(This post is an unpublished piece I wrote over a decade ago, about the village in Fife where I grew up. A few details have since been updated, but on re-reading I can’t believe I didn’t mention the huge hill figure of a bear above Parkhill which was carved – the lines set alight to better mark them out – around the same time as the factory burned down. You can just make it out in the photo above.)
Until the late 1980s, to anybody entering the town by road or river, Newburgh would have seemed a factory with village attached. From across the river Tay, on the low, berry-rich lands of the Carse of Gowrie, the view would have been striking. The factory was huge, a massive red-brick Victorian edifice dominating the shoreline.
On a clear evening in May 1980, my cousin mistook the thick black smoke sweeping low over our Gran’s rooftop for effluent from the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. It was terrifying to think that this smoke had travelled across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a small Fife town. But it wasn’t the volcano, it was the factory.
The factory. The former Tayside Flooring Company building had stood empty since the company stumbled into receivership in 1978, giving its workforce – several hundred strong – 15 minutes’ notice. It was founded in 1891 by one Thomas Greig who, in common with the public-spirited, or perhaps guilt-ridden, tycoons and philanthropists of the nineteenth century, gifted a tennis court, curling pond, bowling club and park to the town. The bowling green is still there, tucked into the southern corner of the park; the first thing you see as you enter the town from the west.
We watched the fire from the sloping lawns of the ex-council houses on the hillside street where my Uncle still lives. The town is spread along a hill that tumbles down to the Tay, and the factory was on the water’s edge. On the north side of the High Street, where we lived with my Gran, the long strips of orchard garden reach almost to the river. Her house was too close to the burning building to give a good view, and there were obvious safety concerns. Up the hill, the adults stayed indoors and gazed through windows; we went outside where – even at a distance – it felt more dangerous. The rumour spread fast, as rumours do among children: the fire had reached a storeroom containing petrol and gases, and explosions were imminent. Perhaps the adults safely indoors also framed guesses, more educated ones: half my family had worked there. The flames seemed mean and vicious against the proud orange brickwork and the thick column of smoke that rose high into the clear evening sky. The smoke would have been visible from both Dundee, 10 miles downstream, and Ben Vorlich, much further west. The explosions never came. The fire had, thankfully, taken no casualties.
The story, for such it was, appeared on TV the following night; Reporting Scotland or North Tonight. There was nobody on hand to capture live images, so viewers were shown half a dozen shots of the smouldering ruins and of a High Street deserted but for my other cousin and a friend dawdling home from school so slowly all the shops had shut. I still remember their wary backward glance towards the camera. It seemed the only evidence of life in a village suddenly paralysed.
I say ‘paralysed’: life goes on, of course. But small towns and villages take a longer and harder route to adapt to sudden change than cities do, especially when adapting to the loss of the largest single employer. The factory had been closed for two years, though I retain a memory of noises from inside that I couldn’t have formed at such an early age, so perhaps some further work was carried on in parts of the building. If ever there was the symbolic setting of a seal on a town’s past, then this was surely it. Like Banquo’s ghost1 pricking the conscience, the deserted shell was a reminder of what was gone, and that the future was suddenly an uncertain place. With hindsight, at this point in Scottish history – after the 1979 General Election – such desolation of heavy industry seems horribly prescient.
The factory was traditionally the heart of such towns. In the morning were pumped in workers from the town and surrounding villages; in the evening they were pumped out again, and this beating allowed a growth of contingent and ancillary industries to develop. Ships stopped at the quay to load and unload. After the fire, the other industries lingered on a while, expiring their final breaths slowly over a number of years. The quayside – once full of grey lorries with the sturdy red-and-yellow BELL’S logo of the local quarry company – fell into disuse and was demolished. A town in this position looks around for something to quickly fill the gap, but here, no substitute would be strong enough to prop up such a heavy body. The prevailing economic winds were blowing ill for British heavy industry. That said, there are no real parallels with the systematic destruction of the coalmining industry that hit south Fife so hard a few years later. Newburgh’s factory went into receivership, which is the result of bad management. Of course it is the workforce who suffer hardest, and their families, local businesses and the social life of the community. It is, however, the common outcome that Newburgh shares with Lochgelly, Cardenden, Polmaise, Thornton.
