NORTH, East, South or West, Bo’ness Fair is the best as the rhyme goes, ask any true Bo’nessian of their memories of the Bo’ness Fair, I am quite sure he or she will come up with a vast and varied selection of stories, facts and figures of bygone years.
My first recollection of the fair must have been 1956. Mr Ritchie, the headmaster of the Grange School at that time buzzed around the school on the Fair morning handing out the traditional shilling and a banana to every pupil in every classroom before we left the school to proceed to the Glebe Park for the crowning ceremony all dressed in traditional school uniform, blue blazer, grey shirt, school tie, grey socks and grey short trousers, and thanks to mum a brand new pair of sandals bought in the Co-operative shoe shop. Aye, no track suits and trainers in those days!!
Mary Ross crowned Queen Beatrice Stewart in 1956, incidentally her brother Willie Ross was the local jeweller and watchmaker, it was his job at that time to maintain the Town Hall clock and ensure it’s mechanism was in first class order, it wouldn’t do if the Town Hall clock didn’t operate properly at 11 am on the Fair Day, would it?
I continued my education at Grange Primary School under the watchful eyes of the old stalwarts of the school, Miss Clelland, Miss Anderson, Miss Calder, Mrs. McColl, Mrs Snedden and finally that gentleman whose voice struck fear into the hearts of every pupil who passed through Primary 7A, Mr Bob Cowper, on reflection though it did us no harm and we certainly learned to respect him. Even though we never won a football match against the other Bo’ness schools, when he coached us.
The year 1961, I think will stick in my mind most of all because the Queen Elect and her retinue that year were being picked from two senior classes Primary 7A, under the watchful eye of Mr Cowper and of course Primary 7B, under the gentle care of Miss Martin. At last the big day had arrived, the retinue were to be chosen and of course it was every boys dream to be the Champion, if not a Herald, and following that just about anything would do. We started with the girls retinue in the morning and the boys retinue in the afternoon. Mr Ritchie as usual in his own wee way buzzed around, arranging voting papers etc. Both classes were brought together for the day.
There was tremendous excitement in the classroom, every pupil being nice to each other hoping to get each others vote. The big moment arrived, “Right boys and girls write down who you want to be the Queen and the girl with the second most votes will be the Chief Lady”. The vote was cast, the court was made, Queen Elect for 1961, Nancy Cuthell – no relation, I don’t think. The Chief Lady for 1961, Marlene Meikle and so it went on all morning, bower girls, flower girls, fairies etc., all had been picked. During the lunch break in the playground, sweeties were in abundance as never before.
“Hey Cuthell here’s a 1d caramel and a bazooka chewing gum, mind and vote for me”, bribery as you have never seen before. After lunch, back to class and the voting for the male retinue started. I could see it before my eyes, the Fair Programme 1961 would read Queen Elect Nancy Cuthell, Queen’s Champion Colin Cuthell, wishful thinking perhaps?
The voting took place, firstly the Queen’s Champion, “Vote for who you want to be the Champion” said Mr Ritchie, “but remember whoever you choose must have a loud voice”.
The announcement was made the Queen’s Champion, 1961 Lawrence Downie, my bubble burst.
The Chief Lord was next, the announcement came, Lord in Waiting 1961 is George Readman, my bubble burst again, but Mr McKenna the jannie said I could carry the school banner, at last I was just a wee bit involved in the Fair, and guess what, I got to wear my first pair of long trousers, purchased at Bishops in Falkirk, who still remembers that shop?
As I said it was great to be at last involved with the Bo’ness Fair. My late father, Archie and Uncle Jim were involved with the Fair many many years ago and of course Uncle Jim was the musical director of the Fair for a number of years. With them, being the local undertakers!!, they were contracted by Bo’ness Town Council to put up the flags round the Procession route, and I remember as a boy going with them on the Monday morning after the Fair, the first day of the summer holidays and helping them to take all the flags down using long wooden ladders, label the flags carefully so they could be strung up at the same place the following year. The funny thing is I cannot ever remember these flags having to be taken down wet because it just never rained at the Fair time all those years ago, in fact it was the opposite it was too warm sometimes.
Unfortunately after the summer holidays the older primary school pupils must move on to greater things in life, the majority of us were promoted to Bo’ness Academy that big grey building on Academy Road, where all sorts of rumours were rife about the prefects and what they would do to those little innocent first years as they were called. I can assure you how quickly one matures on leaving primary school to further their secondary education at Bo’ness Academy.
