Remembering the Glasgow Fair: when the city shut down and families went “doon the watter”

It may be hard to imagine now but there was a time, not so long ago, when the whole of Glasgow would virtually shut down for the last two weeks of July.

Crowds of holidaymakers coming ashore at Rothesay pier on July 17, 1956 for the Glasgow Fair holiday. (Picture: TSPL)
Crowds of holidaymakers coming ashore at Rothesay pier on July 17, 1956 for the Glasgow Fair holiday. (Picture: TSPL)

It was known as the Glasgow Fair Fortnight, and in times gone by, factories, shipyards and businesses would close down completely, heralding a mass exodus of the city as workers and their families headed to the seaside to enjoy some well-earned time off.

While the third Monday of July (15 July this year) is still a public holiday, referred to as Glasgow Fair Monday, the two-week celebration, which dates back to the 12th century, is no longer widely observed.

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So what happened to the city’s annual holiday and how is Glasgow keeping its spirit alive today?

Three-year-old Paul Flannigan sits on top of the luggage ready to go on holiday at Glasgow Central Station in 1957. (Picture: TSPL)

The origins of the Glasgow Fair

Dating back to the 12th century, the Glasgow Fair began in 1190 when Bishop Jocelin got permission from King William the Lion to hold an annual fair during which traders could buy and sell livestock, goods and even servants, free from tolls and under the protection of the king.

It later developed into a raucous festival of amusements, with travelling performers, circus and theatre shows, melodramas and penny gaffs.

By the 1800s the Glasgow Fair had become a fortnight-long holiday, with factories, shipyards and businesses shutting down completely, and hoards of workers escaping the city to go to the seaside - or “doon the watter” as it was referred to.

Ayr beach during the Glasgow Fair in 1955. (Picture: TSPL)

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On Fair Friday, the first day of the two-week holiday, women would meet their husbands after work to collect the holiday pay to stop them spending all their money on several "hauf an a haufs" (a whisky and a half pint).

On the Saturday, families would flock to places like Ayr, Largs, Troon, Rothesay, Saltcoats, Dunoon, Bo'ness, and as far afield as Portobello, Aberdeen, Blackpool and Whitley Bay.

To give an example of just how many people escaped the city, on the first Saturday of the Fair in 1855, a total of 41 steamers left the Broomielaw with an estimated 14,350 people leaving the city via the Clyde alone. A further 26,000 people took a train out of Glasgow that day.

A close up of the big wheel at Aberdeen Fun Fair during the Glasgow Fair holiday in 1954. (Picture: TSPL)

Since most Scots would never have been abroad, going to Scottish seaside towns would have seemed like a real treat, despite the chilly temperatures and sea water.

Soon the term “taps aff” was coined to describe the act of men taking their shirts off as soon as the sun peeped out from behind the clouds - a tradition which lives on today.

Despite many heading out of the city, the festivities in Glasgow during the 1800s were going strong, and thousands would make a beeline for Glasgow Green from towns outside like Barrhead and Hamilton.

In 1871 the show moved from Glasgow Cathedral to the Vinegarhill area of Glasgow Green, near to where the Forge Shopping Centre is today.

Children fishing during the Glasgow Fair Holidays in 1956. (Picture: TSPL)

According to a report in the Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser, this was to prevent visitors from witnessing the lewd behaviour and heavy drinking that went on at the Fair.

The report said that the removal of the shows would hopefully “lead to their abolition”.

“It leaves the Green to be devoted to its legitimate purpose without exposing visitors to the pernicious influence of the shows, and to contact with the concentrated rascality of the city,” it continued.

But the popularity of the Glasgow Fair persisted until around the 1960s.

The decline of the Glasgow Fair

Of course, times change and as Glasgow’s manufacturing industry began to decline from the 1950s onward, so too did the tradition of the Glasgow Fair.

Glasgow Fair Holiday at Gourock, Clyde Steamer in 1955. (Picture: TSPL)

Soon after the war, markets began to change and many of Glasgow’s traditional products became redundant, such as passenger liners, ferries, steam locomotives, warships, textiles and tools.

This coincided with new facilities and high productivity in Europe and the Far East, meaning it was no longer financially feasible for manufacturing businesses to shut down for two full weeks in July.

Factories began to close and shipyards eventually became wastelands, while new generations of workers opted for office jobs.

Instead of taking two weeks off at the same time as everyone else, people began taking their annual leave as and when it was convenient for them.

The rise of cheap package holidays in the 1970s and 80s compounded this trend, with Scots beginning to head to sunnier, warmer climes rather than holidaying at the Scottish seaside.

And so, the tradition of the Glasgow Fair began to die out.

Keeping that Glasgow Fair feeling alive

Despite its sad decline, the Glasgow Fair lives on in the hearts of many Glaswegians, who still talk fondly about the days when they could pack their bags and escape from the hustle and bustle of the city to go "doon the watter" with their families.

And with the third Monday of the month a designated public holiday, many businesses still close down for a long weekend, allowing staff to enjoy some relaxation.

This year there are plenty of events and activities going on across the city over the last two weeks of July, keeping the spirit of the Glasgow Fair alive.

Here are some of the highlights:

The Merchant City Festival

Taking place from 25-28 July, which would have traditionally been the Glasgow Fair period, the Merchant City Festival is a celebration of creativity that brings a carnival to the streets and venues in the centre of the city. Artists, musicians and dancers perform and there are artisan goods stalls and food and drink on offer. You can find out more on the festival’s website.

Glasgow Fair Family Raceday

This family fun day takes place at Ayr Racecourse on Glasgow Fair Monday (15 July). Ayr was one of the seaside towns Glasgow residents would flock to traditionally during the Fair Fortnight and this event harks back to those days with children’s entertainment, fairground rides, treasure hunts and horse racing. Find out more on the website.

Byres Road Makers Market

Held on the last Saturday of every month, Byres Road Makers Market will return to Hillhead Library in Glasgow’s West End on 27 July, with an eclectic mix of handmade crafts and original designs by artists, crafters and designers from all over Scotland. Find out more on the market’s Facebook page.

The Aberdeen fun fair during the Glasgow Fair holiday in 1954. (Picture: TSPL)
Holiday makers board the steamer at Gourock for Dunoon in the rain during the Glasgow Fair holiday in 1959. (Picture: TSPL)
A mother persuades her little boy to go into the sea at Portobello Beach in 1961. (Picture: TSPL)
Three girls on the big wheel at the Aberdeen fun fair during the Glasgow Fair Holiday in 1954. (Picture: TSPL)
Glasgow Fair holidaymakers at Portobello beach in 1961, with Buchan Pottery kilns in the background. (Picture: TSPL)
Clyde steamer docking in Dunoon in 1955. (Picture: TSPL)
Queuing in the rain for the ferry at Gourock during the Glasgow Fair holiday in 1956. (Picture: TSPL)