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Major exhibition planned to boost historic gypsy fair

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Plans are being drawn up for a unique exhibition in the summer, aimed at boosting the historic, but dwindling, St Boswells Fair.

Held annually on July 18, the Saint’s Day of Boisil in the Gregorian calendar, the gypsy fair stretches back to the early 17th century.

Once attracting gypsy families from across Britain, the event now struggles to welcome more than a handful.

But plans are underway to host a major exhibition about the fair, in St Boswells Village Hall, during the weeks either side of this year’s event in July.

The word is also going out to traditional gypsy families across the country to attend the event and save it from slipping into obscurity and the history books.

Not without controversy at times in the past, the current fair is a shadow of its former self.

But now, with the backing of the village community council, Scottish Borders Council and leading gypsy families, Borders Equality Forum chairman, George Higgs, is co-ordinating efforts to hold the exhibition of photographs, archive film and artefacts connected with the fair.

He is also hoping gypsy families themselves will bring more of the traditional horse-drawn caravans and their ponies for people to admire.

Mr Higgs told us: “The fair has been going on since at least 1600, but died away a bit in recent times.

“Yet it is a major part of Borders culture and history and it would be a great shame if it died out altogether.

“So, with the backing of the local community council, SBC and ourselves [Borders Equality Forum], a meeting was held last summer with the leading gypsy families to see what they thought.

“The main families like the Morrisons, Lees and Kennedys were very supportive and, as well as the exhibition, we hope we can attract more gypsy families to help boost the event.”

The history of the fair is ancient. Prior to 1621, it was held somewhere near the old church of St Boisil.

But after serious flooding of the fair at Maxton Haugh in 1743, it was decided to permanently move it to The Green at St Boswells.

Originally a sheep fair, it steadily grew to include cattle and horses.

And by the early 1900s, there could be as many as 1,000 horses being offered for sale.

While the men concentrated on selling horses and other livestock, the women went door-to-door in the village, selling clothespegs, paper flowers and haberdashery, much of which they made themselves during the winter.

There would also be a range of stalls and sideshows, such as coconut shies, shooting galleries and boxing booths, and not forgetting the traditional gypsy fortune tellers.

In fact, so popular was the fair among ordinary Borderers that the Ettrick Shepherd, famous poet, James Hogg, turned down an invitation to the coronation of King George IV in 1820, as attending would have meant missing the Fair.

Mr Higgs, who was awarded the MBE last year for services to community relations, plays a major role in liaising with the gypsy and travelling families who come through the region each year.

He goes out to meet and greet them all, ensuring they are supplied with leaflets and information on sites and public services in an effort to foster better relationships and avoid conflict with local communities.

He continued: “The fair is a major cultural part of our Borders heritage and more needs to be made of that.

“The exhibition will also be a way of helping people learn a bit more about gypsy culture.

“I would like to hear from anyone who may have old photographs or films of the fair, artefacts connected with gypsy culture, that we could borrow for the exhibition.”

Anyone with items wishing to contact Mr Higgs can reach him on 07762 403531 or by email at higgs@stboswells.demon.co.uk

 

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