Now at this point in our lives, I feel that is where the Bo’ness Academy pupils interest in the Bo’ness Fair diminishes, not completely, but for a few years. Many pupils at Bo’ness Academy in the mid sixties felt that they were “too big” to be involved in a Children’s Fair Festival and alas Bo’ness Academy were to be involved with the Queen’s Retinue for the last time in 1969 when Queen Kathleen Wildeman was crowned by the then Burgh Chamberlain’s wife Mrs John Burns. But where one door closes another opens, enter Deanburn Primary School, their pupils now make their mark upon the Bo’ness Fair under the watchful eye for many years of that gentleman of gentleman the late Jim Valance, whose wife incidentally was given the honour of crowning Miss Heather Chapman 1989.
As I said earlier once we moved to Secondary school, then progress into the big wide working world, the teenage years take over and talking from personal experience the Fair seems to take second place. On leaving Bo’ness Academy in the spring of 1965 I was lucky to find employment as an apprentice electrician with a little known Falkirk firm. Incidentally I was still very involved with and had been a member of the 4th Bo’ness Boys Brigade Company for a number of years, and as it so happens the Queens Escort for 1965 was to be supplied by the Boy’s Brigade.
What an opportunity, the six Boys Brigade in the escort were selected from each Bo’ness Boys Brigade Company, the 2nd St. Andrews Church, the 3rd and by far the largest B.B. Company in the battalion attached to the Old Kirk at that time, and finally 4th Bo’ness attached to Carriden Kirk under the ever caring eye of Tom Mercer. After our parents night display late in May which was held in the Mission Hall, Grangepans, I was approached by Captain Mercer or Auld Tam as he was affectionately known. Would I like to be part of the Queen’s Escort on the Fair Day? What an honour, and in those days it was indeed an honour to be asked to escort the Queen’s Carriage on the Procession route, bearing in mind in 1965 the Queen travelled in an open horse drawn carriage. In flash I accepted the invitation to be part of the Queen’s Escort, but would my employer allow me the day off to carry out my B.B. duties? Captain Mercer as quick as a flash said he would give me a letter for my employer requesting I be relieved of my duties as an apprentice electrician for the day. Well! Having to explain to a man from Falkirk what this escort for the Queen involved was rather difficult, initially he thought it was the well known other Queen from the south of the border, who resides in the big Palace, boy, did I have some explaining to do, but I did get the day off as long as I worked the extra time to make up my wages.
Not to worry, I was in there on the Fair Day proud as punch and guess who the Queen Elect that year was, none other than Miss Ruth Frank from Kinneil School.
Now the following year I lost interest in the Fair because my employment took me to such places as Stirling, Kippen, Grangemouth, Dumbarton, Falkirk, etc. And I can assure you there was nothing more soul destroying as leaving for your work to travel miles away from Bo’ness on a bright sunny Fair morning, listening to the pipers at their various meeting points, tuning their pipes, Carriden Band in the distance marching on to someone’s house rendering ” Morag’s Faery Glen “, then as I drove of of Bo’ness the floats would be arriving from all airts for the judging, didn’t it bring a lump to my throat? It did and I deny and Bo’nessian to say it wouldn’t to them either, but the funny thing was, wherever I was working on the Fair Day I always had time to reflect at 11am as to what I was missing, it’s amazing you know when you talk to other people about this they all say the same thing, no matter where they are in the world, whether it be working, or on holiday, or Bo’ness exiles living abroad the famous words come to mind “My it’s a braw day for the Bo’ness Fair”.
My next involvement with the Bo’ness Fair was in the very early seventies, when I became an employee of Bo’ness Town Council, taking up the post of an electrician. With David Cunningham having left the council to take up his post as entertainment officer with Falkirk Town Council, Harry Cameron was promoted to foreman electrician, and I was fortunate to take over as Harry’s understudy.
