It seemed like a gala day animated by the thrill of eager expectancy; a social function, entirely pleasurable….”Robert Barr (1849-1912), British Canadian short story writer born in Glasgow
As they say in these parts – and they say a lot of things – “s’warm in’t it.” This is Scots for “I see we are benefiting from a warm front from Seville, which is in Spain where the oranges come from.” I am feeling the heat myself and while this may be the high pressure, it may also be because I have been listening to Verdi’s Don Carlos on the wireless in my shed. Perhaps the Auto de Fe scene was not the best choice on a hot day, but how cheery the locals sound as they drag the heretics to the bonfire.
Maybe I should try and find something Scandinavian and cooler. I do have a rather nice lager to hand and Muriel has issued a general directive permitting shorts, “provided you do not venture into the public sphere.” As she says “…if Howard Carter could excavate the tomb of Tutankhamen in a three piece suit , then you Jasper can go and collect my Spectator in flannel trousers and a linen jacket.”
Too Busy To Be Here
Muriel by the way sends her apologies for not having sent you some of her musings. She is bashing about all over the place “being simply marvellous.” Most notably she has been in the Highlands, where apparently they are in desperate need of her ‘je ne sais quois’ as they are somewhat lagging behind in all matters relating to gracious living. Now this is demanding work and she has to take one step at a time as the Highlands are a place where yesterday is far more important than today. It may be 1959 to most of us, but north of Loch Lomond it is still the immediate aftermath of 1745 and Speed Bonnie Boat is not just a song to sooth an infant, it is a lament for what might have been. Exactly what might have been no one is entirely sure, but it certainly sells tins of shortbread and yards of tartan.
This is assisted by one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history – a combination of romance in the person of Flora MacDonald and a dream of a setting in the Highland landscape. Now much of the Highlands are actually quite terrifying as many 18th century visitors testified once they had reached the safety of Durham. However, if you persuade an artist like Mr J.M.W. Turner and the literary, but wandering, Wordsworths to suggest it is “sublime” then the prospect of getting lost in torrential rain in boggy land pursued by an amorous bull and criminally insane gamekeeper can seem like a fashionable thing to do.
Muriel did manage to come home to our rural bolt hole for “the Gala,” which is the singularly most important day in the Scottish calendar after Hogmanay. A gala according to my dictionary is “a festive entertainment or performance.” The word has its origins in the 17th century, coming via Italy and Spain and means “showy dress.” The old French word “Gale” means “rejoicing”. Apparently the first Scottish Gala is thought to have been in 1770 at Loanhead when the miners and their families were invited to a feast to celebrate the birthday of Lord Lockhart of Carnwath. Indeed galas do have a particular association with mining communities. Here huge boxwood and yew arbours were often a feature of the decorations. In other places there are “Common Ridings,” “Fishermen’s Walks” and in Paisley the “Sma’ Shot Day” marks the victory of the weavers in getting paid for a vital but unseen thread that bound the whole pattern in a Paisley Shawl. In most galas “they celebrate for one day- the life of working men and women with Queens, Kings, bands floats and speeches.”
These are the commonly found features along with side shows, jumble stalls and elaborate teas which show case that most Scottish of skills – home baking. Indeed in most of the rural parts of Scotland it is said that one is never more than 6 feet from a cake which explains a great deal really. Some galas are adult related, however, most have the common feature of putting children at the centre of events.
The selection of the Gala Queen from the local school is not only competitive but a right of passage. The other feature is the seemingly upended order of things so that children become kings and queens and men ( clearly taking on board the ”showy dress” angle) in particular are permitted without comment to dress as women. It is amusing to see farmers and factory workers vying to be the most beautifully made up members of the parade and worrying about their foundation cream and if their eye shadow is too much or too little and even “do you think I would look better in the red?” This is always strange coming from men who only a few hours previously have been milking 150 head of cows.
Of course none of this is without its difficulties despite the notion that such events are designed to release tensions among the rustics.
