Scarborough Fair
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Scarborough Fair -- in Ontario -- had it's origins, not in the Scarborough of Yorkshire, England, but largely in the "improvement" values of those Lowland Scots who had a great hand in the formation of the Scarborough Agricultural Society. But how did those values of self-improvement and agricultural improvement evolve? It was a long and, at times, painful process, but at least the "Fairs" part of the story involved some great fun and frolic. 


Fairs and Horse Races

            Local fairs grew out of the religious festivals. Rev. Robert Duncan of Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire, recorded in 1792:

An antient practise still continues in this parish and neighbourhood of kindling a large fire, or tawnle as it is usually termed, of wood, upon some eminence [hill], and making merry around it, upon the eve of the Wednesday of Marymass fair in Irvine . As most fair days in this country were formerly popish holy days, and their eves were usually spent in religious ceremonies and in diversions; it has been supposed, that tawnles were first lighted up by our catholic fathers, though some derive their origin from the druidical times.[i]

            We can be fairly certain that one of the "diversions" to which Rev. Duncan refers was drinking. In late eighteenth century Rutherglen in Lanarkshire, the 26 public houses were:  

... although more than sufficient for ordinary demands, are not able to accommodate strangers that frequent the fairs. To supply the deficiency, every inhabitant claims a right, established by immemorial practice, of selling ale and whisky, licence free, during the time of the fairs.[ii]

            Fairs and market days had been notorious for drinking. In 1659, Lanark Burgh Council had "ordained that the constables upoun the mercat dayes search the toun at nyne aclock for drunkardes or drokin persones". In 1693 Lanark Kirk Session reminded Burgh Council that Acts were in place to deal with "profanation of the Lord's Day, excessive drinking, and drunkenness, profane swearing, and curseing, and uther immoralities" and to "appoynt censors in public mercats and fairs".[iii]

            Some of the Parish Ministers of the early-mid nineteenth century were very critical of the fairs. Rev. Alexander Stewart of Douglas Parish, Lanarkshire, lamented in 1836:

Another circumstance very prejudicial to the morals of the people is the number of fairs, of which there are 7 in the course of the year. These the working classes keep as holidays; and as few of them think of resuming their labours till the following week, there is a great loss of time, with a most ruinous waste of means. Most of these fairs might be abolished not only without detriment, but with great advantage to the place.[iv]

In Dalserf Parish, Lanarkshire:

There is a sort of fair, accompanied by a horse-race, at the village of Larkhall in the month of June: the only purpose served by which is to collect idle people, and to promote dissipation and riot.[v]

            There seems to have been a tendency for horse races to stir fair-goers to an extreme. A quarrel on the "occasioun of ane horse race whiche was then run at Cumnoke" was evidently discussed by the Privy Council in 1610.[vi] Cumnock's March Fair was so dominated by the horse race that it was commonly known as "The Race".

            On December 26, 1717, Lanark Burgh Council was concerned that the usual outbreak of riotous behaviour at a race might adversely affect economic growth:

The baillies and councill considering that to-morrow there is a race to be run in their moor beyond Rood of Croce, by the horses of a person of qualitie and of a neighbouring gentleman, which, if encouraged, will prove beneficiall to this burgh, therefore, and to the effect they may give all encouragement to such enterprises, statute and ordain that no disturbance shall be made in the said moor the tyme of the said race by any of their inhabitants, and ordaines intimatione hereof to be made throw the toun by tuck of drumb.[vii]

             In 1662, Lanark's toun crier and his accompanist proclaimed James Mount's penalty after Mount had threatened Michell Lamb "on ane publict fair day".[viii]

            Rev. Walter L. Colvin of the Lanarkshire Parish of Bertram Shotts seems to insinuate that drinking and quarrelling at fairs may not have been all that the Church opposed in 1839: "The locality chosen for the said fairs is somewhat mal a propos, being immediately adjoining the church."[ix]

            For example, perhaps... On September 7, 1803, Mary Latta acknowledged herself with child and declared, before the Kirk Session of Old Cumnock Parish, that William McCowan:   ".. is the father of her child, and that the Guilt was committed in the house of Mrs. Mirrie, Innkeeper in Cumnock on the Day of Cumnock May Fair last... "

At the next meeting of Session:

William McCowan being interrogated as to the truth of said Declaration, positively denied the Charge, declaring that he never had any criminal correspondance with the said Mary Latta.

