I have just dropped off a bunch of excited teenagers at Kirkcaldy Ice Rink (now rebadged as Fife Ice Arena) for the afternoon skating session. With too little time to return home and do anything meaningful, it seems like a good opportunity to start walking into the locality and see what draws the attention. I increasingly find that often the most interesting walks develop out of the imposed time constraints of everyday life. Start from where you are and see where it leads.
But first, I’m standing in front of an ice palace from the late Art Deco era. Designed by Williamson and Hubbard in 1937, the softened edges, horizontal lines, ribbon windows and vertical, coloured detailing conjure up a period in time when form was equally important as function. Apparently, the original restaurant featured Parker-Knoll chairs, monogrammed cutlery and curtains designed by Dame Laura Knight. This afternoon, under a high sun, the contrast of vibrant colours and ice cream white offers an elegant counterpoint to what would no doubt be constructed today as a functional leisure shed.
I’m in Gallatown at the North end of the ‘Lang Toun’ of Kirkcaldy. Initially, thinking the name may have been derived from some form of recurring gala festivities, I subsequently find out that it is a derivation of Gallows Town. Apparently, due to it being the site of numerous public executions in medieval times.
Originally a small village in its own right, Gallatown, along with its near neighbours Sinclairtown and Pathhead, were parts of Dysart before becoming annexed as part of Kirkcaldy in 1876.
Walking down the main, arterial road into Kirkcaldy, Rosslyn Street merges into St Clair street. A clue to the history of this area in the street names. A reminder of how all land is property and often concentrated in the hands of a few. Sinclairtown developed from the 1750s on the estate of the Earls of Rosslyn and derives from their family name St Clair. (Also owners of Rosslyn Chapel).
This whole area developed as the industrial end of Kirkcaldy. A place of nail manufacture in the seventeenth century and site of the ‘pin factory’ studied by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Coal mining and power-loom weaving emerged in the mid eighteenth century and pottery manufacture in the early 1800s.
I walk past the entrance to Pottery Street but after a short walk down into what is now light industrial and residential buildings there appears to be little evidence of what once existed here. It is only on returning and approaching Rosslyn Street again that I notice a plinth in the grounds of a vet’s surgery.
The original site of the world famous Wemyss Ware pottery of Robert Heron and Son. The Chief Designer of the pottery was Karel Nekola from Bohemia, recruited by Robert Heron in 1882. A skilled, imaginative artist, he continued to work until his death in 1915. His sons Joseph and Carl also worked in the pottery. The original pottery closed during the Great Depression in 1930 and the rights to Wemyss Ware passed through several hands until Griselda Hill acquired and revived the name in the 1990s.
It is perhaps heartening to know that the spirit of the original pottery and the curious Wemyss cats continue to be tended by a veterinary practice.
Walking further down the road above what is now the Happy Days Chinese Restaurant is a magnificent example of a Co-op bee skep. Presumably a former Co-operative Society building. Not quite as impressive as the magnificent trio in Leven but a fine reminder of the co-operative ideals of those Rochdale Pioneers.
On the other side of the road, a narrow path into a residential area.
Sun drawn cubist angles.
I’m not sure where the boundary lines of Gallatown, Sinclairtown and Pathhead merge, but for these purposes it is a delight to encounter the colourful Puffins of Pathhead.
Behind is a Ladbrokes shop. A window of lurid coloured interpellation: Grab a Grand!; Win Free Machine Play Cash Boost; Goal! Price Boost; Best Odds Guaranteed; £30 Free Bets on Your Mobile; Sunday, Now Open Longer.
Never a more aptly named chain designed to part people from their money. I don’t remember that many pearls of wisdom from my dad but one that sticks is that: “you never meet a poor bookie”.
On another wall close to the puffins, a golden eagle takes flight ready to pounce on a small mouse. The disorienting sun perhaps allowing the mouse a respite today. Off it floats on the back of a golden orb.
You cannot walk down St Clair Street without noticing Rejects. A gargantuan store by any standards and a family owned Fife institution selling everything for the home in twelve departments. There is also something delightfully perverse about deciding to name your retail emporium Rejects. I’m not sure what the received wisdom on retail marketing is, but I suspect this breaks most of it. Rejects also houses a very fine cafe but with the clock ticking, I have to pass on that today.
This is the weekend before ‘The Beast from the East’ arrived in Scotland and I’m starting to feel the cold around my ears. However, the sun is strong, bright and warming as I take a moment to watch the swaying, skeletal trees. How they shift slightly out of phase with the moving shadow forest projected on the wall of the car park. A Steve Reich piece playing out in visual form.
