The following piece was written about ten years ago by the late Bobby Rogerson at the request of Stephen Kennedy.
History of the Castle
By Bobby Rogerson
Guddl’t from the memories of a Fella who never actually lived there, but bocht a lot o’ sweeties, went tae the Picters, and, in later years, intermittently inhabited the Wee Baur in Sooks’s pub.
In the mind of this white-heidit writer, there are memories —some vivid, some vague— of that part of New Cumnock Parish which for most New Cumnockians was the hub of the community. The Castle. Not an ancient building; not even a crumbling ruin. That a castle did exist there is now fairly common knowledge. Local historians have done some very thorough howkin’ around, and we now have several coherent and, I’d bet pretty reliable treatises on New Cumnock’s history. As was the case with all mediaeval castles, the local populace tended to muster in close proximity, and it followed naturally that even after the actual building fell into disuse and ruin, the cluster of buildings remaining–and in 2002 still extant—retained the name “Castle”, New Cumnock. Well, I wasn’t around to know the town and its folk in the Middle Ages [ though a certain Mr Kennedy might facetiously hint that I might well have been—], but I do have some recollections of the Castle, its business environment, and many of its characters. My memories, in the main, are encompassed by the years between nineteen thirty five and nineteen sixty, so I trust all readers may forgive me if certain notable characters or events aren’t described here; I cannae be a’ places at yince.
The map from 1909 closely resembles Bobby Rogerson’s description of the Castle.
Perhaps a good place to begin would be from the point of view of some puir Cumnock body who has had the luck to set out on the trip of a lifetime, and has reached, in his travels, that point on the highway where further progress leads him across the railway brig, just after he passes the “Burn Hut” on his right. [ The Burn Hut—-jeeze!—some stories there too, but not here; it cannot be summarily tacked on to the Castle—]. It is here, at the ‘tap o’ the station brae’, that he will get his first view of the Castle. He’d see, then as now, a cluster of buildings set against the backdrop of the first Galloway ranges; Knipe, the Dalhannas and, through the ever present smoke-haze of the coal-fuelled fires of New Cumnock homes, the deep rocky glen of Afton with the dark crags of Steyamara and Black Craig looming in the distance.
Across the old Nith Brig [ no footbridge in those days] our Cumnock visitor, on looking to right and left, would see no sign of either football pitches or running tracks. Instead, on each side of the roadway he would have a vista of water and marshland. Indeed, he wouldn’t be far wrong in thinking that here was a highway built across a Loch in order to gain access from Pathead to the community hub called “the Castle”. Back then, it was a common sight in winter to see skaters sporting themselves on both sides of the road between the Nith banks and the auld Smiddy. The brick wall that now runs from Nith Brig to the Loch Park gates didn’t exist back then. But I would suggest to anyone interested that they could take a close look at that wall just about the level of the goal posts at the east end of the Loch Park pitch. There, “built in wi’ the bricks” , the original parapet of the old “bridge” connecting the two halfs of the now-disappeared loch can be plainly seen. “Loch Park” itself came into being courtesy of the fact that the area on the west side became the local landfill site—or “coup” if you want to be blunt about it. The east side was also filled, and has become the sports area we know today. Just for the record, I have seen elephants on the old field there, next to McKechnie’s garage—oh, yes I have! Pinder’s circus used to set up there, y’see……
And now that the famous McKechnie name has been committed to paper, I think we should leave the Cumnock vistor to deal with his own bewilderment; things got rather complicated from this point on for a first-time visitor to the Castle in the old days. There were an awfy lot of McKechnies, y’see—- First on the left you’d find McKechnie’s garage. One part of history which has endured the scores of years, for Kechie’s garage is still extant and thriving. The long, low building on the right was the Smiddy, which in the thirties and forties was just as liable to be busy shoeing Clydesdale horses as mending tractor drawbars.
The large building just beyond, and directly opposite from McKechnie’s garage has changed its function a wee bit down the years, but still operates under the banner of the Co-op. One of my most pleasing memories of the old Co-op was the quality of the bread which was produced in the bakery there. Yon crunchy black crust was one of my favourite gourmet experiences.
Back over on the left side of the highway, and not many doorways past the garage, was McKechnie’s pub. I cannot recall exactly who was the heid bummer in the pub in the thirties, since it was well into the late forties afore I could begin my patronage of the “wee baur”. I can name some of the patrons, though, since it was a favourite of many a Connel Park worthy. Sanny “Sloper”, Barney Crate, “Mung” Baird, “Colonel” Clapperton and the late, great Wattie Rogerson, Laird o’ the Gatehoose were often to be found there. By the time Wattie’s son Boabby started to frequent the place, Wullie “Sooks” McKechnie was the boss-man. “Toe” Melvin and Addie McNab’s faither were the baur staff in the “ither end”, while Sooks himsel’ usually ran the wee baur, the “rat pit” or the “gentleman’s” baur [pick yer favourite.] I dare say there were one or two gentlemen to be found in yon wee baur; rats?—well, maybe—-! “Sooks” retired while I was resident in Hexham [or maybe Irvine—I’m not too sure of dates here], and the Pub has changed hands till it is now known as the Glen’s Baur.
The Castle in the 60’s.
