High up on Kilbarchan Steeple, a bronze statue of 16th-century piper Habbie Simpson watches silently over the village.

But legend has it that, on the first Saturday of June each year, Habbie springs to life and leads the procession of one of Scotland’s most historic festivals.

Traditionally, Lilias Day was marked with a cattle market, races and a procession of men from different trades banging drums and waving flags.

Apart from a few revivals, the festival died out at the end of the 19th century, before it was fully resurrected in the late 1960s, thanks to a team of dedicated enthusiasts.

Now a newly-published book – Listen Closely: An Oral History of Kilbarchan 1900-2000 – tells the story of how villagers reinvented the celebration. 

Anne Grieve recalls the first revived Lilias Day, named after the daughter of an 18th-century laird, taking place in the playground of the village school in 1968.

She said: “There was a fancy dress parade which started at the War Memorial. The event was opened in the park by Jack House, a famous Glasgow journalist. People moved between the park and the school.

“The historic characters wore some of the pre-war costumes and others were clad in costumes made from old curtains.”

The Gazette: Ian Miller as St Barchan back in 1968Ian Miller as St Barchan back in 1968

Stallholders were all in competition for funds, although they largely relied on games of chance.

Meanwhile, the Young Farmers stall laid on an event that would not have looked out of place in the time of Habbie himself.

Jeff Webster recalled: “There was tossing of a hay bale over a bar. There was a stand and you had to take a pitchfork and you flung it.

“I won it. I don’t think I got anything but the prestige. I was skinny, with no muscles.”

The revival proved so successful that the festival was made into an annual event and subsequent years saw the arena in the park being fenced off the evening before Lilias Day.

Houses and shops were decorated ahead of the celebrations, with prizes awarded to those judged to be the best.

The Gazette: Jeff Webster shared happy memoriesJeff Webster shared happy memories

Georgina Steven said: “Friday nights, everyone was out decorating their houses and people used to come up from Johnstone to see what was happening.”

On Lilias Day, Habbie would be summoned down from the steeple by St Barchan – the saint after whom the village was named.

Habbie then piped the procession to the park, where there were stalls, inter-primary school football matches, tug-of-war, cycle polo, dog demonstrations and even piano smashing, often rounded off by the Golden Lion parachutists, who swooped in to land in the arena.

Ian Miller recalled: “What I most remember is walking through the streets as St Barchan and the cat calls from your pals as you went by. It was great.

“The houses all decorated, it was a magic thing.”

Apart from the historical procession, which involved many costumes and people, various organisations and neighbours in streets also competed with one another to decorate floats.

Jeff added: “I started off as an ancient Briton in a potato sack – not a pretty sight – and then I graduated to the Victorian wedding. I was the bridegroom, I looked like Albert Steptoe.

“Then I was the escort to one of the ladies-in-waiting and, every year up to that year, they’d been in a coach but, that year, there was no coach.”

The Gazette: Lilias Day arches were a common feature of the festival in olden timesLilias Day arches were a common feature of the festival in olden times

As a fundraising event, Lilias Day also became an important source of revenue for local organisations and businesses.

Jan Howitt, who managed the Wine Club stall, told The Gazette: “One year, we organised a raffle, with the prize being a bottle of whisky, and somebody half-inched it from the table.

“So, the next year, we filled a bottle with cold tea and hid the whisky in a safe place but, when somebody won it, whoever handed it over forgot that the bottle was filled with tea.

“We were able to give the chap who won the correct bottle later on. It was a good laugh at the time.”

Lilias Day would end with Habbie leading the crowd to the Steeple, where he was rewarded with a dram, before taking up his usual place again.

As he disappeared, a large Saltire, which had hidden Habbie’s statue earlier in the day, was raised and he resumed his silent watch over the village.

The Gazette: Jan Howitt managed the Wine Club stallJan Howitt managed the Wine Club stall

While there will be no colourful parade of floats in Kilbarchan this Saturday, due to the Covid pandemic, villagers are still being encouraged to decorate their homes and gardens, as well as visit the virtual online stalls selling local goods.

Graeme Stockton, chair of the Lilias Day Committee, said: “It’s disappointing that we still can’t do the full celebrations this year, as the reason we do Lilias Day is to help local organisations raise funds and bring the village together.

“I would like to thank people for all the support and help they’re giving us and we will endeavour to put on the best show possible next year.”

Listen Closely: An Oral History of Kilbarchan 1900-2000 costs £15 and is available from local outlets in Kilbarchan, such as USave, Bobbins coffee shop and E Williams Butchers, as well as online at www.thirstybooks.com/bookshop.

Profits from sales of the book are being split between St Vincent’s Hospice, in Howwood, and the Erskine veterans charity.