Being the council electrician also meant maintaining the street lighting system in Bo’ness and guess where the flags got tied to on the procession route at the Fair time, yes, the lamp-posts. So it was at this point I got my education from the Bo’ness public on where and where not to put up flags prior to the Fair Day. “Hoo come they’ve got flags in their street doon their and we’ve nae flags here” or “yer no pittin they scabby things up in oor street, it’s aboot time the council bought some new yins, whit were payin for rent and that’s tthe best ye can dae.” ” but missus I’m only doing my job just doing whit I wis told”. “Weel just get back doon off that lamp post and tell Sandy Phillips and a’ rest o’ the cooncillers we’re wanting new flags.” Obviously next year, new flags more the bunting type of today were introduced by Mr Renton the then Burgh Surveyor, much to the public’s delight, and even more to our delight as we were now heroes in the public’s eye, because we had new flags to put up.
Being a town council employee at that time meant it was your duty to the Council and the Bo’ness public to work without objection on the Fair Day, which I must add I did willingly, it was great to be in the midst of all the preparations, the build up, the sneak preview of the rehearsals on the Thursday morning and on the Fair E’en, watching the finishing touches being applied to the Council floats in the burgh yard, which would convey many fairies and flower girls on the Fair Day.
My dear friend Harry Cameron being the foreman electrician detailed our duties on the Fair morning. He would be in charge of the public address system in the Town Hall park during the crowning ceremony, and I, my first Fair as a council employee was to go in the plumber’s van with my drouthie cronie Willie Wallace and our mobile PA system, an amplifier, a huge microphone and two loudspeakers on the roof of the van. Our duties were to provide an information service to the public, liaise with the police and announce numbers of cars obstructing the Procession route and try to find the drivers and have them removed, our base was Kinglass Avenue and the road along the top of the Academy Park. I hadn’t seen the Fair for years as I said earlier on, as an apprentice I had worked out of town for years and never got the Fair Day off.
But this was fantastic the hustle, the bustle, everyone smiling, everyone happy wearing their new Fair claes and the weather, well brilliant sunshine from early morning onwards, I watched eagerly as the many many floats were judged who would get the big one this year? Would it be Balbardie, Glenmavis, Pow or would it be McLucas under the supervision of Willie McAllister again, the atmosphere was fantastic.
” Noo son ” said Willie Wallace, ” We go doon tae the Masonic Temple during the crowning and we’ll get a couple of pies, then after the crowning up to the park to pick up the PA System and set it up in the Douglas Park for Davie Cunningham to officiate at the afternoon’s ongouns.” Davie incidentally came back for the day to help with the commentary that was before John Stanners took over, prior to Douglas Snedden taking control as he still does to this day.
Now having set up the PA System for the afternoon’s entertainments Willie said, ” Right Son over tae the Redcroft Hotel for a wee snifter than along tae the Academy for oor lunch”. By the way the Council being beneficent society gave us our lunch free. By this time I was over the moon at the Fair Day, two pies, 2 Carlsberg specials, two whiskies and a free lunch what a Fair Day this was turning out to be.
After lunch I asked Willie, what do we do in the afternoon? to which he replied “Noo son back to the Douglas Park and we’ll park the van at the sign that says lost children and if anyone loses their wean or if anyone finds a lost wean they bring them here and we pit oot an announcement and hopefully they’ll pick up this lost bairn shortly.” There being a few stories to be told regarding this! But we always found the parents, whether it be in the park or elsewhere!!
Soon the afternoon’s entertainment was over, we packed up our gear, loaded it into the plumber’s van and back to the yard. I worked with the then Bo’ness Town Council for a few years after that and can honestly say I loved everyone of the Fair Days. The Town Council Yard, or Burgh Yard as it was better known then, was situated directly to the rear of Bo’ness Part-time Fire Station, in the Links Road. It wasn’t too difficult in 1972 to tell when there was a fire in the town because of the siren situated on top of the Fire Station which was sounded to alert the retained Firemen as to the fact that their services were required urgently.
If any of the maintenance or direct works employees were in the burgh yard at the time of the fire, it was customary to pop round to the Fire Station and find out where the fire was, if it was a council house, joiners, electricians and plumbers attended to make the property safe and secure and do what they could to help the family involved.
