GLASGOW Fair is one of the oldest holidays in Scotland. It began with a focus on trade, later becoming known for its amusements and then the city’s holiday fortnight.

Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives

The Fair was established in the 1190s when Bishop Jocelin of Glasgow was granted the right to hold an annual eight-day fair in July by William the Lion. Its original emphasis was on trade, primarily of horse, cattle and produce markets, first held within the boundaries of Glasgow Cathedral. People often travelled a distance to buy and sell at Glasgow fair markets, which were free from tolls and under the protection of the king. Food and drink stalls and popular entertainments were laid on for fair-goers.

Glasgow Times: Picture courtesy of Glasgow City Archives

By the beginning of the 19th century, when the markets had removed to other parts of the city, the focus shifted from trade to entertainment. The Fair evolved to become an annual festival of circuses, fairground rides, shows and other amusements where customers, especially the working classes, could watch the performances of touring actors and entertainers for a small entrance fee. The booths and stalls were crowded round Glasgow Green and Saltmarket.

Glasgow Times: Glasgow City Archives' Glasgow Fair records.

In 1815 a ground rent for stall holders was introduced and the proceeds went initially to the cost of maintaining the city’s wells. The City Archives hold the Council accounts and those for 1815 list the entertainment and attractions offered to Glasgow citizens and its visitors during the fair. This included a Punch’s opera, wax works and ‘dwarfs’ (40), wild beasts, broad sword exercise and a fat pig!

During the Fair in 1815 Glaswegians could also enjoy three circuses, one of which was Codona. whose act was described as ‘tumbling and deceptions.’ Frank Codona, who had settled in Scotland in the 19th century, founded the Codona circus dynasty, who became the greatest international circus stars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The Fair continued to provide amazing entertainment and attractions, including the appearance in about 1827 of a Monsieur Chabert, who promised to enter a hot oven and swallow phosphorus.

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As the event evolved into an annual festival of circuses, fairground rides, shows and amusements, Glasgow’s industrialists gave their workers their annual holiday during the week of the Fair. In time, Glaswegians began to spend their holidays in the countryside or in the towns and villages on the Firth of Clyde and Ayrshire coast, travelling “doon the watter” on paddle steamers. It became a Fair Fortnight for many workers after WWI.

In 1871 the shows moved to Vinegar Hill in Camlachie, but the Fair returned to the Green in the 20th century to a new home on Flesher’s Haugh.