2006 – Are You Going To The Fair?

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I can’t remember the first time I was asked that question. I can, however, remember the first time I came to Bo’ness, over thirty years ago. My brother was playing amateur football and I came to watch one of his games in Bo’ness. The only things I knew about Bo’ness were that it was near Grangemouth and that it had a famous event known as Bo’ness Fair.

As we travelled through Grangemouth to Bo’ness it became very foggy. The visibility was extremely poor as we approached the town along the bottom road, past Kinneil Colliery. The town was very quiet, there weren’t many people around, everything seemed very gloomy and dull that day. Then, on the side of a large building, I spotted a large advertisement with a glass of champagne. It looked really out of place on such a damp, miserable day but it managed to lift our mood a little. I later discovered the building was a night club called ‘McTavishes’ or ‘La Fabrique’. I went there some time later with friends to see a comedian called Bobby Knutt. It’s a funny spelling of his name but I can’t remember anything funny about his act.

We continued through the town then up a hill to the football pitch. I now know that the game was played on the pitch out at the Murrays (or Muirhouses if you prefer). As the game started, the fog got thicker and it started to rain. Maybe my memory is playing tricks but I also remember a fog horn sounding. Our cheery day was completed when my brother’s team was soundly beaten. We made our way home disappointed but with respect for the footballing abilities of the Bo’ness team.

Soon after I was offered a job at Bo’ness Academy and I was invited to visit the school in the summer of 1977. I was travelling by public transport from my home in Bannockburn. I went by bus to Falkirk then caught another bus to Bo’ness. I didn’t know where the Academy was but someone told me it was up the top of the town. I thought Bo’ness was a fairly small place so I decided to get off the bus as soon as it came into the town then walk up the hill to find the school. However, this meant that I got off the bus at the bottom of the Snab Brae. I had a few hills to climb before I got to the school – late, harassed and more than a little embarrassed. Not the way to create a good first impression! Fortunately, I had already been given the job and started in August, 1977.

Although I can’t be sure, I guess that the first time I was asked the question ‘Are you going to the Fair?’ would be sometime in February, 1978. I say this because it is normally around this time of the year when the Fair Queen is chosen and people’s thoughts start to turn to the Fair Day. Although I have been asked the question many times since, I have never been quite sure what is meant by ‘going to the Fair’.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

Does this mean going out on Fair E’en, walking the Arches, meeting friends and acquaintances (some of whom you only meet once a year on the Fair E’en)? I always really enjoy Fair E’en. Gardens in the town have been prepared to look their best, new curtains in the windows, and steak pies ordered. There is a great sense of expectation and preparation. Ladies young and old preparing their Fair Day hair curlers, straighteners and colours. Gentlemen young and old are preparing their Fair Day hair zig zags. Tramlines and plenty gel. It’s also a first opportunity to see the arches and house frontages and, as the light fades, many of them are brought to life through imaginative lighting effects.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

Maybe it means the Fair morning, up bright and early, everyone dressed in their ‘Fair claes’, busily going about their business, making arrangements, meeting up with friends, keeping a close eye on the weather. For me, it means a seven o’clock start to the judging of the house frontages. Last year over sixty house frontages, major and minor, were entered for judging digital cameras certainly have their uses. Over the years, the creativity shown in designing and constructing arches and house frontages has never waned. The quality of construction was demonstrated last year when the arches and frontages withstood the ravages of the worst of weather on the Fair E’en and yet were still able to put on a memorable display on the Fair Day.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

This could mean going to the Coronation ceremony at the Glebe Park. This is a great setting for the crowning. The Town Hall is a great back drop and the Glebe Park forms a natural amphitheatre. The views up the River Forth towards Stirling and the Highlands are stunning.

As the crowds gather from early in the morning, there is a huge sense of anticipation in the park. The participants arrive in great splendour taking their places, one by one, on the stage. The whole event takes place with such precision, the culmination of months of planning and years of experience, leading to the crowning itself at 11am in bright sunshine!

