An experiential review of the Medieval Lammas Market

Booster and Speed Buzz. Photo: Alex Taylor
Booster and Speed Buzz. Photo: Alex Taylor

Few students know about the Lammas Market. It blooms only once a year (at the beginning of August, when most students are away) and lasts for five days and nights before disappearing back into history.

The Lammas Market is a charter fair, meaning it was established by a royal charter (probably around the 13th century) and can therefore only be cancelled by the Queen. The market dates back to the Middle Ages, but like many charter fairs, its origins predate recorded history.

Traditionally, Lammas marked the first harvest festival of the year. Today, the meaning of the market has little to do with the wheat harvest of Lammastide. For some, it’s a disruptive and noisy inconvenience; for others, the fair brings some welcome life to St Andrews after the summertime exodus of students turns the place into a tumbleweed town.

Lammas in 2016

Before the age of mass entertainment, the touring fair was an integral part of the social fabric of Great Britain, and its arrival marked the highlight of the year in many communities. This year, the fair marched into town on Friday 5 August. In true medieval fashion, eighteen-tonne lorries drove with website names emblazoned on their canvas sides like coats of arms on castle banners. The processional trumpet music of exhaust pipes announced the funfair’s arrival, and reels of extension leads were promptly rolled out like red carpets over Market Street.

The market is composed of two halves: a funfair and a continental trade market. The funfair had all the traditional attractions, such as the chair-o-planes, the high striker, wave swingers, waltzers, ferris wheels, fortune tellers and merry-go-rounds. It also had more contemporary thrill rides with names like Booster, Speed Buzz, Energy Storm, Jumper and Twister – all of which basically magimixed people around at 200mph, until all that was left was a spinning wheel of screaming meat. Beneath your feet, the cobbles vibrated from the bass-heavy music played by each ride or stall, and the street became a soupish medley of all the music you heard 10 years ago (licences to play new music are too expensive).

The continental trade market had the usual odd assortment of stalls selling a variety of wide-ranging meaningless stuff, such as flowerpot garden ornaments, Swiss Knife sets, dog harnesses, scarves, phone covers, Baltic Amber jewellery, canvas bags, duvets and framed posters. One stall was called Feel My Bamboo Pillow. There was the obligatory New Age stall, with predictable Peruvian flute music playing and standard merchandise like hemp ponchos, black Fruit of the Loom t-shirts with ironed-on images of wolves, leather-braided bracelets, gemstones, incense, mood rings and wooden handicrafts like dream catchers, wind chimes and rainsticks.

There was also Crepe Passion, whose employees seemed to be permanently engaged in scraping up the splattered remains of pancake suicides. The German Sausage Company was selling burnt 6oz steak burgers for £5, and Delicious Donuts made Market Street smell like a 200-metre donut.

The Culture of Travelling Showpeople

The people who run these funfairs self-identify as travelling showpeople. Unlike Romani Gypsies, Irish travellers and other travelling communities in the UK, showpeople are not considered an ethnic group.

“We’re classed as small businesspeople,” a seventh-generation showman running the bingo booth informed The Saint. Showpeople have a strong and distinct cultural identity steeped in history and ancestral ties. They are quick to disassociate themselves from gypsies – a recurring motif in conversations was the fact that they own a house somewhere and their children go to school.

The majority of Scottish showpeople come from Glasgow’s East End, where they have a yard in which they can store and repair their rides. Throughout the travelling season (which can last from February to November), showpeople attend roughly 30 fairs and live on the road in their RVs and caravans. Most of them have been doing this since they were born, and they all know each other.

“We’re like one big family,” Violet Wilmot, a septuagenarian from Airdrie who ran the rifle range and Hoop-a-Loop stall, said. Ms Wilmot was born into the business. She wore beige sandals, pearl earrings and had a thick dollop of white hair on top of her head.

Her daughter, Rose, was running the Hook-a-Duck stall a few pitches down (Rose is a VAT inspector when not helping out with the fair). Usually a whole family contributes towards the life of the fair, with sons, daughters, mothers and fathers running different stalls. They inherit their stalls from their parents. Pitches at fairs are also passed down through the generations – Ms Wilmot’s stall stands on the exact same spot where her family has traditionally stood for years.

Photo: Alex Taylor. The Lammas Phantasmagoria

The Politics of Lammas: Showpeople vs. Shopkeepers

In recent years, the market’s future has been threatened by the St Andrews Merchants’ Association. Local shopkeepers experience a decline in business during Lammas and have been waging a slow war to re-locate the funfair.

“The fair has been here a lot longer than the shops, most of which have only been here a few years,” Kevin Carter, a 52-year-old showman running the cork gun shooting gallery, said. He pointed out that his family has worked at the Lammas Market for over 160 years and added, “the shop owners don’t realise that we’re paying a good piece of rent to be here.”

Mr Carter is on the committee of the Scottish Showmen’s Guild, a division of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain (the trade association for travelling showpeople). Formed 127 years ago, the guild has around 4,700 members.

When asked about the guild, Mr Carter unlocked a small tin box and carefully removed his copy of the association’s rulebook. The Saint, however, wasn’t allowed to see inside the rulebook because it’s for the eyes of travelling showpeople only –– eyes that seem to possess some kind of ocular power that enables showpeople to see punters in different colours depending on how likely they are to p(l)ay: “I can see you’re not the right colour,” Ms Wilmot told The Saint as her eyes darted about almost instinctively through the colossal crowd, scanning for punters who were the right colour.

Funfair Sadness

There is something uncomfortably Morlockian about the almost invisible workforce of the showpeople, whose lives grind away beneath the surface of our fun. Mr Carter called Lammas a “hard fair” because of the distance they have to walk from their caravans at West Sands. They finish work at midnight and begin again at 8 am.

There is also something elusively sad about the fair, about the way the showpeople wait in the rain; about the way they frantically look for customers; about the empty rides; about the sameness of the families and teenagers wandering around; about the way the dilapidated rides keep going, loading and unloading interchangeable people until Tuesday morning when it’s all suddenly gone.

Overnight, the showpeople and traders had packed up their stands and rides, and the Lammas Market had disappeared as it was destined to from its very beginning. It left behind nothing but silence and drifts of litter banked against curbs like a kind of funfair snow.


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