Strange things are happening in cathedrals down south. In Rochester, they’ve installed crazy golf; and in the nave at Norwich you can slide down an enormous helter skelter. No news of anything like that in Scotland, yet. But if you’re from St Andrews, the news in August has always been about the fun of the fair. The rides might not be inside the churches, but the whole town grinds to a halt every year, as one by one, the main streets are taken over by the Lammas Market. It’s said to be Europe’s oldest surviving medieval street fair, and it’s been running now for over 900 years.
Like Martinmas, Candlemas and Whitsun, Lammas was one of the Scottish quarter days, when contracts could be terminated or renewed. In its heyday, the Lammas Fair would have been a rowdy mixture of stalls and booths, where merchants settled their debts, and bought and sold produce and livestock. My wee daughter still thinks of it as the ‘llamas’ fair. She’s delighted by the mental picture of llamas, thronging South Street and Queens Gardens, while everyone tries to buy them.
The medieval fairs weren’t just economically important, they were socially important too. Most of the folk songs I remember from school seemed to be about assignations at fairs, and as teenagers that was certainly the point of dressing up in your adolescent finery, to Be Seen on the waltzer or the dodgems, just before the start of the new school term.
And although it might seem odd, the reason they’ve put a helter skelter inside a cathedral is to try and make visitors see things differently. St Andrews is also turned upside down by the fair, and you see things from a very different angle when you’re hanging the wrong way up, miles above your Dad’s local, showering everyone underneath with loose change. But more than this, funfairs make people smile. Being conned yet again by those impossible shooting targets; bearing home a ridiculously enormous teddy bear; and getting your teeth stuck in a toffee-apple.
There’s not much that’s cheering in the news these days, and life feels very complicated and uncertain. But seeing everyone up in the air laughing, and forgetting just for a moment the seriousness of life, made me think. Maybe more fairground rides, in our towns and even in our churches, might be exactly what we need to cheer us all up.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.