The Fair’s Origins

The origins of Queensferry’s annual fair lie as far back as the 13th century. By that time the convent of Dunfermline had established itself as a Regality, having jurisdiction over all its lands, including Queensferry and the ferry passage. The Abbot, as Lord of Regality, had powers delegated to him by the Crown in all civil and criminal matters, except treason. The abbot kept the customs paid oil merchandise exported from his lands while the custom on imports belonged to the King until 1328, when Robert I granted them to Dunfermline. By the early 14th century, to promote trade and industry, the Abbot had raised Queensferry to the status of a burgh town, along with Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh – the four ‘burghs of Regality’. In fact, the lawys of the Burghis of Scotland’ had been written as early as the 12th century, during the reign of David I. Burgh status allowed the town to enjoy the privilege of a weekly market and an annual fair – the ‘Ferry Fair’. In 1364 David II, Robert Bruce’s son, granted a charter confirming the Burgh’s rights. This charter, after a long and interesting history, is preserved in Queensferry museum. The lands of Queensferry belonged to the Abbot of Dunfermline until 1576 when Robert the Commendator, granted them to the Burgh Council, baillies and inhabitants. This charter was confirmed by King Charles in 1627 and again in 1636, when for the annual sum of 28 shillings, the town was erected into a Royal Burgh and free port. We know that in the 1680- 1690’s the annual fair was held from St. James day (25th July) for eight days, along the High Street and around the market cross which stood in the area now known as the Bellstane. The fair was proclaimed in Kirkliston and Linlithgow, and elsewhere, that “all persons may bring all sorts of wares and commodities to be sold”. The cost for erecting a booth was £12 Scots for covered stands and £8 for each uncovered. The fair started at 12 noon, but all the burgesses, by command of the Council, were required to attend the baillies at 7 a.m., dressed in their best clothes, including their walking swords, ‘in order to ryde the fair’. Those who failed to attend were fined £14, and anyone without a sword – £7 Scots.

We also know that the fair was not just about market trading. In 1726 there had been great preparations made – “The drum had been supplied with a new ‘head, and new cords (£1 11s). James Alexander, the tailor had mended the colours. The Town Officer travelled to Edinburgh to purchase.

In more recent times it was decided to incorporate a children’s festival into the fair. A Queen was chosen by her peers in the oldest class at Queensferry Junior Secondary school. The first Queen, in 1930, was Emily McBain and the fair was held in August of that year. This format was carried through until 1939 but was discontinued during the years of the Second World War.

In 1947 the Fair was started again with Leonora Berry as the chosen Queen. The ex-Queen was Pat McMahon, then aged 21. Although she was a grown woman by this time, she was honoured to take part in the ceremony with the schoolchildren. In 1960’s it was decided to choose the queen from the primary schools as difficulties had arisen in persuading the ex-queens, then aged 15+ and working, to take part in a children’s festival. Since these days flower girls and page boys have been added to the Queen’s retinue. Floats carrying fancy dressed members of local organisations have been another welcome addition and the symbolic replica ship bearing Queen, later Saint, Margaret with her brother Edgar and princesses Agatha and Christina makes a historical addition to the parade. The colourful character leading the parade is the local Town Crier, John “The Rogue” Robertson.

Previously the position was held for many years by Willie Lamond who was better known to all as “Killiecrankie”. He was in fact retained by the local Town Council as Town Crier and “cried” public meetings, public disasters and anything else that had to be brought to the notice of local people in the days when only the police and doctors had a telephone.

Extract from History of Queensferry, by Dr J Mason, Queensferry. 1963