Is this the quirkiest town in Britain?

This town has an abandoned harbour, lost-in-time cafes, a train junkyard, old-world cinema and an astonishing annual fair. You’ve probably never heard of it (unless you live in central Scotland).

When you visit this town you know you’re still in Scotland, yet you seem to have slipped into some strange parallel universe and it’s not always certain you can return home. Even half its name has disappeared down the crack of a hyphen.

Bo’ness is a pleasant town with a pleasing sense of disorder to its old winding streets. It’s dramatically situated on a hillside overlooking the Firth of Forth. The sweeping views include the smoking, flaring chimneys and towers of Grangemouth Refinery; the closed Longannet power station and the picturesque 16th century time capsule of Culross on the other side of the Forth.

History-wise, it’s noted for its links to the Roman period and marks the eastern end of the Antonine Wall which stretched from Bo’ness to Old Kilpatrick on the west coast of Scotland. In the grounds of its local stately home, Kinneil House, James Watt worked on his experimental steam engine which was to revolutionise the industrial world. The name Bo’ness is a contraction of Borrowstounness, which can be traced back to the Old English for “Beornweard’s farmstead”, a nearby hamlet. Its wealth was made from coal but the town suffered steep decline in the middle half of the 1900s.

The first time we came to Bo’ness, we watched 1925’s silent classic move, The Hands of Orlac, showing at the Hippodrome Cinema as part of the Bo’ness’s annual Silent Film Festival. Opened in 1912, the Hippodrome is the oldest picture house in Scotland. The storyline of the film had a world-famous pianist losing both his hands in an accident. When new hands are grafted on, he doesn’t know they once belonged to a murderer. The performance was accompanied by live improvised music, taking you back to what it was like watching a film in the 1920s.

We stumbled out of 1920s cinema and onto the sunny streets of Bo’ness with their strange shop front displays and old-fashioned nostalgic cafes with plastic table cloths, net curtains, bunting and sturdy mugs. Bo’ness hadn’t finished messing with our time filters yet. As we crossed the railway line, an old steam train chuffed past us, its passengers enjoying a cream tea. The train came from the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway Museum, which includes a station straight out of the 1940s, and a junkyard full of engines, carriages and other related train junk, all in varying degrees of decay and renovation.
But all of this was nothing compared to our visit to see the jaw-dropping sights of the Bo’ness Fair Festival.

A brief history of the Bo’ness Fair Festival

The fair’s origins were not born out of traditional riding ceremonies, folklore or ancient cattle fairs. It started with the “drunken orgy” of local coal miners.
In 1774 a law was passed to forbid the thirling of miners and their families, a system of virtual slavery handed down the generations.

To celebrate their new liberty, the Bo’ness miners staged their first fair. On their only holiday of the year, the miners walked from Bo’ness out to Kinneil House, the home of the Duke of Hamilton, who owned many of the local pits. They were provided with whisky before walking back to Bo’ness, making frequent stops for refreshments. There were horse races on the foreshore of the Firth and the pubs stayed open as long as the miners were spending money. On Monday their holiday was over, they returned the pits, no doubt with the mother of all hangovers and post-party black dog.

The pageantry came later in 1897 when a Queen was first chosen and children became more involved in the day. The new fair is a mix of brass bands, a fairground, songs and dances, a crowning ceremony in a packed park. Aside from the Queen, there’s an assortment of ladies and lords in waiting, a Queen’s Champion, pages and fairies selected from the local schools. The most astonishing element of the fair is ‘going round the arches’, fantastic temporary constructions that spring up in the gardens, housing estates and alleyways of Bo’ness.

This is the thing about the fair. They spent a huge amount of time, effort and money to put on a show essentially for each other. It didn’t matter whether there were visitors or not. Everyone was friendly but it was a serious business. We are Bonessians. This is what we do. There were the old ladies who sat on chairs on the pavement for a prime view of the procession, just like they did every year, and offered us tea in their small community hall. There was the couple who told us about the eye-watering expenses for the families of the children involved. There were the locals stopped in the street who guided us on.

This year was the theme of Harry Potter. The scale and detail of this creation was astounding, reflecting months of community effort, fundraising and building. We only found the arches by asking people. There was no map because everyone just knew.

After the procession, the sun was over the yardarm and the town was now in serious drink mode, the first discordant notes of drunkenness stating to appear amongst the pageantry and music. The pubs roared and the fairground was in full merry noisy swing. Drunken teenagers were falling, flopping, twisting, shrieking and cursing just like their miner descendants of the old Fair days. Security guards tried in vain to stop them taking drink onto the rides. Hogarth would have a field day drawing this Fair: an old British scene with a fair, a pub, a brass band and an undertone of coming fights.

It was time to leave. Time to see if Bo’ness will allow us to return through the cracks to Scotland 2018. There’s good reason to return. There are 1950s events and a motor museum that seems to share the same building as the funeral directors.

How very Bo’ness.

Undiscovered Scotland: Bo’ness

Know a quirky or strange place? Would love to hear your suggestions below!

31 thoughts on “Is this the quirkiest town in Britain?

