Flicking through old Buteman and Rothesay Express articles of the 1900s evoked a whimsical nostalgia that, being born at the end of the century, I probably had no right to feel but…I did. The yellowed articles, musk-scented and dust-covered, took me on a journey of Bute’s ‘Glory Days’ and what a core of warm memories the place really serves to be. For many Brandanes like myself (and those that are adopted ones), Bute is the fond and familiar hug of home, the historical and regal sense of pride and sometimes – the sudden and the dangerous reminder of reality.
On my quest to unearth the untold stories that lay beneath the cobblestones of Montague Street in the town centre to the mossy hill tops at Bute’s North end, I realised that tragedy is not only a part of Bute’s history, but its reality, and fires were unfortunately the most common events of destruction to plague 20th Century Bute.
These were documented in different local newspapers over the years and as part of my journalistic integrity, I’d like to merely relay the facts of these forgotten fires using the quotes and stories from newspapers, allowing you, my readers, to expand and discuss your experiences and memories where you see fit. For those that do not have any, allow this article to provide you with knowledge on the events that have shaped this island, its people and its architecture. Love Bute for all that it is- the good, the bad and even the tragically forgotten.
1. 1913 ‘Great Fire at Rothesay Saw Mills’
Described in a Buteman article from June 6th, 1913 (over 108 years ago), as one of “the most destructive” fires of its then recent years, Rothesay Saw Mills which belonged to Messrs George Halliday, Ltd and the McKirdy and McMillan, Ltd garage adjacent to it, were both victims of the mill fire’s ferocious devastation.
The fire took place on May 30th 1913, exactly a week before the article’s publication.
It was said to have began around 8.10pm when one of the firm’s partners, Mr John Halliday, noticed smoke whirling and rising up from the centre of the mill.
From later examination, it was thought that the fire began underneath the saw-bench and fed off of the flammable material in its “immediate vicinity” which caused its rapid and vicious spread, propelled further by the timber around it.
In fact, the spread was reportedly so vicious that after Mr Halliday’s phone call to the police office, fire brigade members AND the local Boy Scouts appeared to tackle the engulfing flames.
In front of a large, gathering crowd, the brigade and scouts lined Union Street in attempts to provide safety and protection to the community – the former battling flames, the latter aiding while also keeping crowds at a distance.
It just so happened that the very same night as the fire, the Boy Scouts, who were under Scoutmaster Jarvie’s service, were carrying out training for fire-drills before quickly being summoned to the location.
The combined efforts of all of Rothesay’s services, including the police, meant that the flames were soon eradicated but not without a considerable amount of physical devastation.
2. 1956 ‘Flames destroy a page of history’
“HUNGRY FLAMES last week destroyed an old, almost derelict building in Ladeside Street, Rothesay”, this Rothesay Express article begins, written on the 23rd of March, 1956.
The article then goes onto describe the lack of significance the building had to Rothesay locals and how to them, it was just an ancient relic of “Old Rothesay being used as a store and stable.”
Yet this was so far from the truth. The flames within this building destroyed more than just its beams but a memory of Rothesay’s industrial past. This regular old building once housed the first ever cotton mill to be established in Scotland.
The cotton mill industry flourished in Rothesay. It was from this initial building here that sprang several larger mills and over 1,000 workers were employed.
“Loch Fad was damned and the machinery in the mills was driven by water power from the Lade”, the article begins before telling us that later, a steam engine was erected in the year 1800 to “furnish power” in the emergency of summer droughts.
As the cotton trade declined, the last mill shut before the end of the 19th century and from then, all that remained was its history which unfortunately was lost to the flames.
“The only mill building now remaining on the island is that in Barone Road which houses Isle of Bute industries, founded by the present Marquess and enjoying a large home and export of trade.”
Through the journalist’s tone for this article (and even its heading), it’s easy to obtain how tragic and saddening this loss was for the town of Rothesay at this time and even more comprehensible why this is an event that is rarely spoken of around the community, even to this day.
3. 1962 ‘Blaze destroys clock tower’
I’m expecting this event to be a little more well known within the community but still one that was hardly talked about until brought up in conversation. My grandmother, Catherine Gillies, on my father’s side, worked as a cook in the pier tearoom and it was through the conversation with my father surrounding her that I decided to do some digging on this story.