Private enterprise was one of the dogmas of the Thatcher government. Some locals started up small businesses alongside (and sometimes in the empty shells of) the established family-run shops, but few survived the repeated recessions. Now, despite the gloss of the fresh road signs and the speed reducing measures – a sure sign that your village is merely a nuisance to be passed through en route to somewhere else – it has become, inevitably, one of the surrounding villages of a larger town; a commuter base, even, for people who work in far-distant Edinburgh.
Until the 1950s, children were educated to secondary level at the local school. The bus that has since taken pupils to the local secondary (Bell Baxter, in Cupar) has always been infamous as the roughest and rowdiest. This has always been an independent town; it has always stood apart, distant from neighbouring villages and with no obvious kinship to any of them. It’s location in Fife sunders it from communities in Perth & Kinross by virtue of being in a different administrative district. But to Fifers, it’s hidden away, right on the border, practically abroad.
Cupar draws its school catchment from the villages of the agricultural Howe of Fife, or those beyond the reach of Dundee and St. Andrews: Auchtermuchty (‘Muchty’, home to The Proclaimers and Jimmy Shand) and Strathmiglo, Ladybank (an important railway junction: Newburgh’s abandoned station exists in a slow state of collapse at the top of the High Street), and the Pitlessie-Kingskettle-Falkland-Freuchie polygon that encompasses the pine forests and mushroom fields that litter the flat, fertile Howe. Newburgh stands apart from all of these: the North Fife hills, an extension of the Ochils, separate it from the others. Its view is not to the central peaks of the Lomonds, but out towards Dundee, Perth, the Trossachs and beyond. It looked outward: pleasure boats visited until the 1960s. For their shopping, its citizens visit Perth rather than Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. Different outlooks, different habits. And it had industry.
Once, it boasted cinemas and a swimming pool, but its decades since the town has merited either. The ice-cream from Annie Divito’s café at the top of the High Street (recently an antique dealers, now a café once again), was a snow-white milky pleasure that garnered national recognition. The recipe was a jealously-guarded secret she took to her grave. She closed the café area down at the end of the 70s and though the sweetshop and ice cream were still hugely popular, Newburgh was no longer a place people wanted to stop in and eat. Cafés have sporadically opened, prospered briefly, and closed again ever since. The story is familiar across the UK: small towns and villages lose their garages, their pubs, their chip-shops, one by one. Newburgh is no special case.
Also common to small towns everywhere is an instinctive wariness of strangers, or ‘incomers’ as they were, and are, with slightly more irony, still known. This doesn’t just apply to the family of travellers who arrived seasonally for many years (openly called ‘the Tinkies’), but to settlers from outside the village boundaries. Indeed those same borders are re-affirmed every seven years in a good-natured day-long procession known as ‘the Riding of the Marches’ over hills, through fields, and across burns. Some of the more successful businesses since the 1980s have been those started up by ‘incomers’, possibly because the owners are unknown quantities and its harder to measure what exactly ‘getting above themselves’, in proper Scots fashion, would constitute.
One such ‘incomer’ who has quite happily made Newburgh her home is the poet Kathleen Jamie2. Her garden is one of many that stretch up to the railway line that cuts across the town like a belt, and covers the ground that was once entirely orchards: plum and apple trees that my Gran could recall dotting the slopes in endless numbers.
