MORE than 40 years have elapsed since my first turn on the waltzers, but after 30 seconds of this one I’m thinking I should have undergone some sort of training in preparation. Maybe a spot of those calisthenics … just to re-acquaint the relevant muscle groups with the memories of what sudden lateral and forward motion feels like.

For a few minutes, these wee painted wonders of velocity and locomotion detach you from the week’s tribulations. Down on Kirkcaldy’s splendid esplanade last week though, they were also threatening to detach my lunchtime steak pie from my stomach’s lining. It’s the opening day of the Kirkcaldy Links Market and the ghosts of all my blithe childhood holidays come flooding back.

Nothing much seems to have changed in those intervening decades. In the 1970s in Girvan’s annual summer fairs, the waltzers and the dodgems were helmed by older and louche teenage boys sporting cigarettes behind their ears who seemed to personify what it meant to be cool and edgy. What could be better in life than spending your summer months working on the waltzers?  Sometimes there was joy to be had just watching them in action from the other side of their wooded realms.

Occasionally, when a hopeful lad leant over to solicit a winch from his girl, he’d be thwarted by the interventions of these malevolent waltzer boys, giving the machine a sudden twist and ruining the moment. A few years later you’d be their prey in similar encounters.

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The Herald:

On a Primary 7 school summer outing to Burntisland (it was always Burntisland) I still remember George Craven and Charles Hendrie being in the rare position of receiving plaudits from Mrs McCafferty for defending the honour of some female classmates who’d been the subject of unwanted attention by lads from another Glasgow school. Punches had been exchanged, but no further was deemed necessary.

The Kirkcaldy Links Market is reckoned to be the longest street fair in Europe, stretching along this seaside boulevard for more than a mile. It’s been an annual presence here for 700-odd years, making it the oldest anywhere in Europe. It’s organised by the Showmen’s Guild, a multi-generational, 2000-strong community of families and friends whose lives are devoted to maintaining these fairgrounds and bringing them to all points of Scotland.

Very few people alive in Scotland today have not been touched by the ‘showfolk’ and at a time when we were at our happiest and most carefree. Yet, in progressive, enlightened 21st-century Scotland they are still subject to prejudices born of lazy ignorance and wilful misunderstanding.

The Herald:

The previous week I’d visited the Showmen’s Guild Scottish headquarters in a smart, red brick building in Rutherglen. This is the hub of the Showpeople’s world, both administering its business and social affairs and ensuring that their ways and values are upheld.

I’m in the Guild’s meeting-room where a shiny carousel horse sits in silent contemplation. It’s better than any framed painting. I’m talking to Brian Hickey and Alan Newsome, descended from several generations of Showpeople families and members of the 15-strong committee of the Showmen’s Guild Scottish section.

This is where all the business and the issues of the community gets settled. In all, there are ten regional UK sections, including London, Notts and Derby, Midlands, Eastern Counties and Yorkshire. They each, in turn, lead me through the history of the Showmen’s Guild and the people it serves. Every piece of correspondence has to be read out in front of the committee, including my previous request for a visit and this interview.

 “We have 360 members,” says Brian. “Some are single members and some are partnerships with other family members.” Alan Newsome had one with his late grandfather. “Years ago it was strictly a closed book for showmen only,” he tells me. “But now it’s a bit more open.” A copy of the Showmens Guild Guide sits on each of the rooms 15 tables. “It’s been on the go for more than 100 years,” says Brian, “from the time when we were called the Van Dwellers Association, as we all lived in caravans.”     

“We live and breathe this life,” says Alan. “When we’re not travelling with the shows we live on fixed sites where we rent our plots [there are around 50 of these dotted throughout Glasgow]. I travel at least eight months of the year around the fairgrounds.”

As with other groups who hold fast to their traditions and culture the Showpeople are finding ways to adapt to a world that seems to turn a little faster with each passing generation. “We’re always conscious of the fact that our young people have far greater opportunities in the world beyond our community,” says Alan.

“We now have lawyers, doctors, accountants and police officers, while several are making their way in the worlds of acting and entertainment. But they’ll always be showpeople and we’ll always be here to welcome them whenever they come home.

“I always tell them never to forget who they are and always to be proud of their heritage. They must never be ashamed of where they’re from. And even when some of them have married outside our tradition their spouses often embrace our way of life and become fully immersed in it.”

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In the two Covid years, the fairgrounds were locked up and the men and women who worked them had few alternatives other than to sit tight and wait it out. Yet, according to Alan, the pandemic wasn’t a disaster. As people emerged from lockdown they flocked to the fairs beginning tentatively to re-open.

They seemed to represent all that they had missed most during that long period of confinement: laughter, music and the simple joys of human society and activity. “You can spend hours at a fairground and not spend a penny in cash,” says Brian. “No-one’s giving you a hard sell and you can just stroll through the attractions and soaking up the sights, sounds and fun of the fair.”

