All the fun of the fair with S.R.Crockett by Cally Phillips
With August, the holiday mood (if not the weather) sets in. It is the season of country shows. On 5th August there is the Wigtown Show, on the 6th the Stewartry Show and on 22nd/23rd The Galloway Country Fair. These are all key points in the D&G Calendar, but they have a history too. ‘Fair’ days, along with ‘feeing’ markets have a long history in rural Scotland and Crockett writes of them in many of his Galloway based works. Today’s shows are quite different from those of old, and for a history of fairs and feeing markets in Kirkcubrightshire you can go to http://www.old-kirkcudbright.net/papers/fairs.asp which gives a good historical background.

Stewartry Show 2014

While we may think history and tradition are always with us, unchanging; with the threat of the passing of the Rood Fair in Dumfries, ( Main Photo) historically held on the Whitesands in September you can see that if we don’t keep such things alive at least in pictures and narrative, we lose something of our cultural history for future generations. And that’s one reason why I’m interested in Crockett’s writing about fairs and how he weaves them into various of his narratives. Let’s call it preservation or conservation of our cultural past. I’d like to share a some of them here:
In ‘Raiderland’ he writes of The Castle Douglas September Fair (note the date has moved over the years) giving some handy tips to ‘scrumpers’ : There is not much to see in Dalbeattie itself, except one of the cleanest and most pleasant little towns in Scotland, a navigable river, very like a Dutch canal, a ridgy hill which from a distance seems to have exploded volcanically, like Krakatoa or the Japanese Bandai-san. There are, however, many pleasant walks, wooded and quiet. Above all there is an admirable hazel-wood a little way along the line-side towards Castle-Douglas. The nuts are ripe about the time of the Castle-Douglas September Fair, and you will probably be chased out by the keepers. Only on one occasion did I quite escape their vigilance. The best way is to run for the railway line, get over the fence and make faces at them. If the surfacemen inquire who you are, remember to say that you are the son (or other immediate relative) of the Traffic Superintendent. These very practical points are added in order to increase the usefulness of the book. Mr. William Maxwell, of the Glasgow Scotsman office, will bear me witness that they proved most valuable in our time. Thus from generation to generation pearls of information are passed on. And if we seniors can add to their happiness by a little thing like that, the rising generation will surely call us blessed.’

And in ‘Rogues’ Island,’ which is a loose autobiography of Crockett’s own last youthful summer in Galloway before heading off to University, there is a more extensive description of the Castle Douglas Fair (CD is fictionalised as Cairn Edward) – though it’s set at the end of June to fit in with his narrative. (‘Rogues’ Island’ is one of the seven books to be published next month as The Rainbow Crockett – see the Galloway Raiders site for more information)
‘The Fair was held all up and down the High Street of Cairn Edward, from one end to the other. But the main influx of ‘shows’ was about the foot of the town, in a triangular spot, on one side of which rose the big freestone block of houses called ‘Willie’s Rents.’ It was currently reported that Willie got quite an income from the showfolk – Professor Pepper’s scientific adventure in the centre, Jackson’s ‘Temple of Melodrama’ on the right, and a semi-circle of miscellaneous peepshows on the left – in which, at the price of one penny a round, you could see all the cities of the earth and their glories, uniformly coloured red, blue, and yellow – especially red. It was a sanguinary sight and to our young minds somehow smelt of battle, murder, and sudden death. We felt brave when we came out.
But it was early in the morning, between four and six, when the sight took place which we never missed – the allocation of the ‘stances’ on the main street to the ‘sweetie-wives.’ The places of the shows were all more or less arranged beforehand. They were Willie’s peculiar fief, and he was even said to collect the money – which is just possible, seeing that Willie of the Freestone Rents was also Sheriff’s Officer. But the favourite spots for ‘stands’ were not on Willie’s property or even within smell of his demesnes.
At the corner of the Cross there met four streets and also four country roads serving four several country parishes. Here, more than elsewhere, the heat of battle waxed and waned. The voices of the sweetie-wives mounted most shrilly, while poles destined to support rickety boards, unwholesome ‘candies,’ and brimstone coloured rabbits with currant eyes, were suborned from their real position and used freely upon the heads and shoulders of rivals and encroachers.
Whence these women came was a standing wonder. Their appearance, which was red-faced, primitive, warlike – their vocabulary, which was ornamental and full of epithets, metaphors and comparisons, most of which ere odourous and all odious – their strident voices and windmill arms – brought us out of our beds at four in the morning, for the laudable purpose of extending our experience of the sex.
You could hear them long before you got to High Street. I knocked up Penley who lived at the corner, but he came out in a moment like a Jack-in-the-Box, completely dressed. He had not only sewed up his own pocket, but been through those of his sleeping brother on the look out for the missing sixpence. He was a bit down-hearted at not finding it. But the noise, as of a nest of jackdaws quarrelling, set both of us off running towards the High Street as hard as we could.’