I have not been able to attend the Coronation for a number of years. At 11am, we are usually looking for frontages around the Kinneil Estate or trying to find a house in Pennelton Place or Liddle Drive, I’ve never been able to work out the house numbering system there! I particularly enjoy going around Deanburn primary School as they always put up shields with my initials, making me feel very welcome. This is a nice touch but certainly does not influence the judging!

The streets of Bo’ness are very quiet, deserted, at this time; everyone is down at the Glebe Park. However, no matter where you are in Bo’ness you can follow the proceedings from afar. The public address system allows you to hear the commentary, the music and, of course the cheering of the crowd does not need the assistance of any public address system.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

Going to the Fair would not be complete without watching the procession. Everyone rushes to their favourite vantage point to watch bands, the primary schools, the floats.

It’s also an opportunity to shout, cheer, wave at anyone you know (or don’t know) in the procession and to practise your spelling of the Primary school names.

By this time, I am normally back at the Academy with the other judges. It’s time to check over our notes and look through the photographs before we come to a decision about making the awards. I cannot remember a year when this has been an easy exercise and I don’t suppose it ever will be. However, once the decisions have been made, we’re off to pin certificates on frontages and post prizes through letter boxes. This is more difficult than it sounds. Firstly, you have to get to the house with the procession now under way and many streets closed. Having got to the house and pinned the certificate, you have to find the letter box not always easy behind a frontage. On one occasion, we resorted to putting the prize envelope under a plant pot. We later heard it was not discovered until the autumn when the pot was being emptied for the winter.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

Another important part of Fair Day is the Command Performance in the afternoon. After a quick lunch and, if you are lucky a quick nap, it’s off to the Douglas Park to see the Presentees strut their stuff once more and to be entertained by acts from near and far. It’s also a chance to slide down an aerial runway, jump about a bouncy castle, buy a plastic sword, spray your hair orange and eat a bag of candy floss. If none of these appeal you can always just soak up the sunshine in the company of friends and family.

As the crowd shuffles out of the Douglas Park at the end of the Command Performance, I suppose the end of the Official Fair is drawing near. The reception in the Town Hall is still to take place where, as in houses all over Bo’ness, people will reflect on how the day has gone and already make tentative plans for the next Fair. The Fair celebrations, however, are far from over. Parties, barbecues, karaoke’s all take place on fair night and the days to follow.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

There is one last bit of Fair Day for me. It’s not part of the official programme of events, and not part of everyone’s routine but Fair Day would not be these same without it. It’s a trip to the shows. After a bit to eat, we make our way to the foreshore to have a walk round the shows. I say a walk round because the chances of me going on any of the rides are pretty remote. The real reason for going is to make sure the Fair Day experience is complete. In the preceding twenty four hours, there may be somebody you haven’t met or spoken to, maybe your face isn’t completely sunburnt (or weather beaten) from earlier in the day, maybe you’ve lost the flag you were waving this morning, maybe you’re not completely exhausted or maybe you’ve still got some money in your pocket! All of these can be remedied during an hour at the fairground.

Although the Fair is drawing to a close for another year, it’s still worth having a wander round the town on the days after the Fair. You will meet other people doing the same, looking at arches and house frontages they missed the first time around, remembering the events of the Fair Day just past and Fair Days from years past. If you’re lucky you may even stumble across a ‘Wee Fair’ where communities in the town get together to organise their own version of Fair day.

It’s worth wandering around Bo’ness at any time of the year. I was fortunate to attend the opening of the Town Heritage Initiative offices a few months ago. As part of the proceedings groups were taken on a brief walk round the town centre. We were encouraged to look more closely at some of the buildings we pass by regularly without so much as a second glance. When you take time to look around and look up, you can see a number of attractive buildings in a variety of different architectural styles. There are engravings, gable ends and many other interesting features which can go unnoticed as people rush about their daily lives. There are many exciting developments planned for Bo’ness which will reflect its long history but also help Bo’ness develop in this new century.

The future looks bright for Bo’ness and I am sure the town and Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival (I thought I would finish with its Sunday name) will go from strength to strength. It is genuinely an event for the children and it brings together the community not just for twenty four hours but throughout the year.

‘Are you going to the Fair?’

I certainly am! Hope to see you there, have a great Fair Day!

DAVID PROVAN

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