Both of these men speak proudly of the Showpeople’s contributions to Britain’s efforts in both world wars. “The Guild donated enough money to buy a Spitfire and donated it to the war effort,” Alan tells me. “It was called ‘All the Fun of the Fair’ and that was painted on the actual Spitfire we bought. It was shot down over France. We also donated enough money to buy a fleet of ambulances for the wartime hospital service.”

Still though, the showpeople are subject to old prejudices that linger in some parts of the public imagination. They endure this in common with other itinerant, cultural groups such as the Travellers community and all those who belong to Europe’s gypsy peoples. Each has its own distinctive traditions and the habit of failing deliberately to differentiate them from one another is of itself prejudicial.

Alan relates an unpleasant post on their Facebook page. “It was about the Fair we were running in Midlothian. Someone had shared information about it to his friend and suggested that it would make a great day out for the children. His friend responded by saying that he wouldn’t be attending as his kids would get stolen and that they’re all ‘f*cking’ thieving gypsies’. Such prejudice is like a red rag to a bull for us, but we’re also conscious that we must conduct ourselves properly and that there are decent ways of doing so. But this is some of what we’re up against.”

Christine Stirling has been an Educational Liaison Officer for the Showmen’s Guild for 28 years and works closely with local councils. “We have a great relationship with Glasgow City Council’s educational department. Much of my work concerns placing requests, or where some schools perhaps haven’t kept places for children who are away for parts of the year.

“But the advent of IT and remote working has been a boon for us. Previously, we would use local libraries to ensure our children kept up with their schoolwork. Now we have a base school and during the summer when they’re away the children use their laptops to join lessons. Our children are thriving in Scotland’s schools and an increasing number of them go on to university.”

Christine tells me about one primary school teacher who gave these children cameras to take pictures of their travels and bring them back to show the rest of the class. Another brought her entire class to visit the Fairground and see for themselves how they lived and to learn more about their culture.

“They do get names thrown at them occasionally,” she says, “but on the few occasions this happens I’m straight on to the school and it’s addressed quickly. Being identified as Showpeople on the census has been great for us. When Richard Lyle (the former MSP) was at Holyrood he was a wonderful champion for us and campaigned to have us included in the census.”  

The level of cooperation and mutual respect the Guild encounters from civic Scotland differs greatly from burgh to burgh. In places like South Lanarkshire, Midlothian and Fife they’re welcomed and all bureaucratic obstacles are kept to a minimum, along with the charges for renting a space for a week. In Edinburgh and Aberdeen it can be much less so.  

Alan Newsome is grateful for the support they receive from politicians like Richard Lyle, Christina McKelvie and David Torrance, the MSP for Kirkcaldy, as well as the work of the Holyrood Cross-Party Group on the Showmen’s Guild. Yet, Scotland, he says, is the only country in Europe where they must apply for a public entertainment licence to hold a funfair. “There’s no requirement for this elsewhere in the UK.

“And then recently, West Lothian Council told us that a separate street traders’ licence had to be sought for food units. We weren’t on a street; we were on a piece of land owned by Tesco.

“Were it not for Richard and Christina and politicians like John Mason and David Torrance, we’d still be in the dark ages. In appreciation of the work Richard and Christina have done for us we’ve awarded them honorary memberships of the Guild.”

At the annual Showman’s Guild lunch held at Kirkcaldy’s Strathearn Hotel Jim Leishman, Provost of Fife formally welcomes them to the town and there’s an appreciation of the work of the Guild chairman, Alex James Colquhoun. It’s one of those honest, old-school civic occasions full of hearty bonhomie. The speeches are short, but the greetings, exchanged by people who thrive on this friendship and society, are long.

In his previous life, Leishman was one of Scotland’s best-known footballers and managers and he’d have appreciated the outcome of the annual Showmen’s Guild international between Scotland and England. It was held in Leicester earlier this year with Scotland defeating the Auld Enemy 4-3, their fourth victory on the trot and the talk at our table is of even older triumphs and the ‘lively’ apres-football.

And then it’s off down to the esplanade where Leishman and Laia Coau of the Guild formally cut the ribbon to declare the Kirkcaldy Links Market open. There are more than 100 rides and stalls on this mile-long stretch and more than 100,000 people will flock here over the course of the next six days.

As with other communities the cost-of-living hikes have hit the Showmen and their families hard, but at each table there are white envelopes stuffed with books of free passes for all the attractions throughout the week. Not much compares to the looks on the faces of mums and dads down on this sunshine strip when you hand them over and tell them the rest of the day is on the house. Not much, that is other than a second go on the waltzers and a hurl on the dodgems.

“Enjoy Kirkcaldy as it’s a wonderful thing to see,” said Christine Stirling when I told her I was heading there. And really, you can’t not.