bute

The Rothesay Academy Fire of 1954

There upon a spectacular view sat a pitiable structure whose shell stood open to the sky that loomed above a very quaking Isle of Bute. The 100ft clock tower that spent over 86 years proudly unmoved on the hill side, collapsed in heaps of rubble; ringing out its bell one final time before bowing to the same fate as its neighbouring walls.

Just like the building’s construction lived in the fantasy of its architect before becoming a tangible force of reality, in someone else’s — so too did its destruction. Seeing the burnt remains of a most dreaded institution would live vicariously in only some school childrens’ fantasies. But ‘fantasy’ is just ‘fantasy’ until it becomes a reality and a building is just a building until it becomes 500 people’s future, the craftsmanship of low paid labourers, the work of art from an architect, the livelihood of its staff and peace & quiet for hundreds of parents.

Elsewhere on the island, three 14-year-old boys, in long trousers, appeared before Sheriff Donald on a charge alleging responsibility for the devastating fire of their school. With their parents and a solicitor present, the Sheriff committed them to Rothesay Remand Home in Bishop Street for further examination. For those boys, this did indeed, become very real.


Friday, March 5th 1954

The blaze was first spotted by a Mrs D. Watson at 10.20 pm as she made her way home, observing a cloud of smoke emerging from the back of the school. She later told a reporter, “I thought at first that it was a dirty chimney.” But Mrs Watson had no idea of the catastrophe that lay ahead for that Friday night, nor did the pupils and staff that left the school 7 hours before in preparation for a seemingly normal weekend.

It wasn’t before long that Mr. John Allan, the Academy janitor, was informed by the witness at his house, that was only situated some yards from the school. Surprisingly, the janitor claimed that at 10.10 pm, only 10 minutes before Mrs Watson seen smoke, that there was nothing to be seen and “not a whiff of smoke.” This meant that whatever instigated the fire had to have happened between 10.10 and 10.20, if their accounts are accurate.

Mr Allan was finishing a cup of tea when Mrs Watson came chapping at his door. She then shouted: “Mr Allan I think there’s a fire in the school.” Immediately, he claims, he slipped on his boots and raced across to the Academy, which they both entered through a side door.

“Dense smoke filled the main hall. I rushed Mrs Watson across the vestibule, told her to stay put there, and grabbed a fire extinguisher from the janitor’s room.” From there, Mr Allan emptied the fire extinguisher into the No.5 laboratory where flames were materializing. However; in subsequent evaluation, the fire had originated in No.6 laboratory and Mr Allan confirms this by saying, “the volume of smoke told me that it wasn’t entirely the little bit I saw.”

Realising that this was a battle way out of his hands, the janitor could stand to fight no longer, launching the extinguisher into the fire before telephoning the police. He told them to get the fire brigade immediately. He told a reporter “…the smoke was too much for me.” Meanwhile, Mrs Watson searched the phonebook for the number of Mr James D. Mackenzie, the rector.

Mr Mackenzie received the call shortly after 10.30pm and arrived at the scene almost immediately. He said, “I had parked my car across the road and I went up straight away.” He said initially driving up Chapelhill, he never seen much smoke, but as he arrived at the front door, the hall was pitch black as it had filled the room.

“Mr Allan was coming out with a cloth over his face. The fingers of his right hand had been slightly burned when he picked up an extinguisher. He was rather groggy and Mrs Watson was helping him,” Mackenzie told. He then went onto describe the helplessness he felt in the way of firefighting but was eager to rescue what he could.

“…although there was no imminent danger and I did not anticipate that the whole school would go up, I thought I had better rescue something. So I brought out the school log and the register and a few odds and ends, which included record cards for individual pupils and the Academy Book of Remembrance.”

The rector then took these rescued items down to his car but on return to the school was told by police that he was to remain outside as the danger had quickly escalated.

The flames from the No.6 laboratory had burned through the roof by the time Rothesay fire brigade left their High Street station at 10.58pm, had reached the building and run hoses through the main entrance. According to a Buteman article published just over a week later, 17 firemen had manned the brigade’s two engines and as the fire spread from one end of the building to the other, the roof went up in flames. Sparks showered neighbouring houses in Academy Terrace and their occupants were warned to prepare for an evacuation of their homes at a moment’s notice.

However according to an article from an Express Reporter, a Mr Charles McNab watched the fire from his home in Battery Place stating that, “The flames shot 50ft into the sky. They stretched from one end to another.” Reportedly hundreds of people from all over the town rushed to the fire, watching the town’s volunteer firemen “with only one engine” (which would be a contradiction to the Buteman’s report of 2) try to control the flames. Toward lighthouse keeper Malcolm McNeill (35) at 12:30am said: “I can see a glow in the sky over the town and I am five miles away.”

Firemen attending a dance in Dunoon were called out as well as 150 sailors from H.M.S Montclare and H.M.S Termagant. They docked at Rothesay Bay and were sent ashore with two fire pumps. From Greenock fire service came another 5 men after a 90 minute crossing via motor launch from Gourock.

Just before 1 am, as the entire building burned ferociously, parts of the outer wall began to give-way and the roof of the clock tower fell in. Its remaining walls stood like a chimney, throwing sparks high into the air. Almost everything was destroyed.

