I was to realise the bond and strength of feelings people had in their love and loyalty for Bo’ness and ” The Fair ” in particular.
On numerous occasions ex-pats from Bo’ness would ask for me after the show, and where possible an instant get together was organised. As a link with home I was normally bombarded with the inevitable questions. Do you know so and so, who is married to so and so and lives next door to so and so? Is Burns still selling the best fish in Scotland and can you still get onion pies from Hasties? Important questions but always the conversation would centre round The Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival. I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve sung the Fair Songs in some strange hotel room with people I had only known for a few hours!
We are so lucky in Bo’ness to have the Fair as ” The ” day of the year where Children first and foremost literally take centre stage. The youth of the town must always be represented and our Children’s Fair Festival does this like no other town or city in Britain.
I wish all who participate in this year’s event all the very best and look forward in anticipation to next year’s centenary celebrations.
Drum Major Bert Tomkins, Queen Victoria School, Dunblane.