Gala Days Exhibition
The gala day is an important day in the calendar of many villages and towns across Scotland. Unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of most of this year's festivities. During this difficult time, West Lothian Council Museum Service invites you to celebrate this important community celebration.
The origins of the gala day
In many mining areas of Scotland the children's gala day celebrations often evolved from miners' gala days. The story in West Lothian is a bit different. Some of West Lothian's gala days began as Friendly Society sports days or demonstrations. In return for a small weekly payment, friendly societies helped members who became ill or unemployed but they also held special events. Processions which were called demonstrations were attended by members dressed in special regalia and carrying large colourful banners. In other areas, the gala day has evolved from a sports day. In Blackburn, there was a village fair which dated back to at least the 18th century. This was a "feeing fair" where farm workers could find employment and farmers could in turn find workers. The day was also a time for fun. There were stalls selling foods, drinks and trinkets as well as a sports programme. Although the feeing fair stopped in the late 19th century, the sports continued until 1910. The following year a committee was set up to use the remaining funds to create a children's sports day.
The Gala Day Committee
Gala days may only last for a day but they take months of hard work and organisation to plan. This is the job of the gala day committee. Gala day committees are made up of volunteers from the local community. Committees member have to hold lots of fundraising events over the course of a year to pay for the bid day. Some communities find it difficult to get committee members putting the gala day under threat of cancellation
Arches and Decorations
Towns and villages are traditionally decorated for gala days. Greenery for arches was collected from the local woods. Men traditionally worked together to create elaborate structures in the days leading up to the big event. Whitburn had its first gala day arch in 1908. It was erected in the West End of the town and featured elaborate embellishments including suspended glass balls, crowns, fans and roses.
Although we now associate arches with gala days, there were used in local celebrations long before West Lothian's first gala days. In 1744 Linlithgow Town Council paid for a large arch to celebrate the King's birthday. The finished arch was decorated with branches and fruit.
Processions and Floats
The gala day procession has created a colourful spectacle on West Lothians streets since the earliest gala celebrations. These processions are traditionally led by brass bands and vibrant banners. Decorated floats have always played a prominent part in the gala procession. These were originally horse-drawn carts decorated with greenery like miniature arches, but became much more elaborate as time passed. By the 1930s, increasing use was made of motor lorries to carry decorations and participants.
Getting Dressed Up
The gala day was traditionally an occasion for children to get dressed in their best clothes. New outfits would often be purchased just for the occasion. In the early 20th century, local newspapers were filled with advertisements for children's clothing around the time of gala day celebrations. In 1909, J. McNaughton's advertised special Children's Day purchases including "pretty dresses" and hats for the girls and "nice suits" and caps for the boys.
The Gala Queen
The "Queen" was a popular feature at gala days in West Lothian, particularly after Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Broxburn crowned their first gala queen, Myra Hardie, in 1952. She arrived at the Coronation in a shiny Rolls Royce lent for the occasion by the S.C.W.S Undertaking Department. Queen Myra wore white whilst her ladies in waiting were dressed in blue. The honour of crowning the queen is typically given to a local dignitary. On this occasion, the honour was performed by Mrs Shields. You can see a video of the ceremony at National Library of Scotland - Broxburn Gala Day, 1952
Going to the shows is a gala day highlight for many children. However, the funfair hasn't always being popular with those involved in the organisation of gala days. In 1930, Whitburn gala had its first shows despite protests from the gala day committee. In 1947 the Broxburn Co-operative who were sponsoring the Winchburgh gala day declared that the shows were an unnecessary distraction from the sports programme. They also expressed concern that the stalls represented a "moral danger to children." Despite threats of boycotts from parents, there were no shows at the gala.
Gala Day Sports
Sporting events are an established part of most local gala days and celebrations often finished with an afternoon of races. The races included familiar events such as the three-legged race as well the now unusual needle and thread race. Nobody was left out and many local galas had a older people's race for the over 60s!
Memories of West Lothian's Gala Days
In 2016 the Museums Service worked with the Living Memory Association on a project recording local memories of the gala day. You can download the project booklet from the bottom of this page.