Thus in our rural bolt hole the Gala Committee is in the iron grip of the chair , Lady Pentland-Firth who, while desirous of seeing the release of community tensions in ways which do not send the cottagers blind or mad, wants to make sure that things do not get so out of hand that revolution threatens the old order of things. In this she is supported by Muriel who controls access not only to the bunting but the trestle tables and the tea urn. She in turn is supported by our neighbour Lottie Macaulay (currently estranged from the bungalow builder and concrete king) who is President of the Women’s Guild and has the keys to the cupboard containing the cups and saucers and above all that symbol of rural womanhood, the ironed tea towels. As “the blessed trinity” or “three wise monkeys” depending on which side of the fence you sit, they control the committee as the wives of Lady Pentland-Firth’s tenants are generally subservient. This is how it has “aye bin” and why should it change.
Except there are of course some who threaten the natural order, like those who have been rash and left the village only to return with “their heids fu’ o’ nonsense” and worse those who move in from the outside and bring their own band of nonsense, possibly from “that London.” Now while Muriel has brought foreign soups, bad enough in their own way, she is no Jacobin. One disabling influence, however, is that of Bunty Haystack, the rural crime writer and author of the famous Slurry Pit Slayings series. Bunty has done many things which have caused upset such as serving shop bought jam at her teas and suggesting women might join the bowling club which resulted in the President spending a night in the cottage hospital.
Although the gala is in reality only a day, the preparations go on for months and the week preceding is full of events which are designed to add to the air of expectation. These include the Pet Show, the Treasure Hunt and the Cheese Making competition. Now far be it from me to cast aspirations as surely Lady Pentland-Firth’s Pekinese wins the pet show annually on merit, despite the missing leg. The treasure hunt is always won by her Steward “as he used to be a detective and is good with clues” and winner of the cheese judged in the Pentland Firth Arms Hotel Ball Room is none other than Pentland Firth Estates for the 150th year running. Lady Pentland-Firth annually feigns disbelief as she is awarded a gold medal by the Gala Queen for being “The Big Cheese”, which of course was presented by her late husband’s late grandmother in the first place.
“Really Patience isn’t it time you let someone else win the cheese award? It would mean so much if Old Young Jock might get something for his “Cottage Cheese made by Cottagers”. Or even Winnie for her “Gooseberry Sardine and Caraway Seed Crowdie.”
“Really Muriel you are beginning to sound like that dreadful detective novel woman. I am sure she is a Socialist. Mark my words, come November she will be canvassing for that Hugh Gaitskell and his come and get it brigade.”
“Patience I agree with you about Mr Gaitskell especially after all Mr Macmillan has done, but sometimes one has to show a little compassion.”
“Oh that’s good coming from you Muriel Wylie! You with your foreign soups and overpriced Scandinavian furniture with the sticky oot legs. Now hurry up and get on that float. I am about to give the signal to The Pentland Firth Pipers to begin the din, I mean to start proceedings off with a medley of battle tunes. At least once I get my ear plugs in.”
“Well really sometimes she reveals only too well that she is no aristocrat but a failed night club singer and dancer from Berlin in the 1930s whose husband died mysteriously as did a recent suitor divided into three by the Auchenshuggle tram.”
“What’s that Muriel?”
“Nothing Jasper just Patience forgetting this is not the court of Marie Antoinette. Now you had better get on this float before the tractor starts moving.”
“What’s the theme Muriel, remind me again?”
“It’s ‘Picnics’ Jasper. Don’t you ever listen? And by the way have you been drinking? It’s only 11 30am. Where is everyone else? At this rate we will be the only ones on the float.”
“I may have had a bit of a stiffener in the Pentland Firth Arms with the boys from the band, just to be sociable. Who else exactly is coming on the float? ”
“Well Winnie of course (she of the bicycle and the Wool Shop in Auchterader) who wants to make a Gala memorial tapestry in the Bayeux style, minus the violence. Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes of the music department at the good varsity in Glasgow who thinks he will get inspiration for a folk inspired symphony. The District Nurse who is coming along in case someone is taken queer which is quite likely in this village and of course Mrs Travers who is supposed to be in charge of the picnic.
Oh here they come now, come on get on we don’t want to be behind Cynthia Savage’s float with her ‘Pickles for Picnics’ or we will all smell of vinegar and dill.”
“Well it might be better than being behind the Queen’s horse and carriage Muriel. I have seen what Bengal Lancer can do when Major Palava is out for his morning cantor.”
