The corner of Scotland renowned for historic showmen connection, and the Waltzer Wizard tale

Showmen and showwomen have been entertaining this small part of Scotland for centuries - and here is a small tale of their legacy to tell

They have their own dialect, and have been recognised officially as having their own cultural identity in the UK.

The showmen and showwomen of Britain, some of whom speak Polari, have been bringing entertainment to communities in all corners of the country with their travelling fairs for centuries. Established in 1889, The Showmen’s Guild is in its 135th year supporting members of this now 20,000 tight-knit crew.

But one corner of Scotland was recently honoured for its long-standing support of this defined culture’s offering.

The Rood Fair in Dumfries is said to have begun in 1592, and was later attended by Scotland’s national poet Robbie Burns. The town was, just last year, acknowledged for its “close association to the fairground industry and Showpeople”, and awarded a certificate from the Guild that “recognises the work that the local authority does to make sure this fairground tradition continues for future generations”.

Dumfries hosts shows twice a year - in March and September - at Whitesands on the banks of the River Nith.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at a table in a pub in Castle Douglas, about 17 miles west from Dumfries, local writer and mother-of-two Daryll Winter told The Scotsman more about showmen and showwomens’ connection to the area.

Over a few drinks, she recounted her experience of going to the fairs as a youngster, and what it is like now taking her own children today.

Daryll Winter with her two children on a ride at the shows Daryll Winter with her two children on a ride at the shows
Daryll Winter with her two children on a ride at the shows | Daryll Winter

She recited an excerpt from her writing about the Rood Fair, revealing the sensory experience it brings to both child and adult:

“Met with the pungent smell of donuts, chips, smoke and diesel, we crossed beyond the galvanised fencing. Fencing that for one weekend will afford travelling communities a safe place to dwell, within capitalist boundaries.

“The fair greets me as she always has, a sensory overload with a guttural joy that invites open the wallet and sits Doonhamers down for a dance with adrenaline.

“I remember, as a child, not even four, choking on maniacal laughter, wedged between my mum and dad, in a carriage of the Coronation Waltzer. A memory so sweet and narcotic, so profound, that the sight of the rickety old relic draws a grin across my weary, motherly maw.

“There is noise, horrendous noise, that invokes awkward memories of tired Dumfries nightclubs in 2007. Yet, here I am, bouncing my toddler to ‘Basshunter,’ waiting for my partner and child to be whirled into delirium by a man in threadbare Sketchers.

“The bedraggled, elder showman at the controls beckons over three loyal figures, smoking roll up cigarettes on the steps of the thing. One brings him coffee, another a bacon roll, and another holds a carriage still for a rider, at the direction of the old man’s tarnished finger.

“The Waltzer Wizard is seemingly a man of great power and experience, beyond your rustiest dreams. Three men now stand atop the worn planks that pave the rolling hills of the centurion machine.

“Dispersed around the track, each man stands on the brim of a bucket, dutifully awaiting further acceleration, their cue. The belts and wheels bitterly complain beneath the layered paint jobs, groaning, at the prospect of another weekend in the driving rain with clubland classics, a few quid, and fleeting thrill seekers for company.

“The faces of the public, visibly daunted by their designated showman’s imposing presence, yet fully accepting that these people are the cogs that make the wheels of the shows turn, eagerly await the onset of the ride with mounting anticipation.

“They pay the man four pound a pop and sit uncomfortably until all they can do is laugh at the overwhelming absurdity of this nostalgic death trap.

“Finally, the wooden track creaks and the volume increases as The Waltzers start their procession. The showmen jump, thrusting arms forward, pushing the great tubs of humans around and around.

“Brightly lit, they walk, unshaken, with the grace of a well-versed cat, strolling atop a weatherbeaten fence, around the carriages, so casually focussed in the deafening glare.

“With second-hand dizziness, I watch on from the concrete, in this promenade of man and machine. Delighted faces whizz by in a delirious blur of ecstatic intoxication. Faster goes the carousel and onward march the cats, encased in the nebulous scene.

“In the eye of the storm of his own creation, the Waltzer Wizard listlessly eats his roll, pressing the odd button for almost unnecessary effect. Forces unite and elements collide as those who paid scream like they weren’t just told to, and those being paid spin, pounce and leap like it’s what they were made to do.

“After two minutes, the noise of the generators rises to the surface of the soundscape as the music quietens. The bars pop up, The Waltzers are steadied and the folk make their jelly-legged exit back to the dreich Whitesands. The showmen’s intermission begins, for another five minutes, as they return to their familiar steps, perches and decking.

“They reconnect, staying defined from the likes of us, through intermingled remnants of old, forgotten languages.

“The ‘thank-yous’ are few as us ‘Flatties’ deflate and trample along to the next thrill. The wizard sorts through crumpled notes, with hopes it will see them through the dark, still winter. Only in cold months are the sounds of an existence, so endangered and rare, heard.

“Time to assess the damage, oil the pistons. Secluded and unseen, fused to the profession, clinging to the infinite cycle of earning and spending, grafting and resting. We amble on, until the Rood Fair returns, a little creakier and antiquated than ever before.”

The Guild said the “misplaced confusion” by many in the wider population, of showmen and showwomen, with other travelling communities, is often  “hard to dispel”.

The community was awarded “the availability of optional self-identification; on the England and Wales Census in 2021 and the Scottish Census in 2022 which it described as “a progressive step”.

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