Saturday, March 6th 1954

For 19 hours, until 6pm on Saturday, members of Rothesay fire brigade were on continuous duty and for three hours on Sunday, they were straight back at it again, making sure embers were dampened down.

As Saturday morning approached, police examined the ‘smouldering ruins’ and were desperately seeking an explanation for the blaze. Meanwhile, four hoses were left on to dampen the charred remains of the building. At this point, news articles and locals deemed the fire a complete ‘mystery’. Mr James Carruthers who lived near the Academy on Argyle Terrace had claimed that “No one knows how the fire started — it’s a mystery.”

It was discovered that the collapsing of the clock tower caused a fracture in the gas main in the flooded boiler house below. Water then flowed into the pipe through the break and gas was seized from most of its consumers in Ardbeg, Montague Street and Victoria Street. A loudspeaker van toured Rothesay warning consumers to make sure their gas was turned off. The full supply was not restored until 6pm that day.


Sunday, March 7th 1954

Finally, at 9pm after a weekend of intense investigation by Rothesay Police, an arrest of 3 boys were made. A woman had reported to the police that she had seen 3 boys in their teens, wearing long trousers, leaving the Academy grounds at around 10pm on Friday, at which time the fire is believed to have began.

Police began questioning Academy teachers before starting out on a quest to interview every single youngster of appropriate description on the island, if need be. They visited about 60 homes on the island before their enquiries ripened and eventually, an arrest was made.


The Aftermath

In a letter to the paper, rector J. D Mackenzie states: “…to the churches who gave their halls, and to the headmaster of the Public School who immediately and generously placed classrooms at our disposal. Never could I have imagined the wave of sympathy which has engulfed us. Offers of help have poured in from all sides, and the staff, pupils and parents have been truly wonderful.”

“To all I have mentioned, and to many others, I am more grateful than I can possibly say, and on behalf of the school I would like to thank them publicly and most sincerely.”

An assembly was held in the playground on the Monday morning before the classes were dispersed to temporary accommodation to continue with their schooling. Many of the senior classes were relocated to the primary building up the hill. 500 pupils left that Friday having no idea what was about to await them Monday morning.

I’d also like to include a quote from one of my Facebook posts earlier this year from Mike Blair that spoke of his dad, who was a teacher during this: “I was in the Primary at the time and we were all decanted to various halls and our class went to the public school.”

“My dad (Mr Nelson Blair) spent the entire weekend organising the logistics of where we were to go in order to let the Secondary pupils occupy our building. It was just before the Highers (exams) which were in March back then.”

“The Scottish Office said they would make special dispensation in marking Rothesay papers and Rector Mackenzie agreed. However, dad fought this as he did not want the pupils to always carry that stigma. He was right as the marks in 53, 54 and 55 were almost exactly the same. Dad never got credit for that.”

Certainly Mike, I hope that by including your quote in this article gives even a little credit to your father for his determination.


The Lesson from the Fire

I am aware that including the above heading in a crime-laden fire is possibly controversial but it was absolutely necessary after my research. Coming across a statement from the Provost John H. Shaw on the Monday after, I was initially shocked.

“If there is one bright spot in this terrible business, it is that the Academy is in an isolated position. Such a blaze starting in a building in the centre of town would have developed into a major disaster.” He then began calling helper’s efforts pitiless and hopeless, discussing the real saving grace as being the building’s isolative position.

My initial reaction to the first line of this statement was confusion. This fire was not like the other Bute fires that I had written about. Hence why when people called me out for omitting this fire from my last article ‘Bute blazes that have been lost in history’, I don’t think many realised there was method in my madness. Rothesay Academy’s fire has not been ‘lost in history’. Its history survived on through its predecessor and now through the Joint Campus. Its history has surfed the mouths of our townspeople for decades, through story-telling, memories and pictures.

It was also a fire so profound, so different from the rest that it deserved its very own piece. I felt somewhat emotionally compelled by my research into this fire and could hardly believe when the Provost articulated in such an emotionally-detached and impersonal way. How could he call the strained efforts of volunteers and helpers from the mainland hopeless? I felt a fronted for these people that I didn’t even know. How could he talk about this place like just a building? Like I said, a building is just a building until its 500 people’s future, people’s craftsmanship, art and livelihood. But as I read on, my mind completely changed. My emotional side was immediately swapped out for my rational, strategic side and John H. Shaw shifted my perception.

“This fire can be taken as a warning that our fire services in Rothesay should be on a bigger scale than at present — even if only in the matter of equipment,” he began, “Before the fire service became nationalised we in Rothesay paid £200 for its upkeep. Now our grant to the South West Area fire service is £2,036 — and we are substantially no better off than before. Surely we should expect a great deal better service for such an amount of money?”

I guess there was a valuable, tangible and most importantly, sensible, lesson to be learned from such a catastrophe and the Provost was certainly onto something. Sometimes it does take tragedies to highlight the cracks in communities. After the smoke has cleared and temperaments have cooled, we can see the issues with clarity and distinction. We have, since then, made a lot of progress in the community and with our public sector services. One can only hope that such a tragedy, such a big lesson, does not crop up uninvited in the town again and if it does, for some things are inevitable, we are manned, equipped and ready.

  • All reports, pictures and articles are courtesy of Bute Photo Archive and Bute Museum. I’d like to kindly and personally thank archivist Jean McMillan for providing me with assistance and content for this article.

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