Dumfries's Rood Fair impressed Robert Burns and still offers a night to remember – Stephen Jardine

The Rood Fair is thought to have begun in 1592, making it one of the oldest events of its kind in Europe

Despite never having written a line of verse in my life, I’m proud to say I’ve something in common with Robert Burns. Centuries apart, we both stood on the Whitesands in Dumfries and looked in wonder at the September travelling fair.

For him, it was a source of inspiration for writing about the human condition. For me, it was the chance to win a goldfish but we lived in very different times.

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Until the age of 12, I was convinced Dumfries’s annual fair was so named due to the ripe language of the boys who worked on the waltzers. Then a teacher explained it actually dates back to celebrations of Rood Day in the Catholic calendar. If that makes it sound like an ancient tradition, that’s because it is. Experts believe the Rood Fair in Dumfries is one of the oldest events of its kind in Europe.

It probably dates back to 1592 when the Royal Burgh of Dumfries established the fairs and offered exemptions from trading regulations that encouraged travelling merchants to visit. By the 18th century, the streets of the town would be thronged every September with sideshows, fairground rides and stalls selling everything you can imagine. In a scene straight out of Thomas Hardy, farm workers would also gather to pick up work because it was such a significant date in the calendar.

By the time I came along, it had shrunk to being a travelling fair with dodgems, helter skelters and every kind of stall designed to part a kid from their pocket money. However it wasn’t really about the winning, it was about the taking part. I can still remember the anticipation of the weeks running up the Rood Fair’s arrival and then the first sighting of the showpeople in their brightly painted trucks, setting up for business along the banks of the River Nith.

Then Saturday night, the smell of onions and hot dogs, the roar of the Rubettes playing at full volume and the bright lights, still flashing even in the inevitable persistent drizzle. I’m sure the sights on the air rifles were squint because even a crack marksman couldn’t hit a target. Similarly, rumour had it that winning on the coin push machine was unlikely because of the presence of glue in some key areas.

None of that really mattered because, in a small town in south-west Scotland, the Rood Fair was the closest thing we got to Hollywood. The only time I can remember feeling even slightly disappointed was when a much anticipated haunted house was unveiled one year and turned out to be a couple of luminous paper skeletons and an elderly lady covered in a sheet who would tickle you with a feather duster.

In a world where everything is changing so fast, it fills me with joy to see the Rood Fair back in Dumfries this weekend. That’s thanks to the generations of wonderful Scottish showpeople who’ve kept the tradition alive for 500 years, braving floods and wars and every other obstacle.

With regeneration of the Whitesands area planned, who knows what the future holds for this fabulous celebration, so if you fancy a night to remember, make a pilgrimage to the Rood Fair tonight and have a toffee apple and a go on the waltzers for me.



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