Mary Latta was asked if she has any Evidence to produce in corroboration of her Charge, she said she has none.

William McCowan admits the Truth of having been in company with her both on the Fair Day mentioned in last Minute and also on the Friday eight days before that fair but solemnly denies his having had any Criminal Correspondence with her then or at any time whatever.

The Session delay for the time the farther consideration of this affair till Providence may throw more light on the business.

            This was evidently not an isolated case of May Fair-frolic as, on September 29, 1803, Agnes Key acknowledged that she had "brought forth a child in unclenness" and declared that John Muir is the father and that "the Guilt was committed on the Cumnock May fair, Eighteen hundred and two years".[x]

            The matter of just travelling on Sunday to a fair was also of concern to the Church, at least in an earlier period. For "prophaneing the Sabbath Day by going out of the town ... on their Journey to a fair at some distance which was to be upon the Munday", William McKervaill, William McGawin and Charles Thomsone compeared before Session and confessed to "their great sin".[xi] In 1645, Lanark Presbytery, "taking to their consideration the profanation of the Lords day, which flowes from the keiping of fairs upon the Monday, do therefore ordane Mr. Robert Birnie to deale with the magistrats of Lanark for changing the day of thair faire".[xii]

            Rev. John Mitchell tells us of the late eighteenth century fairs in his "Memories of Ayrshire":

Markets and fairs, which occurred in every considerable village or town on set days every week, or other more distant times during the year, were by no means always well spent. At the latter, frequently called "trysts", when cattle were bought and sold, servants were hired, friends and acquaintances from remote places of the same parish or of the district saw and greeted each other with homely welcome, and with interchange of relative and local news, while perhaps they possessed themselves from stalls, erected on such occasions by vendors from a distance, of ornaments for their dress, or necessary commodities for their families. But much time was spent idly -- spirituous liquors were freely drunk, the dance and the revel were kept up, often to a late hour, and not a little licentiousness or a few quarrels and brawls frequently ensued, as might have been expected. Strange to say not only the market cross, and the wider spaces of the streets, but the churchyard itself was the scene in part of such sale, and of rustic amusement.[xiii]


Declining Economic Activity at Fairs

            Fairs were obvious occasions for the mixing of community economic activity and amusements. Farm produce, livestock, utensils, clothes and shoes were traded and sold, games and sports were played and jugglers and musicians performed. Three hundred years ago, fairs were a very major focus of local and regional economic activity.

            Indeed, in Lanark in the sixteenth century, fines were to be levied against those who sold articles on any day other than "at ane cryit fayr"[xiv], that is, a proclaimed fair or, perhaps, market. The Acts respecting official fairs and markets were designed by the burgh brass to protect the local monopolies of their brethren craftsmen and merchants.

            By the end of the nineteenth century, however, in Cumnock:

Shows of different kinds, shooting-ranges, swings, etc., offer their attractions at these fairs to the youthful crowd, while stalls filled with sweetmeats and toys, as well as with a great variety of small articles more or less useful in their nature, tempt visitors to purchase. The sale of cloth, books, kitchen and dairy requisites, together with agricultural produce, has gradually died out. Cattle and horses, too, in course of time, ceased to be offered for sale. The institution of auction marts, now universally patronised by farmers at larger centres like Ayr and Kilmarnock , hastened their disappearance.[xv]

            The gradual waning through the late nineteenth century of the economic element of Cumnock's fairs is intertwined with the careers of two public servants, Archibald McCowan, Messenger-At-Arms and Inspector of Poor, and his nephew, John McCowan, Councillor 1866-1881 and Provost 1878-1881.

