Researched by Colin Findlay
© Rutherglen Heritage Society
Anyone who has ever visited Rutherglen will be aware of the disproportionate width of Main Street. This distinctive feature harks back to at least the 1600s when Rutherglen was best known for its large horse fairs, which took place in the broad Main Street and surrounding streets.
Above, 1895 watercolour by J. P. Cree showing Rutherglen's wide Main Street. Many of the buildings depicted have gone, including the 1794 Old Parish church, seen to the left of the town hall, with St. Mary's tower beyond. That church was demolished in the same year the last horse fair took place, five years after this picture was painted, and was replaced by the present church building. St. Mary's tower survives.
Image © South Lanarkshire Council
By the 1600s the Fairs were held seven times each year and Rutherglen was renowned across Scotland and beyond as a place to buy and sell draught-horses, an essential part of farm and industrial life up until the late nineteenth century.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the advent of mechanised transport led to the inevitable decline in popularity of the horse for agricultural purposes, the Fairs consequently reduced in popularity and finally ended in 1900.
These fairs were major events in the town's calendar and are described in some detail within three of the main texts covering Rutherglen's history. These accounts are reproduced below in whole or part, along with contemporary photographs and press cuttings.
Extract from Rev. David Ure’s History of Rutherglen and East Kilbride, 1793
" The fairs of Rutherglen have undergone very material changes. At a time prior to the date of the old ballad already mentioned (1786), Horses seem to have been the chief articles of sale……. for which the fairs of Rutherglen have become famous. The horses are mostly for the draught, and are deservedly esteemed the best for that purpose in Europe. They are generally of the Lanark and Carnwath breed, which was introduced into the county more than a century ago. It is said that one of the predecessors of the present Duke of Hamilton brought with him to Scotland six coach horses originally from Flanders, and sent them to Strathaven, the castle of which was, at that time, habitable.
The horses were all stallions, of a black colour, and remarkably handsome. The farmers in the neighbourhood, readily embracing the favourable opportunity, crossed this foreign breed with the common Scotch kind, and thereby procured a breed superior to either. From this a strong and hardy race of horses was soon spread through the country, but in many places, owing to neglect, was left to degenerate.
A high degree of merit, however, is due to the farmers in the upper part of the county for their unremitting endeavours to improve this excellent breed. They pay strict attention to every circumstance respecting the colour, the softness and hardness of the hair; length of body, neck, and legs; but chiefly to the shape of the back, breast, and shoulders.
No inducement whatever can lead them to encourage the breed of a horse that is not possessed of the best qualities. Their laudable attempts have proved successful, and Britain is now reaping the merited fruits of their well-directed care. Every farm almost, through the extent of several parishes, supports six or at least four mares, the half of which are allowed annually to foal. The colts or ' twelve-month-olds,' are mostly sold at the fairs of Lanark and Carnwath, and bring from £5 to £20 each. They are generally purchased by farmers from the Counties of Renfrew and Ayr, where they are trained for the draught till they are about five years old; they are then sold at the fairs of Rutherglen and Glasgow from £25 to £35 each; from thence they are taken to the Lothians, England, etc., where they excel in the plough, the cart, and the wagon."
Left, this 1980s drawing imagines how geologist, historian and minister David Ure may have looked based on a description of his appearance in his biography. Here, he is clearly dressed for collecting fossils rather than delivering sermons from the pulpit.
Image of David Ure provided courtesy of Chris Ladds: © East Kilbride & District Historical Archive 2020
Above, Rutherglen Horse Fair, Main Street looking east, c 1895 Image: W. Ross Shearer
Extract from Rambles Round Glasgow, Hugh MacDonald, 1856
‘’Rutherglen has long been famed for its horse and cattle fairs, seven of which are held on the main street of the burgh annually, and generally attract considerable crowds of buyers and sellers from all parts of the country. The Clydesdale breed of horses, which has attained such a well-deserved celebrity for its excellent qualities, was generally exposed in greater numbers and in greater perfection at the Rutherglen fairs than at any other market.
The principal fairs are the Beltane in May, and St. Luke’s in November, when the town is generally crowded with strangers. According to the last census, the number of the population was 6,947.’’
 For more information on the Clydesdale breed and its origins see clydesdalehorsesociety.com
Above, Rutherglen Fair looking west, c1895 Image: W Ross Shearer
Extracts from Rutherglen Lore, W. Ross Shearer, 1922
"The best horses in the market were always to be found at what came to be known as the “Clydesdale's Stance." This, as seen in the right hand corner of the picture on the opposite page, extended from Mill Street corner up to the Manse gate or beyond, while at busy Fairs it continued west from Mill Street down Cathcart Street."
"The Fairs were red-letter days in the lives of young Ruglonians, because they justified a holiday from school at least five or six times a year; besides, to boys with ambitions, and what boy lacks ambition? they opened up possibilities of " making good " not only financially but in the estimation of their chums at school. To earn a shilling as horse attendant at a Fair, or by assisting at other times on a "soor-milk cairt," was something to brag about, but to be permitted to hold a brace, or a trio of stallions, was to become a school hero right away."
William Ross Shearer
"All classes of people attended Ru'glen Fair. They came from every part of the three kingdoms, many of them travelling for days to reach it, while certain Fairs had an augmentation of agricultural workers at feeing times. The first arrivals led into the town about nine in the morning, and by mid-day all was bustle and excitement; the innkeepers, driving a roaring custom, could often, it is said, pay a year's rent out of the profit of a day's drawings."
"The sights of the Fair were varied as they were, numerous. Conspicuous with her cans and cutty stool was " Old Sally ", who never failed to frequent the cow stance, and remembered in the following poem as:
The little old dame with the crumpled face.
Who milk'd the cows in the market-place.
And handseld the liquid she hawk'd for sale
With a draught from the cow with the iron tail,
There were vendors of ice-cream and milk coco-nuts.
Fruit vendors with melons in fine juicy cuts ;
There were makers of sweetstuffs, who kept on the stump,
Crying, ' Hoy! Sugar candy! a penny a lump !'
There were stalls for the Jennys and stalls for the Jocks,
Ribbons, hosiery, laces, and chic linen smocks ;
Neck-ties and braces, suspenders and studs,
To charm the yokels and hold up their duds.
Of sour-cakes the Fair folks could ne'er get enough,
Though baked thin as wafers, their chewing was cheuch ;
But the acme of bliss was attained, it would seem.
When you quaffd a pint flagon of famed Ruglen ream.
But the ginger-bread stall was the stall of the fair,
Every young gaberlunzie stood lounging round there:
To dine ' a-la-buffet' on ginger-bread and swaats
Was like feast of the gods to those street democrats.
For Shearer's full description of Rutherglen's fairs, see Rutherglen Lore Chapter VIII 'Rutherglen Fairs and Customs', beginning on page 93.
Above left, horse fair in King Street and above right in Main Street, both c. 1895. Images; W. Ross Shearer
Newspaper reports from 1872 on cattle and horse sales at Rutherglen Fair
From the Glasgow Herald, 31st. October 1872
From the Dundee Courier, 12th. June 1872
Above, Rutherglen Horse Fair, Main Street looking west, c. 1895 Image: W. Ross Shearer
With many thanks to Ian Barr