Marymass through the centuries - by Neil Stirrat

Photo: from Marymass 1931: William Cousar, the oldest Carter still taking part
(related to Bob Cousar, saddler)

Photo: the late Sid Pennington
- the Irvine Burgh Halberdier brings colourful tradition to all Irvine's events

Marymass, contrary to common belief, is associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and not Mary Queen of Scots. Irvine, in earlier times, celebrated Assumption Day on the first Tuesday in August, and it was known as Mary's Mass. Market stalls were set up in the High Street and supplemented with various side-shows. When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in 1753, the town council changed the date of the weeklong celebration to the third Monday in August, and remains so to the present day. There is nothing in the records to indicate the participation of the Irvine Carters in these religious proceedings.

The first occasion that the Carters were associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, was at the Battle of Langside in 1568, when they rallied to her banner. They must have been few in numbers, as it was not until 1670, till they had sufficient numbers to form a Society. The population of Irvine at that time was only 1700. It would appear that the Cartersí annual parade through the town was planned to coincide with Mary's Mass, as they chose the third Saturday after the first Monday in August for the occasion. Thus the tradition of Marymass Saturday was established.

The Carters became a properly constituted body in 1753. They were denied membership of the Incorporated Trades, on account of them not being of a craft or manufacturers of commercial goods. However they were recognised by the town council with the allotment of a loft in the Parish Church. The Carters had now gained the respect of the locals that they so richly deserved, as it was through their labours in earlier times that Irvine had prospered. Irvine harbour at one time had been located in the depression that is now the Pitch and Putt course on the Low Green. Due to the build up of silt and sand, it was moved to its present site.

Irvine was the seaport of Glasgow, (the River Clyde was not navigable during this period) and the Carters transported the cargoes destined for Glasgow by packhorses. This was a hazardous journey as there were no roads till the early 1800s, and even then they were unsuitable for carts. When the Earl of Eglinton took to the road in his carriage he always had six men with him to lift the carriage back on to the highway should it slip off. Nothing of note took place until 1869 when Provost Brown imposed a ban on alcohol on the Moor due to the drunken behaviour of the visitors who attended the horse racing at the Cadgers racecourse, reputed to hold the oldest race meeting at the same venue anywhere in the world. Horses entered for any race had to take part in the morning procession through the town. The ban on alcohol was imposed under the threat of withholding the councilís grant towards the Marymass celebrations in future years. This ban lasted 42 years and was lifted in 1911 - that coincided with the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary on June 22nd. The ban was re-imposed in 2007 to ensure that Marymass continued as a happy family-friendly event.

Marymass was losing the publicís interest and the introduction of a Marymass Queen in 1928 helped to revitalise the proceedings. Martha McHarg has the honour of being the first Marymass Queen. Four of her schoolmates were chosen to represent the ladies in waiting Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone. Two young boys were also selected to represent Wallace and Bruce. Cadonaís Fairground was a popular attraction, and it was almost a ritual for the family to go to the "shows" on the Saturday night after a day on the Moor. A proposal to introduce motorised vehicles in the parade was rejected in 1952, and the ban still exists today.

Marymass is a "Mecca" for expatriates, as they plan their visit to their hometown to coincide with the occasion, where they can renew acquaintances with old friends at home, as well as from abroad. The singing of Auld Lang Syne at Seagate Castle nostalgically completes the weeklong celebrations.

© Neil Stirrat 14/08/01