Why is Blackpool so popular with Scots?

Blackpool tower A visit to Blackpool is a must for many Scots during the summer and autumn holiday periods

Stepping off the train in Blackpool one morning in early July, you could be forgiven for thinking you were embarking on a holiday in Glasgow.

Scottish accents are everywhere, coming from elderly couples eating fish and chips on the seafront and small, excited children petitioning their parents for a visit to Madame Tussauds or the Sea Life centre.

Edinburgh Castle Rock and bottles of Irn-Bru are on sale alongside sticks of Blackpool rock. A stall selling football merchandise has whole cabinets of Celtic and Rangers paraphernalia.

Hotels and B&Bs scattered along the promenade have names with distinctly Scottish overtones: Strathdene, Gleneagles and the 100 Pipers Hotel.

'Doon the watter'

So why is this English seaside resort so popular with Scots?

Allan Brodie, an architectural historian for English Heritage and co-author of Blackpool's Seaside Heritage, traces the connection back to the 19th Century, which saw the start of the "Glasgow Fair Fortnight".

The week's holiday, which was later extended to a fortnight, saw factories and shipyards shut all over Glasgow at the end of July, allowing some rare recreational time for workers.

Similar holidays took place at in different parts Scotland - such as the Edinburgh Trades and Aberdeen Trades - but it was normally only for a week and timings would vary.

At first, Glaswegians mainly used their break to head "doon the watter", taking steamboats down the Clyde to the Ayrshire coast.

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Does Glasgow Fair Fortnight still exist?
Holidaymakers in 1936 Holidaymakers in 1936
  • Not really. The tradition - which was known as Wakes Week in northern England - faded with the decline of manufacturing and the standardisation of holidays in England and Wales
  • In Scotland, local authorities can still determine their holiday times and long weekends often correspond to the older trades week holiday
  • The name has been preserved in the form of a long weekend before the third Monday of July, known as the Glasgow Fair
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Then the spread of the railway in the 1840s put Blackpool within easy reach, Brodie explains, and its popularity soared as it provided "everything you wanted at a price you could afford".

The connection between Glasgow and the west of Scotland became particularly strong because of that easy access, according to Dr Alistair Durie, an expert in history and politics at Stirling University, whereas Scarborough and Whitby were favoured destinations for people in the east of Scotland.

The tradition remained strong until the 1960s, when industries associated with the holiday began to shut down.

Schools out

Nowadays, it is early July that is a particularly Caledonian affair in Blackpool. That's because Scottish school holidays start earlier than most English ones.

Nigel Paulson, who works in the Galleon Cafe, says he always knows when it's the start of the Scottish holidays because his cash register starts filling up with Scottish notes.

Blackpool Council is fully aware of the situation. It even targets the Scottish market with a "Blackpool's Back" campaign that feature adverts made specifically for Scottish TV, timed to coincide with the Scottish school holidays.

Nicky, Stephen, Lisa and Pete from Paisley Stephen, Nicky and their family, and family friends Pete and Lisa, have travelled to Blackpool from Paisley

Stephen, from Paisley, Renfrewshire, who's paused on the steps down to the beach, has travelled there with partner, Nicky, and another couple, Pete and Lisa. Their brood, four children ranging in age from four to seven, dash up and down around them.

"There's plenty to do for the kids. Usually you get good weather, and you've got the piers, rides, donkeys and the Sea Life centre," Stephen says.

Brian and Leslie Campbell, a couple in their 30s who have travelled to the holiday destination from Ayrshire, say the resort is also less busy than later in the summer.

The Scottishness of Blackpool lies not just in the people who travel there but the people who live and work there. The Tam O'Shanter B&B - now run by English owners - has kept the name. The Crazy Scots Bar proudly displays saltires on its chalkboard signs.

Tam O'Shanter B&B, Blackpool
Celtic and Rangers merchandise on sale

One hotel - the Fairhaven - has its porch gate propped open with a tartan doorstop, embroidered with a Scottie dog. In the small interior bar an elderly Scottish couple are having a drink.

John Grierson, co-owner of the Fairhaven, moved to Blackpool from Peebles in the Borders 15 years ago.

He's happy the hotel attracts "loyal Blackpool people", and describes their Scottish guests as a "great clientele - people who come back year after year".

But he suggests that it's becoming a less popular destination, in part due to competition from package holidays.

Getting harder

It's a view echoed at the Balmoral Hotel on the promenade, which has stood there since the 1950s. Its deputy manager, Martin Mistry, argues it's hard for them to compete with hotels in Spain because VAT is much lower there.

Continuing the tour of Scottish hospitality leads to the Staymor Guest House, where the red lion of Scotland flies outside alongside the Union Jack.

The Staymor is owned by Eddie McErlain, who moved down from Perth in central Scotland 25 years ago.

The Staymor Guest House
The Staymor Guest House

He thinks the hotel business has suffered due to the improvement of roads between Blackpool and Scotland, allowing people to come for daytrips or overnight rather than for a whole week.

He also feels that Blackpool's not considered "cool" enough these days.

When he was a boy, "Blackpool was the place to go. On the promenade, it was like ants teeming - you couldn't move," he says.

He estimates that in the 1980s 95% of his guests used to be Scottish, but now, he says "regulars are a dying breed".

Sheila Craig, a retired teacher who's visiting for the day with her husband as part of a coach tour, shares memories of going to Blackpool as a girl and staying in a caravan park "full of Scots".

Fair fortnight legacy

She thinks that Blackpool looks "a bit run-down" these days and people could be put off by the impression that "things are geared towards hen and stag groups".

But back on the seafront the family group from Paisley seem unconvinced by the theory that fewer Scots are heading for Blackpool.

"He's Scottish just there; everyone I've spoken to is Scottish," Stephen points out.

They've even met people from the same area of Paisley - Ferguslie to be exact - that they're from.

The Glasgow Fair Fortnight might be a dying memory, but its legacy for Blackpool is alive and well.

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What do holidaymakers think of Scottish independence?

Opinion seems fairly evenly divided among Scots in Blackpool when it comes to the Scottish independence referendum.

John Grierson of the Fairhaven Hotel says it's "a disgrace" that he won't get a vote.

But Eddie McErlain at the Staymor seems happy enough to sit this one out, pointing out: "If you're not in the club, you shouldn't get to vote on the rules."

Stephen from Paisley says he will be voting Yes in order to "give more control over our laws to our own country".

But Mr Grierson is adamant Scotland should stay in the Union "because we haven't been told enough about what would happen" in an independent Scotland and says he would be voting No if he had a vote.

Several kiosks along the prom advertise palm readings and fortunes told, but Gypsy Jane Anne objects to being asked to predict the outcome of the referendum.

"In order to do that kind of thing, I'd need to take a look at Alex Salmond's hands," she says.

Scotland Decides
  • A referendum on whether Scotland should become independent is to take place
  • People resident in Scotland will be able to take part in the vote, answering the "yes/no" question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
  • The referendum will take place on Thursday 18 September, 2014
  • Go to the BBC's Scotland Decides page for analysis, background and explainers on the independence debate.

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