“Don’t be vulgar Jasper. And hang on; here we go. Come on Winnie, get on, give me the basket of wool and on the count of three, there sit on that bale of hay and cast off. Here have a sausage while you get your breath back. Oh and you too Bunty; I didn’t know you were coming on our float. I thought you were with The William Wallace Picnic Float , anyway hurry up. Has anyone seen the Professor?”
“I don’t think he’s in any fit state for floats Muriel.”
“Oh Handsome Stranger it’s you. What are you doing here and where is the Professor?”
“Unfortunately he decided he might incorporate some symphonic sounds into his first movement based on the sounds of men preparing a gala Bar?”
“He hasn’t had a couple of drinks perchance?”
“ Well Young Jock and Old Jock and Young Old Jock and Oldest Jock of all decided he should test the merchandise as a quality control measure, so now he is singing in the beer tent to Daphne from the Impressionist Society who have a tableau in the tea tent entitled Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”
“Don’t tell me?”
“Yes Muriel. In the true spirit of Manet’s famous picnic painting, Daphne is in the nude along with the figure in the distance is played by Big Bertha from the bakery.”
“And what about the Professor?”
“Well he still has his clothes on but it’s touch and go.”
“I’ll bet it is; but I don’t have time to worry about that now. By the way what are you doing here if you don’t mind my asking? Dame Margot Fonteyn is not in trouble again, is she ?”
“No not as far as I know but we are a bit worried about your literary friend?”
“You mean Bunty Haystack.”
“In what sense?”
“I cannot say too much, but I am simply here to take photographs for the local paper. Perhaps you might keep an eye on her.”
“Of course and might I say you look marvellous reprising your Ethel Merman was she in a Picnic Movie?”
“Not that I recall, but does it matter”
“Not at all, but you won’t win; you are not local enough, but great turban and feathers.”
“Mrs Travers – did you hear me Mrs T. Oh don’t say you have also been drinking in the Manet tableau?
“I had to Mrs Wylie. No one has any clothes on there! I was puir dead horrified so I was.”
“Clearly not horrified enough to refrain from alcohol, it’s only 11.45 and we have not even reached the park yet. What’s the matter?”
“Come on there is something”
“Well that Big Bertha from the Bakery said I looked like a man.”
“That’s a bit sharp even for Big Bertha and even if you do have quite muscular arms and a hint of 5 o’clock shadow. I wouldn’t listen to her and anyway she makes terrible buns.”
“ I know Big Bertha’s Buns are bad, but it still hurts. I am all woman Mrs Wylie, even if I am a bit player in a social media experiment featuring the momentary reversion of complex social roles which in effect underline and reinforce existing hierarchies, in other words a Gala.”
“Really Mrs T dry your eyes. Your cheap Woolworths mascara is running and if there is one thing I regret it’s sending you on that Sociology twilight class at the college.”
“Yes Nurse. “
“Is someone feeling a little queer?”
“Just about everyone, Nurse.”
“Here you are Mrs T, take this Askit pooder and you will soon feel almost normal again.”
“Well everyone here we are at the park; let the judging begin. Let me remind you our patron Lady Pentland-Firth’s decision is final.”
“First prize for a decorated float with a picnic theme goes to…… the Pentland Firth Arms for…. Queen Victoria;s Highland Fling Picnic.”
“Fix!” cries the crowd.
“Second Prize for An Afternoon Strawberry Tea Picnic goes to Mrs Muriel Wylie”
“The special Gala Prize presented in memory of the considerably late Lady Consuela Brooklyn Pentland-Firth goes to Big Bertha from the bakery for her interpretation of a painting of a picnic by Manet with a French title.”
And so Gala day 1959 ends as every other Gala has ended since time immemorial with applause , smiles, recriminations, accusations, a dance, far too much to drink and in this case the complete collapse of the tea tent after Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes climbed the central pole scuddy bare singing the Teddy Bears Picnic. Never mind for a day the life of the working man and working woman has been celebrated. Tomorrow they will back in the fields, down the mines or on the factory floor. In the surrounding hills the gentry mine owners and factory owners pour themselves a sherry, sit back and smile. They can hear the noise of the dance, which is too loud, but tomorrow all will be back to normal, or t least they hope it will be.
Gala day July 1959