On the corner of Commercial Street sits a curio from the days of the Kirkcaldy tram network. A Bundy Clock was used to monitor tram services to ensure that they ran on time and according to timetable. When the tram driver reached the designated terminus, they would insert a unique key into ‘the Bundy’ and the time would be recorded. The Bundy clock was patented in 1890 by Willard Le Grand Bundy and mass production of employee monitoring systems began. A practice that has had workers clocking in and out under surveillance ever since. Of course, technology advances and Bundy Time Systems still appear to be around. Their wares now include ‘Fingertec Biometric Packages’, ‘Face ID’ and ‘Easy Clocking Time and Attendance Systems’.
Walking along Commercial Street reveals a mix of some very old buildings. largely, in various states of disrepair. However, the Spiritualist Church is looking bright and sprightly. Thursday Healing. All Welcome.
At the end of the road, The ‘A Listed’ Feuars Arms proclaims its Victorian lineage back to 1859. Impressive stained glass windows reflect a more modernist addition to the landscape in the fifteen story Ravens Craig flats built in 1964-65.
Sparkling in the sun like pink sponge fingers with frosted, glazed balconies. The image provides a jarring contrast to imagining why Flesh Wynd may have gotten its name.
Not too far away from the Ravens Craig complex is Ravenscraig Castle. Local folklore claims that John Buchan named his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps after the path that leads down by the side of the castle to Pathhead Sands. A similar claim relates to a set of steps in Broadstairs, where the final scenes of the novel take place. Both sets of stairs have more than thirty nine. However, Buchan’s father was a Free Church of Scotland minister and Buchan spent most of his formative years in Kirkcaldy. His novel Prester John opens with a scene on Pathhead Sands, with Kirkcaldy thinly disguised as Kirkcaple.
I’m becoming conscious of the time and need to start heading back towards the ice rink. I loop around and through what would once have been a colossal industrial area, dominated by the Nairn linoleum factory complex. Michael Nairn was initially involved in the weaving of ship’s sails but later entered into floor coverings. The original factory built at Pathhead, in 1847, was initially ridiculed and known locally as Nairn’s Folly. However, the venture proved a great success and by 1876, linoleum production had become a global industry centred on Kirkcaldy. The use of linseed oil in the production process was what gave the distinctive ‘queer-like smell’ highlighted in the poem The Boy in the Train written by Mary Campbell Smith in 1913:
I’ll sune be ringin ma Gran’ ma’s bell,
She’ll cry, “Come ben my laddie”
For I ken mysel’ by that queer-like smell
That the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!’
Most of the industrial complex has now gone but one operational factory unit remains, sitting in the vast empty space like some remnant from an imagined post-Packard Detroit. The factory is clearly still productive as the distinctive, and not unpleasant, sweet smell is clearly discernible in the air. Perhaps a bit more localised these days rather than enveloping the entire town.
I meander through some of the side streets back towards the ice rink and whilst many buildings are in disarray, the sun is bringing out the best in them. An old industrial fence morphs into beautiful, striped, colour field, minimalism.
A ‘found’ Gerhard Richter decays on an old wooden board.
An abstract landscape, framed in brick under a painted sky, sits in the alcove of a boarded up window. (Perhaps a found Howard Hodgkin, thanks to Hamer the Framer, added 07.04.2018):
Whilst a short history of building is revealed in an industrial assemblage of brick, stone, concrete and metal:
In dappled sunlight, a typographical erratic.
I am indebted to fellow travellers Laurence Mitchell and Alan Nance for the idea of the cultural erratic. This originally arose from a comment by Alan regarding Laurence’s piece on re-purposed Kyrgyzstan railway wagons. Alan’s comment is worth noting in full:
To use a landscape-related term, it strikes me that these wagons are like cultural (as opposed to glacial) erratics, whose presence, through interpretation, can tell us something about the forces and processes that shaped the place in which they are located).
It’s a great expression and in this particular instance, I like how EAST FIFE has somehow survived the weathering process, much like a glacial erratic left behind.
Another abandoned looking building draws the eye, due to the panel above the door:
Langtoun Aquarists Pondkeepers Group. Another cultural erratic? Is that a fish on the door blowing a bubble?
Sadly, I can’t spend any more time pottering around and hoof it back quickly to the ice rink. So quick that I’ve a few more minutes to spare before the skating finishes. I walk round by a mysterious, mausoleum looking structure. Some form of sub station? Or perhaps a sealed vault storing all the forgotten sounds, smells and memories of Gallows Town?
Behind the vault are some of what feel like the oldest buildings I’ve seen today. The narrow passage of School Lane. Just enough Sunlight leaking down the walls to outline a set of strange material interventions close to the ground. Portals of exit or entry?
And back to the car park just in time to catch the ice rink crowd spilling out into the sunshine. The tired teenage skaters, pile into the car and I listen to their stories of careering around the chilled interior of the ice palace.
Oh and almost forgot. Wasn’t particularly looking for it, but it’s always good to find it …
This walk took place on Saturday 24th February, 2018.
Now playing: Steve Reich – Violin Phase