This paints an excellent picture of a time long past. And shows how well Crockett writes of childhood. He continues:

‘…But for us – oh, the happiness of that day! There was a dive home now and again for a ‘piece,’ but no regular meals were thought of. All the time a fellow was eating there rang in his ears the ‘thud-thud-thud’ of the drum calling to yet another, another performance.
Lord Edward John’s Great and Unique Circus was on the common down by the loch, and from it came the most appalling roars and fierce sounds of wild animals. There were also flecked ponies which, in the intervals of the performance, went peacefully down to drink, and young persons with tousled hair, aired themselves at the stage-doors, who would presently become crowned and bediamonded princesses of the ring. By the Isle Wood an elephant was browsing peacefully, or at least cooling his feet among the marshy grasses. Once he blew a spray of water from his trunk over his back. And Penley and I felt that the world had nothing better to give – that is, for nothing.

Carlingwalk loch
Carlingwalk loch

In the publication ‘Old Castle Douglas’ by Alasdair Penman (who I think may be a descendent of ‘Penley’, Crockett’s boyhood friend Andrew Penman) there is a photograph of an elephant in Carlingwark Loch – a sight Crockett himself must have seen. The picture and the narrative give testament to something we might never imagine.

Something we can all probably remember is being children with limited funds, having to make decisions on what to spend it on at fairs. Crockett was no different: ‘We had soon spent all our money, or at least most of it – that is to say the four of us – Penley, FitzGeorge, Kilpatrick and myself – I will tell you about Kilpatrick another time. I forgot about him when I started. But he was of our squad that day, and was the only one of the four in funds.
We liked him very much, and made him turn out his pockets.’

Money being short, Crockett goes on to give a very funny description of how they try to get into the show tent without paying.

‘…The problem was this. The admittance to the Great and Unique Circus (and Menagerie) of Lord Edward John was sixpence per boy. But then there were only three clear sixpences among four of us – for the other one (which made the two shillings) did not belong to Kilpatrick. He had no part or lot in it. We told him so, and added that if he went on shaking his head from side to side like that, we would steady it for him. We quoted all we could remember about Ananias and Sapphira, but he declined to see the point. This, however, did not matter, so long as we had the sixpence.’

Crockett also writes of the Orraland Fair. In actuality Orroland is set between Dundrennan and Auchencairn. It features in several of his novels including ‘The Dark o’ the Moon’ and in ‘The Smugglers,’ Crockett renames Auchencairn as ‘Orraland’ (perhaps a play on the phrase ‘orra’ man) The novel opens with the hero Paul Wester meeting the gypsy Zipporah Katti at the Orraland Fair. Smuggling and romance are a powerful combination in a story and ‘The Smugglers’ does not disappoint. He writes: ‘Yet it was the day of Orraland Fair. All the Green was one big hurly-burly. There, frontispieced by appalling pictures and a real brass band, was Professor Pepper’s Original Ghost Illusion. Then came Lord Tommy’s Monster Circus—a ringmaster, a clown, a lady who did tumbling and took the money at the door, a cornet and a drummer, besides an imposing young person in spangles who jumped through hoops.’
Set around Auchencairn and Orchardton, ‘The Smugglers’ is a little known book but a must read for anyone interested in the area and its smuggling past.
So perhaps this month, if you go to any of the shows you’ll think back to days gone by and imagine the Galloway Fairs as they were a century and more ago. We are all part of the timeline of history after all. Next month I’ll be posting about The Rainbow Crockett, the new publications coming out for Crockett’s birthday. See you then.
And here’s some useful links:
Galloway Raiders www.gallowayraiders.co.uk
All Crockett books mentioned are available direct from the Galloway Raiders online store in paperback and digital formats, with discounts for Galloway Raiders members.
Fairs and Feeing Markets in Kirkcudbright http://www.old-kirkcudbright.net/papers/fairs.asp
Old Castle Douglas photos on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DGWGO/posts/113133545505143

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