            Through an Act of Parliament in 1681, the Baron of Cumnock had been granted authority to "uplift and exact the tolles, customs and other dewties pertaining thereunto". For a century and a half, without incident, the Baron collected duties "on all cattle, horses, meal, cheese, butter, and other goods, on each crame, stand, or stall where goods were exposed, and on all shows, exhibitions...". Suddenly, in 1833, one of the townsmen, James Crawford, questioned the lawfulness of Lord Bute's claim to the duties and encouraged fair participants to withhold payment. The Court ruled in favour of Lord Bute and the customs collections continued. In 1869, Lord Bute transfered his rights to the duties to the Town Council.[xvi]

      For seventeen years -- until his death at the age of 74 -- Archibald McCowan was Inspector of Poor. He died in 1866:

Never enjoying at any period of his long career the most robust health, he was frequently of late compelled by disease to desist from the active duties which devolved on him, and the mournful event, which has now taken place, was consequently not altogether unlooked for. He was for many years a member of the legal profession, the practice of which he relinquished shortly after being appointed to the Inspectorship, the duties of which he discharged in a very satisfactory manner.[xvii]

             In his New History of Cumnock, John Strawhorn reported that Lord Bute's Factor "believed that the late Mr. A. McCowan had been the last person authorised to collect the customs and the Council was given this privilege, which had apparently fallen into neglect".[xviii] Thus, in 1869, Lord Bute abandoned his rights to collect the customs from economic transactions at the Cumnock fairs. It would be interesting to discover whether the customs collection process had become neglected because of Archibald McCowan's poor health, or his death three years earlier or simply because declining sales had made the exercise rather pointless. In any event, Rev. Warrick recorded in 1899 that "the dues levied by the magistrates in recent years have amounted to 10 or 12 per annum".[xix]

         Rev. Warrick had cited the "auction marts" as a major contributing factor in the disappearance of cattle and horse sales from the fairs. On June 28, 1866, a "Notice" appeared in a local paper:

Mr. John McCowan, Auctioneer, Cumnock, begs respectfully to announce that he intends to open an AUCTION MART here, for the sale of Fat Stock, Sheep, Horses, Implements, Furniture, & c. & c., and that at the request of a number of influential Farmers, Dealers, & c., he will continue the Sales every Fortnight until further notice...[xx]

        As an auctioneer, McCowan was "very popular and very successful, and by his jokes (always pointed, if not the most polished) he never failed to keep his audience in the best of humour". He was still active in his auction business until the year of his death in 1884 at the age of 73.[xxi] Presumably, his success contributed to the eventual disappearance of cattle and horse sales at the Cumnock fairs.

            In a similar fashion, the development of permanent commercial shops eroded the usefulness of the weekly markets.

            Fairs continue to evolve as society places changing priorities on recreational, social, economic and consumer activities. Trade centres, major shopping malls, home computer video games and other developments have all had some impact on the nature of fairs. The notion of sampling a wide variety of products and amusements in one location remains a strong component.


Agricultural Societies, Fairs and Exhibitions in Upper Canada

            Following on the examples set in Britain , agricultural societies became established in Upper Canada. To promote improvements in farming, the local agricultural societies held stock exhibitions and competitions as well as ploughing matches.

            There were 120 entries at the Scarboro Agricultural Society Autumn Fair and Cattle Show, held on Friday, October 5, 1849, at J.H. Smith's Hotel.

The exhibition of stock was unusually large, and all of a very superior description. The Judges of the Dairy Produce had great difficulty in awarding their premiums for Butter: the samples were so very near alike that they would gladly have given them all premiums.

            Among the successful Scots were Mr. Buchanan, F. Thomson, James McCowan, A. Glendenning, J. Patton, G. Scott, Mr. Brownlee, J. Johnston, Robert McCowan, John Torrance and J. Weir.[xxii]

            Not all of the successful exhibitors were yet landowners. Robert and James McCowan, for example, were still tenant farmers in 1849. Farm affordability is another chapter in the study of the nineteenth century Scottish Canadian.

