Newtongrange Gala day celebrates centenary

Bands take part in the Newtongrange Gala. Picture: TSPL
Bands take part in the Newtongrange Gala. Picture: TSPL
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EVERY home was deserted, shops were closed, workshops shut up for the day. The date was July 10, 1913, and something very special was about to happen in the mining village of Newtongrange.

An event which would see pretty much the entire population take to the streets in excited anticipation was about to begin.

Flags were unfurled, the bunting was raised and when the Lothian Silver Band struck up, 1500 children went wild.

Looking back now, the very first Newtongrange Gala Day was perhaps nothing particularly special – an afternoon of “sports and revelry”, youngsters taking part in egg and spoon races and thread and needle contests while their parents danced the afternoon away.

Everyone agreed it had been a great success, the children were said to have had the “day of their lives”, they should do it again.

What no-one would have anticipated is that 100 years later, the event remains and is still the highlight of the year.

Other gala days across Edinburgh and the Lothians have come and gone, many have disappeared through lack of interest from the community and few volunteers to keep the tradition alive.

The enthusiasm in Newtongrange, though, shows no signs of waning and, if anything, is growing.

The village, known affectionately as Nitten, now has a week of parties and contests in the run-up to the big day.

This year, the gala week promises to be bigger than ever, with an ambitious reception for former kings and queens and a grand centenary concert planned.

Only the Second World War and the threat of bombs falling on the park could stop the community’s big day.

When the war ended, material was so scarce that gala day dresses were fashioned out of parachute 
silk.

Betty Bell, 76, from Dalkeith, was the gala queen in 1948 at the age of 12. She recalls: “In the weeks leading up to the gala, there was great excitement, a bit like Christmas.

“The gala day was the highlight of the summer, especially because in those days you didn’t get holidays abroad.

“The miners all had something kept off their wages a week beforehand to go towards it.

“Everybody in the village turned out.

“I had an aunt who came all the way from Berwick-upon-Tweed, which was quite something in those days when people didn’t have cars.”

Each year, a boy and girl from a local primary school are chosen as king and queen along with a gala court. Betty was chosen for academic merit.

“Some of the children in the gala court had to wear these awful costumes, like pantaloons and old-time hats with feathers, but the king and queen got to wear these beautiful, deep purple, ermine robes,” she smiles.

“My aunt, who was a dressmaker, made my dress. We still had rationing back then.

“It was white with a shiny pattern on it and I can still remember the satiny smell to it – puff sleeves with a big white sash, the collar was trimmed with rosebuds.

“On the day you got a bag full of goodies, a pie and a bun – absolutely delicious – and a tinny tied round your neck that your milk would go in to.

“Everybody got new sandals and you were not allowed to wear them until the gala day came. It was a 
tradition.”

Betty will be there when the gala’s centenary is celebrated on Saturday, June 8, alongside many other former gala royals.

Lorraine Klimek is one of the committee members who has taken on the task of tracking them down.

The team has managed to trace 108 of 144 kings and queens, and is continuing to search for the remaining 36.

“The response has been incredible,” she says. “We’ve got one king who is coming to the reception all the way from Norway and we’ve talked to others who now live in New Zealand and the United States.

“This year, the parade is on a much grander scale than previously.”

Lorraine, who describes herself as an “incomer” having only lived in Newtongrange for 12 years, adds: “Newtongrange is a wonderful village with some great traditions, there’s a real sense of community spirit.

“There’s still an awful lot of people who live in the village who have lived their all of their lives.”

Former Midlothian councillor and long-time gala committee member Wilma Chalmers believes the key to the gala day’s success is the close community which inspires people to work together as volunteers.

“Most communities that have gala days were home to mining or steel industries, they had the silver bands, the pipe bands.

“It’s a very tight-knit village, the mining strike brought everybody together because everyone has been affected in the same way.

“Obviously nowadays the mines are closed and we’re a much more diverse community, but the spirit and the network of people has remained.

“It’s still huge, people who have moved away from the village come back for it, and it’s a huge benefit to the economy, businesses are always keen to be involved.”

Committee chairman John Turnbull says the village has been waiting for this week for a long time.

“Normally, organising the gala day takes a lot of work. But this year it has taken double – or perhaps even treble – the amount of time, because everything is going to be so much bigger.

“We have been putting aside money for the centenary for the past eight or nine years because we wanted to go the extra mile to have something special. I would say 90 per cent of the time and money that goes into the gala day comes from individuals and businesses in the village.

“It has always been associated with the miners and the majority of families in the village have connections to that life – they lived through the strikes. The gala day was one of the few days of the year the miners got a holiday.

“Many families who have moved in to the village who see the level of enthusiasm for the gala day have never come across anything like it before. People are keen to keep it going and it has been kept going through community spirit.”

The gala committee is still looking to trace the 36 former king and queens.

To find a list of the names, visit the website at www.newtongrangegala.com. Contact Lorraine on 0789 100 4676 if you can help.

Coronation fun day and miners’ strike that led to crowning glory

There were two incidents in 1912 that led to the creation of Newtongrange Gala Day the following year.

In the first, the Gorebridge Co-operative store invited pupils from Newbattle and Stobhill public schools to walk to the nearby Arniston Estate to take part in a fun day – an afternoon of sports to mark the coronation of King George.

In the same year, miners came out on strike for an increase in their wages. Their strike was successful, with the shift wage raised to 5/6d – the equivalent of 27p.

During the strike, the Miners’ Committee approached the reverend about using the church hall to provide children with a bowl of soup. Every pupil was given half a plain postcard to have punched to collect their soup. At dinner-time, the race was on to be in the first group to be served – showing that their card had been punched.

Following what was considered a substantial rise, the workmen agreed to forego 1d a week towards an annual children’s day.

Over the years, many residents in the village went to a great deal of effort raising funds for the gala, but perhaps none more so than Janette Stewart, fondly known as “Wee Janette”, who died in 2002. Janette first became involved with gala in 1959, when she was named dux of Newbattle High, and went on to crown that year’s king and queen.

Having joined the committee in 1970, Janette eventually took on the role of chairwoman, that she held for well over a decade. Her enthusiasm in fundraising was described as ‘limitless’ and included parachute-jumping, abseiling, riding in a microlight, speedboat sailing and door-to-door collections in fancy dress.

Her efforts were rewarded with the British Empire Medal, which she dedicated to the people of Newtongrange.