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A Workers’ Gala

Craig Dalzell

One of the highlights of my summer growing up involves a tradition that appears a wee bit strange to many of my friends living in other parts of Scotland, across the UK, or beyond. And that’s our annual village gala day. It’s usually marked by the council coming around the week before to tie plastic bunting to the lampposts (the section directly outside my house is red, white and blue in contrast to the standard rainbow of the rest of the street. I’m absolutely sure that has nothing to do with the prominent pro-indy sticker in our window…) and then on the morning itself – usually a Saturday – when some of the houses flagrantly breach copyright and trademark laws by decorating their houses with various cartoon characters, superheroes or some other commercially exploitable symbol of Capitalism directed at kids this year before finally, just after most folk have probably woken up…the band starts playing.

For many years I would have been in that band so I do apologise to anyone I’ve woken up over the years with my tuba but this year I was merely a spectator as the procession marched past our house this weekend – though that didn’t stop my neighbour noticing me humming along to the bass line of Slaidburn as they got close. It was a bit smaller than previous years though this was a major step up from last year when it was cancelled due to lack of organisational capacity in the village – a holdover from the general malaise in community spirit we’ve seen since Covid and the cost of living crisis. It’s not that I think people aren’t interested (there was uproar in the village at the news of the cancellation) but that socio-economic pressures have made sure that many folk simply aren’t able to contribute to community events in the way that they might have in the past (there were few volunteers at the time to help avert the crisis).

Gala days in Scotland have deep roots and those roots do wrap strongly around Royalism and praise of the Establishment – We’re all familiar with the role of the Gala Queen, a girl from the village nominated alongside a court of other children to represent the authority of the realm and the face of the celebrations, but it runs even deeper than that and even touches on my own family history.

After the 1715 Rising Robert Dalzell, 5th Earl of Carnwath, was convicted of treason and stripped of land and titles (he was neither the first nor the last Dalzell to be involved in a Scottish constitutional debate, though I tend to think I’ve chosen more peaceful methods than he did, not that it has shielded me from accusations of extremism). His lands in Carnwath were acquired by the Lockhart family, with the patriarch becoming Lord Lockhart of Carnwarth. It was his son who is credited with starting the first gala day in the 1770s when he invited the local miners on his land to a feast to celebrate his birthday.

And this brings us to the other deep root that gala days represent – workers and their struggle. While the first gala day was explicitly a celebration of Aristocracy, their spread through Scotland came on the back of celebrations of victories of the workers and the people. Paisley still celebrates Sma’ Shot Day to mark weavers being paid for labour that had previously been exploited from them by their employers, the Lanark Lanimer Day (which, for reasons of terminological exactitude, is not a gala day and many Lanarkians will get very upset if you call it one despite it looking almost entirely like one to any outsider) isn’t just a riding of the marches of the old tax border of the Royal Burgh but also celebrates a victory of the people and their right to access land that, as it turned out, had been stolen by the local laird. And, because the miners aren’t by any stretch done with setting traditions, we have the example of Kirkcaldy gala day – where in 1871 the trade union won the right to work no longer than eight hours a day and marked the victory with a gala day and called for workers and bosses to come and meet as equals (it’s recorded that none of the bosses attended).

The significance of workers coming together in community cannot be understated. Like us today, they were overworked, underpaid, exploited and often given far too little time in which to live their lives. The eight hour day, five day week was a major victory of the time but cannot be the endpoint as we should keep pushing for a four day week as standard as well as a Universal Basic Income to ensure that no-one is compelled to work out of fear of destitution. And we should try to realise that the concept that our “spare time” is what we do outwith work is in fact the very opposite of the truth – our “spare time” is what we have left over after we live our lives that we can spare to sell to someone in addition to our skills and our labour. It’s victories like that that allow us to give more of ourselves to our friends, our family, our neighbours and our community. It’s victories like that that allow us to take some of our time for life back from those who would work us for their profit and use it to dress up, play music and have fun. And it’s working together that will help keep those victories in our collective mind as we maintain the traditions set by the workers and celebrate our next village gala day.

Whether Queen, Laird, Boss or Worker – Happy Gala Day to all, as equals, as peers, as citizens and as people – though may the next Gala Queen be an elected President.

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