            By 1880, the Scarboro Fall Fair had earned a reputation as:

... one of the best Township fairs we know of... The live stock exhibit this year was good, and comprised many of the prize animals at the Industrial and Provincial Exhibitions... About 1,000 entries were made, and there were, we should judge, 1,500 to 2,000 people on the grounds.[xxiii]

            The continued success of Scarborough Fair toward the end of the century may, at least, be partly attributed to the energy of Alexander McCowan (1853-1939):

We the President and members of the Scarboro Agricultural Society, cannot let this opportunity pass, without expressing our appreciation of the able manner in which you have conducted the affairs of the Society. During the time you have held the position of Secretary, we have noticed with great pleasure your efforts to please and give satisfaction, to all who have come in contact with you. We would ask you to accept this token of our appreciation and to bid you and your wife a prosperous journey through this life, and may it be crowned with happyness and prosperity.[xxiv]

            Alex balanced his hectic farming activities with the business of the Agricultural Society. On August 1, 1892, Alex "finished making out prize list for Fair in forenoon". On September 26 he was "making entries till 12 o'clock. Got them all done that was in". On the 28th "a lot more entries came in. Got through about 11:00". September 29, the day of the Fair, was a "fine morning" and the very busy fellow "started for Fair, but had to turn back for tickets. Had a very good Fair on the whole. $270 gate receipts and stand." Two days later Alex "made out prize list for Pickering News. Got $1 for doing it".[xxv]

            Many of the Scots in Scarborough earned reputations for their farming skills and successes at fairs. Their enterprise, competitive spirit and dedication to public service were passed onto their family. Alex McCowan, Conservative MPP for East York riding, 1905-1913, and Sheriff of York County, 1913-1934, received his agricultural and public service education from his father, James Whiteford McCowan (1814-1897):

There was scarcely an agricultural exhibition in either county or township in connection with which the name of James McCowan did not appear as a prize winner for the last half century... [Two sons,] George and Alexander, who live on the homestead, lots 32 and 33, concessions C and D, composed of 220 acres, being two as highly cultivated farms as are to be found in the township... For seven years he represented the township in the Municipal Council.[xxvi]

            Similarly, Alex's cousin, Robert McCowan, was on Scarborough Council for a number of years and Township Reeve for three. A meticulous farmer, he spared no effort when it came to his prize grain. His daughter, Ruth, must be given some credit for his successes:

We have all been busy picking over oats. Papa is sowing a field for the contest and there must not be any weeds. It is a tiresome job, and there is still a bag and a half to do, a whole day's work. I have not been off the place except to church on Sunday.[xxvii]

             In early August, 1918, Robert or "Papa" was 

a judge in the standing crop competitions this year, and is away to Bobcaygeon for the rest of the week. Then he is going out to New Liskeard and Cochrane. Papa told me if I would help him make a sheaf for the Ex, he would give Mamma and I the money he got for it. 

        Ruth, reported the results: "we got the prize for our sheaf and the grain as well. They are being sent down to Ottawa Fair next week. Aunt Jenny Neilson got first prize for her socks."[xxviii] 

        Robert McCowan was nearly always awarded first prize at the Canadian National Exhibition for his sheaf of oats.[xxix] He won the world's prize for grain at Wembly, London , England .[xxx]  

             One of Scarborough 's most successful agriculturalists was James Weir (1814-1897), another "prize ploughman".[xxxi]  When the census of 1871 was taken, Weir owned 415 acres -- only two others in the northeast section of the township (12,000 acres in total) owned more than 400 acres at this time. Rather appropriately, he earned for himself the "sobriquet of Buccleugh"[xxxii] after the prominent Scottish borders landlord. His obituary reads, in part:

One of the oldest and wealthiest citizens of Scarboro died ... in the person of James Weir ... He followed farming all his life, and was considered one of the best and most successful farmers in a section noted for good farmers.

             In the mid nineteenth century, agricultural fairs greatly benefited the local economy, particularly in those areas more remote from the larger centres. Indeed, the cattle fair brought the community into the regional economy. Cattle buyers arrived from outside both township and county. The village butcher and itinerant cattle drover were no longer the only buyers for the local farmer. Drunkenness and fighting, however, were drawbacks[xxxiii], at least in the early years.

[i]               Statistical Account, Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire, 1792, p. 178-9. Marymass Fair "begins on the third Monday of August and continues the whole week". (Statistical Account, Irvine Parish, Ayrshire, 1791, p. 257.)

[ii]               Statistical Account, Rutherglen Parish, Lanarkshire, p. 564.

[iii]              Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 172, 246-7.

[iv]              New Statistical Account, Lanark, p. 496, Douglas Parish.

[v]               New Statistical Account, Lanark, p. 763, Dalserf Parish, by Rev. John Russell, 1840.