One day on the return of the firemen from a fire, I was approached by George Marshall, the Station Officer in Charge of Bo’ness Fire Station and told there was a vacancy for a fireman in the station if I was interested, and after consultation with my fiancee, Marian, I accepted eagerly. How many of you remember these marvellous summer evenings spent the week prior to the Fair called Foreshore Frolics. The people of Bo’ness would turn out in their hundreds night after night to watch the events , the piano smashing held on the foreshore, the quoits held on the green where the bus station is now, the gir race up Market Street for children and adults alike, the pram race round the town, only to mention a few of the events, all under the watchful eye of the organisers Messer’s McLucas, McFarlane, Smith, Frank etc., to name but a few. Then the Fair Clay Pigeon Shoot was held on the Sunday before the Fair, on the foreshore, opposite the now old burgh chambers, where the tourist information office now is.
Our Fire Station training nights were held on a Wednesday evening and as it was the Foreshore Frolics, we were obliged to send a crew and fire engine along to Bo’ness Harbour and put on a display of our fire fighting skills, this usually ended up by shooting foam all over the harbour and generally finishing with soaking all the spectators with water. Not much skill, but in the spirit of the Fair all good fun. But let’s not forget the torchlight procession, held every year on the Fair E’en. Carriden Band would leave from Bridgeness Club with their supporters, and Kinneil Band would leave from Kinneil Club with their followers and everyone would arrive at the Harbour area in the town at midnight and all the torches were thrown on to a huge bonfire.
Sadly my dear respected friend George Marshall died in March of this year. I know how much he loved the Fair and in particular the Brass Bands, “Morag’s Faery Glen” was rendered many a time in the Fire Engine on return from a call out, whether the time of year had been the Fair E’en, Hallowe’en, or New Year’s E’en. Happy, happy memories indeed.
Marian and I were married in 1974 whilst I was still a Town Council employee, but by this time I was a little unsettled and moved my allegiance to Ballantines Foundry as a maintenance electrician, and guess what the Fiar Day was a public holiday, now at last since leaving school an official Fair Day off. But believe it or not Mr Ballantine approached me prior to the Fair week, “Colin”, he said, “We need to put up some flags outside the foundry here’s a cheque, pop through to Edinburgh and buy some, and, when you come back just put them up”. Here we go again, just left the Town Council and what am I doing, putting up flags again, HIP, HIP, HOORAY!
In 1982 my mother-in-law Gweneth Cochrane was honoured to be asked by David Brown to crown Queen Lesley Anne Culbert, a day in her life she still fondly talks about to this day. Marian and I remember it well, along with next door neighbour Dan Wright, we were in charge of the refreshments in the back garden at the house in Dean Road after Kinneil Band had paid their traditional early morning visit and entertained us with their musical skills, Marian’s sister, being very musically gifted composed a short piece of music dedicated to her mother, which Kinneil Band rehearsed and played to Gweneth on the Fair morning. A very proud lady went on that morning to crown the Queen.
I am now settling into the family business and guess what, it’s Fair time again and you’ll never believe this, being the local undertakers, we received a letter from the Fair Committee, can we please no,…..no,….. please not do the flags , but supply a car or two on the Fair Day to uplift the Queen Elect, Page Boys, Ex Queen and the Chief Lady and supply a car for the officials to travel in the Procession route, who will drive the car? Like a flash…. I’ll do it dad.
I am an undertaker now and besides, I’ve experience of this type of thing before ( but I didn’t mention Willie Wallace and the plumber’s van ).
I have driven the official car on the Fair Day every year expect on two or three occasions since 1983 and wouldn’t miss it for the world, it’s like being back with the Town Council, the atmosphere, the cheering crowds, the wee children waving their flags on the happiest day of the year.
People often say to me, ” Colin, you certainly looked happy on the Fair Day driving that car through the town smiling and waving at everyone “, and the car is driven through the town by drivers with very serious faces due to the business purposes of the vehicles, and I can assure you this one day alone you don’t know what it’s like to use the car for a happy occasion. HIP! HIP!.
It’s fun on the Fair morning picking up the Page Boys and taking them to the Queen Elect’s school. Almost every year whilst the Page Boys are sitting lost amidst the vast expanse of the back seat of the limousine, whispering to each other, a wee voice pipes up “Mister”, or if they are from the Grange School it’s ” Mr Cuthell “, Yes sonny, what is it?” An the usual question comes forth ” Is this the motor you use for the funerals”, Yes son but not today”, (I hope ).
After a great Fair day it’s back to the garage with the car, remove the Bo’ness ” SINE METU ” pennant from bonnet, take out the flowers from the back window and prepare the car it’s more serious duties the following morning.