  1. This is awesome! I love small festivals like this and I have never heard of Bo’ness so it is a pleasure to read about it with you. 😀

    The UK is full of so much madness and fun!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for the very balanced article on Bo’ness. I moved here two years ago from N Ireland. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I have found Bo’ness to be a very friendly, unpretentious place to live. The locals are very grounded and approachable. The town centre still struggles with retail customer leakage to the surrounding larger towns and this inhibits its improvement but I try to buy local where possible. The Fair Day was a surprise, especially the Harry Potter themed one in our first months here.
        Bo’ness is a very green town with several public parks and plenty of places to walk, even easy access to the sea and the John Muir Way which passes along its coastline. Many of the green areas are derived from covered up closed mine shafts. Yes there remains the time warp factor of the town centre coffee and tea outlets. Bo’ness could really do with improvement in this area to attract people into the town centre. More could be made of the sea view in this area.
        The town is rich in interesting architecture, from the old listed cottages and school house at Muirhouses, the stately Carriden House to the significant amount of Art Deco buildings and more. One 21st century housing development on the outskirts of the town, the Drum, is probably unique in its modern housing being provided with some clear Rennie McIntosh influenced elements throughout the site. This proved to be very popular with Japanese tourists who are known to idolise the architect. They were often seen wandering around the development taking photographs after the site was built in 2003/4.
        Latterly Bo’ness has become a growing commuter town, rather too reliant on cars as there is no train service and limited bus services apart from the main Glasgow/ Stirling to Edinburgh service. There is also a local community run bus service C19 which can be used to travel in and out of Edinburgh daily during weekdays. For a town that is similar in size to neighbouring Linlithgow it remains badly up under provided with public transport links to the capital. For cars access is easy with slip road access to the M9 motorway just over a mile away. This also means that the town is perfectly located for travelling by car to the west and north of Scotland. It’s a mere 40 minutes to the heart of the Trossachs and Glasgow City centre is just over 30 miles away.

        Like

      • Thanks for dropping with all that extra info David. I really like Bo’nesss and hope that came through. I didn’t know about the Drum and its Macintosh influences so that’s another reason to go back. It is quite a tricky place to go to without a car but I don’t know if that adds to its ‘slipped between the cracks of time’ feel about it. The fact that the only train station there has a train junkyard and a vintage reproduction feel about it makes that much more bizarre. The only train leaving Bo’ness is a steam train.

        Hope you continue to enjoy living there. I’m glad to hear the locals are friendly. I also found them so. Thanks again for taking the time to give a little more info about Bo’ness.

        Like

  2. Hi, I’ve only just found your page! I lived in Bo’ness for nearly 12 years having moved out from Edinburgh. While I admit it wasn’t top of my list of places to move to, I quickly fell in love with the town, the people and the area. Reading your article brought it all back and while I’m “living the dream” in the northwest Highlands now, I miss Bo’ness. There is so much history there, lots of walks and green spaces, places to visit, independent shops. I love the cafes there – they bring back memories of childhood. The Hippodrome is amazing – an authentic old cinema which shows a mix of films not just the blockbusters. You feel you should dress appropriately when they show the old silent movies! The views cross, and up and down the Forth are beautiful and even the nearby Grangemouth refinery looks lovely lit up at night in a start-of-Blade-Runner-esque way. (Incidentally, for movie buffs, part of World War Z was filmed on the road passing the refinery.) As for the Children’s Fair Festival, yes they take it very seriously! From birth, Grandparents and Aunts start working out which school a girl should attend to have a chance of being the Fair Queen! The fund-raising goes on all year to help pay for the Fair and the arches. Go on-line to see the Arches from previous years – they are works of art! We once had a working pit winding engine constructed in the car park at the back of our house, complete with mine cars, diamond mine, cottage and Snow White and the seven dwarves! The whole town closes, with everyone taking the day off and dressing in their best Fair claes. Even the local Tesco shuts. On the Fair ‘Een ( the night before Fair Day) the whole town turns out to view the arches and listen to the bands playing around the town, and the streets are closed to traffic. It’s a great atmosphere and it’s so good that the town has kept this local tradition alive. Your article has brought back many happy memories. Thank you.

    Like

    • Hi Lesley – thank you so much for getting in touch and letting me know about your experiences and memories of Bo’ness. I thought you were spot on about what makes it such a unique and special place. I was amazed at how hard they work to keep their local traditions going every year. Some of the Arches are astonishing community creations. Your working pit engine must have been a fantastic sight.

      I also agree with you about Grangemouth – I wrote it about here: https://adcochrane.wordpress.com/2018/04/30/grangemouth-the-beauty-in-industry/

      It’s an energy dinosaur but I love seeing it or passing by it when I’m in the area. (I really shouldn’t with my Green beliefs but can’t help it!)

      Thank you for taking the time to post your memories. It reminds me that I need to go back soon. I hope you’re back in Bo’ness one day as well.

      Like

  3. While on the subject of Bo’ness’ time warp properties, I thought you may have mentioned the Bo’ness Hill Climb and the Bo’ness Hill Climb Revival https://www.bonessrevival.co.uk/.

    Celebrates Bo’ness’ place in UK motor sport history – both Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart raced there. The revival event takes place in September although 2020 event cancelled due to Covid.

    Like

    • Thank you Gordon – I didn’t know about those events! There are a few things I want to go to Bo’ness for so I shall add this to the list. I think there’s heritage or vintage train journies you can make as well. What a place!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.