[vi]              Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 308-9, refering to the Register of the Privy Council.

[vii]             Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 297-8.

[viii]             Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 189.

[ix]              New Statistical Account, Lanark, p. 634, Bertram Shotts Parish.

[x]               Old Cumnock Parish Kirk Session Minutes, September 7, 18 and 29, 1803.

[xi]              Old Cumnock Parish Kirk Session Minutes, July 5 and 8, 1705.

[xii]             Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 372.

[xiii]             Scottish History Society, "Memories of Ayrshire" (p. 286) by Rev. John Mitchell.

[xiv]             October, 1570, Royal Burgh of Lanark, p. 53.

[xv]             Warrick, Old Cumnock, 1899, p. 307-8.

[xvi]             Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 305-307.

[xvii]            Newspaper clipping in a scrapbook kept by John McCowan Hill (1881-1969), private collection.

[xviii]           John Strawhorn, Cumnock, p. 85.

[xix]             Warrick, Old Cumnock, p. 307.

[xx]             Newspaper clipping in a scrapbook kept by John McCowan Hill, private collection.

[xxi]             Newspaper clipping in a scrapbook kept by John McCowan Hill, private collection.

[xxii]            British Colonist, October 16, 1849.

[xxiii]           Markham Economist, October 21, 1880, as printed in "Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments", Vol. 4, No. 3, 1980.

[xxiv]           Signed at Scarboro, Feb. 2, 1891, by William Patton, President, T. Jackson, Vice President, and other members. Alex' wife, Georgeanna Ashbridge, died later that year at 35.

[xxv]            Alexander McCowan's diary for 1892, passages from which are in Carr, James McCowan Family.

[xxvi]           Obituary, from the Pherill Scrapbook, private collection.

[xxvii]           Letter written by Ruth McCowan Heron, April 21, 1914, (as printed in Carr, James McCowan Family, p. 27).

[xxviii]          Letters from Ruth McCowan Heron to her husband, Jack, serving in Europe (as printed in Carr, James McCowan Family, p. 29).

[xxix]           Interview with Fred Palk, June 6/93.

[xxx]            Annis, Annis Annals, p. 44.

[xxxi]           Boyle, Scarboro, photograph of James Weir and three other "Prize Ploughmen", p. 86.

[xxxii]           The obituary of George Weir (B 1802), Markham Economist, 3/18/1875: "...These [4] brothers were all successful, which they owed to their industry, perseverance and good guiding. One of them indeed has acquired possessions that have earned for him in the neighborhood the sobriquet of Buccleugh..." (As published in "Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments", Vol. 3, #4, p. 15.)

[xxxiii]          Jones, Agriculture in Ontario , p. 283.


The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #3


The annual Fair was the highlight of the year in Ontario's rural communities. Practically all townships had a Fair.  Community involvement was a keyword and that involvement began at an early age at school fairs... 

Neil, Jack and Blake Weir, born on a farm east of Malvern in Scarborough, were the three eldest sons of the non-drinking local politician and farmer, James Muir Tanner Weir. In about 1922:

My younger brother, Blake, was six years old. He was bound and determined to enter the riding contest at School Fair on this old mare, "Queen". People had a great laugh out of seeing him on that old mare.

Neil Weir, July 13/93

And Neil was on a beautiful horse of my Grandfather Hall's. I think it rather annoyed Neil that I got sixth prize. Dad figured I was given a prize only because I was the youngest competitor.

Blake Weir, July 11/93

My father, Jim Weir, played soccer, or football as it was called 65 years ago. He was a rough, tough, kind of nasty player but quite good. He was about forty seven at this particular time, too old to play soccer -- at least the way he played. He always seemed to have some nasty tricks up his sleeve. One year at Scarborough Fair, some guy tried to trip Father and Father didn't like it. A minute or so later -- I can see him yet -- Dad dropped down on his hands and knees right in front of this guy as they were running. The guy must have gone at least 20 feet through the air. I heard a spectator yell "You've been a good old piano, Jimmie, but you've pretty near played your last tune". And I don't think he played organized soccer any more -- but he would kick a ball for years after that. By the way, I never saw my father take a drink.

Jack Weir, July 13/93

From Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play