On Saturday 19th May 1962, the 50ft Rothesay Pier clock tower was destroyed in a monumental blaze that could be seen on the mainland, with heat that could be felt as far as Watergate 100 yards away.
“Holidaymakers arriving by steamer had a grandstand view of the town’s part-time firemen, helped by volunteers, fighting the flames. They could do nothing to save the tower and concentrated on keeping the fire from spreading to other parts of the main building”, a quote from the Buteman‘s 1962 article reads.
The alarm was raised just after 3pm when the harbourmaster, Captain William N. Tudman noticed the scent of burning in his office which was situated directly under the clock tower. He struggled to detect the cause until he noticed flames “curling up” from the eaves outside.
Ordering steamer times announcer, Miss Jean McArthur, out from the building, Tudman then telephoned the police and fire brigade. He was also able to salvage a number of books and the contents from the safe before escaping.
Offices and the tearoom occupying the pier building were evacuated as clerks carried out records and cash.
Pier tearoom owner Mrs Bob Taylor said: “We couldn’t believe it at first. I had difficulty persuading customers to leave the tearoom.”
The combination of violent winds and heat drove the firemen who climbed onto the roof back initially, but before long they had successfully combated the flames from spreading to surrounding offices which were seriously flooded.
Unfortunately, the harbourmaster’s own office was left with nothing but stonework standing.
By 5pm, firemen had tied ropes and wires to its blackened beams attaching these to a tender.
“First to fall was one of the four clock faces, and after several more attempts the rest of the skeleton tower collapsed in a shower of charred timber.”
Captain Tudman had stated how fortunate it was that the wind hadn’t been blowing in the opposite direction as this would have caused the tower to collapse on the other pier buildings.
The only items that were lost in the fire were “valuable pier records” and a “loudspeaker system”.
Workmen that same week demolished the tower in the interest of safety.
4. 1963 ‘Blaze in new flat’
“FIREMEN wearing masks put out flames in the smoke-filled living-room of a top flat at 1 Minister’s Brae, Rothesay, on Tuesday afternoon”, an article from Friday, May 3rd, 1963 reads.
According to the article, an elderly man, Mr Wm. Gillies, was the only occupant of the house where his hair was singed.
Thankfully, this was the only damage that Mr Gillies faced as he was directed out of the living room into the care of his neighbours.
Part-time firemen had rushed to the High Street station when the bellow of the siren called them, only to discover that the outbreak was “less than 100 yards away” in a recently erected block of council flats on the corner of Minister’s Brae and High Street.
Crowds gathered to watch as the flames rapidly extinguished and windows were flung open to disperse smoke.
The damage consisted of scorched, blackened walls and ceilings of the living room, along with damaged furniture.
5. 1964 ‘High Street factory blaze’
In the early hours of December 17th 1964, a fire was fought at the children’s wear factory off high Street, Rothesay, and extinguished by the part-time fire brigade.
The alarm was raised at 12.10am by a “passerby, Mr James Tait, 1 Minister’s Brae.” The firemen arrived very quickly to the scene and fought the blaze all through the freezing cold night until early hours when they eventually went off duty at 6am.
The blaze is thought to have began in a steam boiler room at the back end of the factory operated by J. Langan and Co. (Rothesay), Ltd. It was then that the boiler room roof collapsed.
Eventually, flames found their way into the main building, swallowing the entire steam pressing room but missing its roof. The steam presses, benches and machinery were charred and blackened.
Station officer Robert Tait at the time said: “The small boiler room was well alight when we arrived and we concentrated on saving the steam pressing room to which it is attached. We were worried about the roof but managed to save it.”
The factory, which was an offshoot of a Glasgow firm, was unoccupied at the time meaning that no one was hurt in the process.
*Disclaimer: I do not own or claim to own any of the following pictures or title headings. All rights go to the Buteman, Rothesay Express and their articles. I am also telling the stories of these Buteman articles in my own way, using their work as research, evidence (via quotes) and inspiration for this article that aims to educate.
I’d also like to give a huge thank you to Richard Hunter for providing me with his own personal archives to allow me to do this story. To the Buteman and Rothesay Express for exceptional journalism over the last 154 years, in which I credit to all 5 of these reports, and the staff at Bute Museum (particularly their archivist Jean McMillan) for being so accommodating and aiding me on my history-related quests and articles. I’m always so grateful for their help.