It’s amazing you know how much difference a few weeks makes to the confidence of young children. It’s mid August now and the Fair Committee have requested the use of the limousine at the Falkirk Family Day. So off we go again with a much more mature Queen, Chief Lady and the Page Boys. First stop Falkirk Town Hall Car Park, where we are to be placed in order of procession for the grand parade of Gala Day Queens throughout Falkirk, and on to Callander Park to be introduced in the arena to the assembled crowds. Now on the arrival at the Town Hall in Falkirk the organiser always asks which Gala Day are you representing, before I can answer a cluster of voices from the back of the limousine remind him politely, “NONE!, we’re from the Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival”. Well done children.
We take our place in the procession amongst, the, as they say, ” Gala Day Queens ” and wait a good half hour for the procession to start. I can assure you when that car drives into Callander Park into the centre of the arena and receives the applause of the thousands of people gathered there, we hear the intimation over the PA System say ” And now we welcome the Queen, her Chief lady in Waiting and her Page Boys of the oldest and probably the finest of all children’s days in Scotland, if not the whole of the UK, Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival. Oh dear, the lump is in the back of the throat again. It’s our town, our children, our history the commentator is referring to. Am I proud? That’s an understatement.
In 1990 Marian and I were fair chuffed when our daughter Michelle came home one February lunch time from the public school and announced that she had been chosen to be a fairy. Paul announced that he had been chosen as a presentee in South Pacific. Paul was in the class which supplied the Queen’s retinue in 1992. Unfortunately Marian was recovering from a serious illness in Falkirk Royal Infirmary when Paul walked in so proudly to tell his mum he had been chosen to be the Sword Bearer at the forth coming Fair. What a tonic!! Something to look forward to and I’m sure every parent whose child had been chosen as a character at the Fair will agree when I say, we’re proud of our own, regardless of how big or small a part our children have on the Fair Day. I defy any parent who says they haven’t a tear in their eye or a lump in their throat when they watched their child on the platform in the Glebe Park on the Fair Day. I did, I am not afraid to admit it.
Michelle after Paul once again was picked as a Presentee in ‘Country Style’, the theme from the Public School that year. When your son or daughter is nominated as a choice fro the Fair Day, the lady of the house is delighted to organise the costume, and the man of the house has the privilege of organising the arch or house frontage. In all I constructed four separate house frontages at our home, the preparation starting in April, constructing piece by piece this thing that would adorn the front garden on the Fair morning. What a delight it was the week of the Fair working away in the evenings watching the efforts of the past months come together and every year Marian would say ” This is ridiculous, this house frontage is twice the size you said it would be.” I got a wee bit carried away sometimes. But never the less on the Fair E’en, Linlithgow Reed Band would march up Jeffrey Bank and honour us with their presence and entertain us, at which point friends, neighbours and locals alike would join in the evening’s festivities and participate in some liquid refreshment before the band marched off to their next Fair E’en engagement.
After all my efforts I may add, nothing gave me so much pleasure as to sit on my neighbours wall opposite my house late on the Fair E’en, when all was quiet and admire the finished article, a feeling of satisfaction and contentment, and, in a small way, help to the successful continuation of the Bo’ness Fair.
If I may at this point quote part of a speech made a few years ago by Monsignor Brennan, now a retired Priest, formerly of St Mary’s RC Church, Bo’ness a speech he made at an induction service in Bo’ness Old Kirk attended by many members of the clergy and public alike, when he said, “As an incomer to the town I notice many people in and around the town of Bo’ness criticise the Fair fro the effort, the time and at times the expense that goes into constructing arches and house frontages and making the Fair Day in general a success. But remember as an incomer I also notice that without the Fair Day, there would not be this community spirit where everyone gets involved, for several weeks prior to the Fair and help their neighbours, friends, or just the person in the street, a time when people of different denominations come together and friends are made and so are lasting friendships.” Hear Hear! Truer words never spoken. How many times have you said I’ll just go and give so and so a wee hand and get all involved.
On closing I would say to all the parents of the children involved in the preparation for this year’s Fair and the future Fairs Days, when you are building your arch or house frontage or the dress making is not going well, you are down in the dumps, there is still a lot of hard work to do, stop,…think…AND REMEMBER RAIN, HAIL OR SHINE, IT’S ALL FOR THE CHILDREN…Have a lovely Fair Day.
COLIN J. CUTHELL