The earliest mention of “the fair” almost takes us back to the start of the last millennium. During the reign of King David I in the 12th Century, Queensferry had the status of a burgh town and as such was allowed the privilege of holding a weekly market and an annual fair.
King David II, son of Robert Bruce reaffirmed confirmation of this right in 1364, when he granted a charter verifying the Burgh’s rights. This charter is now preserved in the town’s museum where it can still be seen today.
Not much is known about the early fair days, but by the 1600s records show that the annual fair was held from 25th July – St. James Day – for eight days. The fair was centred at the mercat cross and from there the various stalls and traders would fill the High Street. The Mercat cross has long since disappeared but it is believed to have stood either in the vicinity of where the Rosebery Hall is now built or at the Bellstane. All manner of goods would have been available from cows to candles so it is easy to imagine the High Street lined with stalls, bustling with activity, attracting crowds of visitors and traders to the town.
The fair started at 12 noon officially although the local dignitaries such as the burgesses and members of the Town Council had to be up and dressed in their best finery by 7a.m. in order to ride the fair.
Over the centuries the annual fair has not been without incident. In 1628 an unfortunate customs officer from Linlithgow came to collect the custom money of all the yearly markets within the Sheriffdom – including Queensferry. The inhabitants of the town took exception to this as by the rights of the Charters of 1576 and 1627 Queensferry was entitled the customs from her markets. A riot ensued and the customs officer was fatally injured. Although it was decided later in Court that he had died of natural causes, the town council was still fined £800.
Plague raged through Scotland in 1645 and it was thought the illness could be contracted through handling contaminated wool. As a result no wool was allowed to be sold in the town and the annual fair that year was cancelled.
In 1726, despite a decline in trade, the town council spent a considerable amount of money preparing for the annual fair. £6.11s 6d were spent on items such as repairing the drum, purchasing shoes as a prize for the burgh race and buying ribbons to decorate the bailies saddle.
A worried Town Council in 1820 heard that workmen from the Union Canal who had appeared armed at the race and had carried off one of the prizes had disrupted the fair in Kirkliston. Rumour had it that the Ferry fair could suffer the same fate so Queensferry citizens were sworn in as special constables to prevent any trouble.
Perhaps such excitement prompted a change to the format of the festivities for in 1930 it was decided to incorporate a children’s festival into the fair.
The queen, Emily McBain, was chosen from the oldest class at Queensferry Junior Secondary school and the fair was now held in August. During the 1930’s a tableau of the Burning of the Witches – part of Queensferry’s darker past – was performed during the fair.
During the years of the Second World War the annual fair was stopped but it resumed again in 1947 with Leonora Berry as queen.
In 1961, owing to the building work taking place at West terrace and the Loan, it was decided that the crowning ceremony should take place in the car park and that the Burgh races would run from the old Burgh boundary at Bank Buildings to the Bellstane and finish in front of the platform at the Council Chambers.
In recent times flower girls and pageboys have been added to the queen’s retinue along with the symbolic replica ship which carries Queen, later Saint Margaret, her brother Edgar and princesses Agatha and Christina. They are joined in the procession by colourful floats representing local organisations and are led through the town by the Town Crier John ‘The Rogue’ Robertson.
As in times gone by, the High Street on Fair day is once more a bustling colourful place to be.
Much of the information used in this page came from Dr. J. Mason’s book – “History of Queensferry”. We would also like to thank George Brown, Seonaid Mackay, Lyla Martin, Mr McLucas and Mrs Catherine Kelly for giving us their photographs of past Ferry Fair days.
Some memories of the Fair
“Emily McBain was the first Ferry Fair Queen in 1930. Jimmy Davidson was the Provost then, his wife crowned her. That was when we had it in the main street, just at the side of the Town Hall.
“We used to have the greasy pole there as well. When the greasy pole was there, it wisnae two flags at the top, it was a bag of flour and a chicken or a ham, and when they got to the top they pulled the string off the bag to prove they were there. That happened one year when the inspector of the police, Inspector Robertson, was standing there, and he got the flour all over him.
“Everybody joined in, Kate McKay, a great auld character used to have a go at the greasy pole, the men would all get on top of each other on their shoulders, then get Kate as high as she could. Jimmy Pryde used to donate the ham but during the First World War they couldn’t get a ham so they had to kill one of his ducks instead; the daughters cried when they killed the duck. There was also a greasy pole in the harbour at regatta time.
“The first year I saw the Burry Man I burst out crying. I was really petrified of him. He walks about with his legs apart, rather him than me! He’s supposed to ward off the evil spirits, but he’s getting a bad job now since the town’s expanded.”
Extracted from Queensferry History Group’s first publication “Doon the Ferry”.