The only contemporary guide3 to the town was written and published over thirty years ago by the parents of my friend Will, themselves English ‘incomers’ (Newburgh: A Historic Trail, Linda Pinfold, Michael Pinfold & Malcolm Robinson; Pinprint). Even today, whole chunks of this book, put together by hand in the short-lived studio they’d converted from a former sweetshop, can be found copied without acknowledgement on websites that feature Newburgh as a possible tourist stop. The book’s final chapter is on the linoleum factory, referring to its plunge into receivership but not it’s gutting by fire. Perhaps the event was too recent; unnecessary to recount. The factory at that time still stood, blackened, silent and shamed, visible down every road that hurtles to the river. It may or may not be significant that this attempt at gathering together the town’s many strands of history was not done by locals but by a couple only just settled in the area. It is indicative, though, that for a long time only this, an ‘Old Newburgh’ photo book, and the cardboard-and-glue history projects of the local Primary School children appeared since the factory fire to portray an image of the town.
But print is not the only means of representation. The end of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Pageant, part of a week-long Newburgh Festival that ran in mid-August for a few years. The Festival featured daily (and nightly) events such as the pram race, in which grown men dressed as babies and pushed each other in prams the length of the High Street, and between each of the town’s (then) half-dozen pubs. The Pageant took the form of a play: there was a ‘Jungle Book’ in the superbly atmospheric setting of the ruined Lindores Abbey, and an ambitious ‘King Arthur’ in which the audience followed the action on foot throughout the village. The highlight was a real-life Lady of the Lake, whose arm rose from those silvery Tay waves, offering Excalibur to the King. Pageant and Festival dwindled, like so much else, as the 80s ran their course.
There is a working factory, still, in town. Construction began not long after the old one burned down, at the eastern end of the village. We watched from the school playground every lunchtime as it went up in sheets of grey metal. This was a new type of factory: light industry. Long and low and looking like it was built from plastic, it appeared to have been set down alone in a field next to the school car park. If people were pumped in and out we never saw them. Today this atrophied industrial estate is shared with a modern fire station. The car park has grown to meet them under the demands of the school run.
It took a decade for the old factory ruins to be pulled down. Another passed as the site became overgrown and filled with pools of stagnant water. Finally, a luxury development of riverside homes was built on the factory site, in response to the rising cost of houses across the UK. Handy commuter town and rural retreat. This bland new vision of Newburgh is that of developers and estate agents: their usual airbrushing of history.
Most of the factory’s old employees have by now retired, having long ago been forced into what other work they could find. Unemployment in the early 80s was higher than today, but you must travel further to find the work. It’s impossible to picture a factory there now, though the buildings fringing the site still seem to be on their guard against some threat from across the road. The landlord of a Dundee Bed & Breakfast, himself a retired carpet-fitter and once familiar with the town, upon hearing where I came from, reckoned ‘it hasn’t been the same since the factory; lots of unemployment’. He captured neatly the town’s standing in the local imagination: once a small town, now just a village whose day has passed, slumbering like so many others.
1 A mile outside the town, in a field next to the country road to ‘Muchty, stands the ancient carved stone rump of ‘Macduff’s Cross’. The head of the clan Macduff was historically Earl of Fife.
2 Kathleen is not Newburgh’s first poet. Up the hill, at the back of Mount Pleasant, where town meets whin-covered hillside, stands a small cottage built in the early nineteenth century by brothers Alexander and John Bethune. Weavers and poets, crippled by poverty and illness, neither of them reached 40. A single copy of Alexander’s edited collection of his brother’s poetry resides in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They built – unaided – the cottage for their parents. It is shaken daily by blasts from the quarry which has, despite a spirited local campaign in recent years, spread its empire further and further west, coming gradually into view of the town, where the scars are less easily concealed.
3 The 50s and 60s saw versions of a Newburgh town guide, with map and illustrations, but for a deeper view of the history and customs, look to ‘A History of Lindores and its Burgh of Newburgh’. This 1876 tome reads like a parochial version of ‘The Golden Bough’ with its exploration of magic and myth. It boasts superb illustrations of local landmarks, notably Mugdrum Cross, an 11th century needle-like pillar of stone covered in what are believed to be Norse engravings, which stands hidden deep in the rhododendrons of Mugdrum estate, overlooking the Tay.