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