Back in the days when Biddals was Biddals and thruppence got ye a pennyworth o’ chocolate caramels [around a quarter pound—] plus an admission to the Regal Cinema and into the world of Gene Autry, Buck Jones and the Dead end Kids, the sidewalk on the far side of the road from Kechie’s pub was bordered by a complete row of houses, not three or four as is now. I can recall the names of only two families there; Mrs McKechnie lived in one, and the Walker family in one of the others. Perhaps some reading this can add to the list of tenants. Staying with that side of the road, the junction of the Stamp Brae and the main road is reached. Nothing much can be said of the Stamp Brae other than the fact that it is here that much of import in New Cumnock’s history took place. The Arthur Memorial Kirk and its roller-coaster fortunes is part of its story. It gives access to Mosswell Cottages, and—at the present day at least—to the old cemetery. A New Cumnock company of the Boys Brigade used to have their billet in the Kirk hall at the top of the hill. Back down at the highway, the first establishment on the corner was “Roager” Hood’s cobbler workshop. A native of Pathead, Roager carried on his business here for many years. [ In case of mispronunciation, “Roager” should be pronounced as “Roguer”—just a wee aside!] Had we still had our Cumnock visitor with us back in the thirties or forties, the few steps past Roager’s workshop would have in probability led to the beginnings of a misconception; he’d have been confronted by McKECHNIE’s newsagent’s premises. There is an old tale in New Cumnock which perpetuated an assertion [probably mythical that strangers walking through “the Toon” for the first time nearly always gained the impression that here was a Toon owned by a family called McKechnie!! Which reveals my reason for leaving our Cumnock visitor just around the Smiddy area.
The next building of any note after passing “Sooks” McKechnie’s pub, it marked the access entrance to the town Gasworks, which lay in an area between the road and Afton bank. Not visible from the street, the Gasworks was the source of fuel for cooking and lighting for most of the people of New Cumnock. In fact, before the advent of electricity and electrical cooking appliances, the proportion the people of New Cumnock must have been close to 100%. Indeed, it would amaze most modern-day citizens if they could return in time and watch the many housewives who did most of the cooking in a pot set on the coal fire. Nowadays, gas lighting is practically unknown. Cooking by gas is, however, still widely popular. Today’s gas, however, is a completely different medium from the old town’s gas. Known as “natural gas”, it is purely and simply methane—the same colourless, odourless stuff that has caused so many pit explosions down the ages. A gas leak CAN be detected by smell—but the odour has been deliberately instilled into the gas in order to make this possible. As a gas, it is non-toxic [ the old gas was deadly], but if leaked in sufficient quantity, it reduces the oxygen percentage in the air to levels which can be fatal through simple suffocation.
Which, my apologies, has been a wee bit of a diversion from the description of the physical form and the citizens of the Castle.
Let’s visit Gino Benedetti’s chip shop, next shop on the east side. Gino’s was the down-town chippie as far back as I can remember. As a fish and chip shop it wasn’t particularly remarkable—but it harboured many an interesting character, both as customers and employees. One of the most popular figures in New Cumnock was about the “height o’ a tippeny scrubber” and was known to all in the pairish as “Wee Jockie Pookie”.
Jockie was a fixture in Gino’s shop for many years, and was a regular visitor in all parts with his “stop-me-and-buy-one” bicycle and his supply of ice cream cones and wafers. One of New Cumnock’s saddest episodes took place on the day, early in world war two, when the authorities came and hauled wee Jockie off as an “enemy alien”. His tears and heartbroken cries were never forgotten by those who were witness to it. “I come back! I come back!”. And, by golly, come back he did! Some galoot put Gino’s windaes in at that time. In spite of the fact that Gino was born and reared in Scotland. Things settled down, though, and Gino continued to supply the fish and chips. No ice cream, though—that was one of the wartime disasters; ice cream went off the market.
Another long-time presence in Gino’s was Annie Whiteside. Annie served in the shop from the time she lived in Connel Park till a wheen o’ years after she became, like many another, a Coupla “citizen”. I mention Annie because of one very important duty she carried out in her lifetime—she used to whurl me up an’ doon the Connel Park road in my wee push-chair!
Next door to Gino’s was the Ironmonger, Mr Hyslop. Everything from nails to horse’s harness. As far back as I can recall, there was a yawning gap just beyond the Ironmonger’s premises. Some old photos show that there were buildings there in the past. I was led to believe that they had been destroyed by fire. Some advantage had been taken of the gap by advertising hoardings, which in turn used to give great advantage to the winchin’ couples who had got themselves all het up watching Marlene Dietrich in Biddals. The cry “To the woods!! ” was rendered unnecessary when such a handy screen was available right there by the roadside.
The tall, dark bulk of the Castle Buildings stood on the left at the top of the rise. The ground floor was taken up by commercial enterprises [I can just hear Kennedy sayin’–“Aw c’moan Boabby—-ye mean SHOAPS!!”] Davy Henderson’s grocery was first in line. A well respected merchant was Davy—and small wonder, if the tales told of him were true. It was said that during the miner’s strike of 1926, many a New Cumnock family was kept well fed for little or no charge. Before the structure was finally demolished, Geordie Lind had his bookie’s business operating there. Tucked in between Henderson’s and Jack McFarlane’s butcher’s shop was the post office. It was a wee pokey hole, as the saying goes, but a busy place all the same. Next door, Jack the butcher was a pleasant fella I had reason to know him very well, for Jack and his wife and daughter Tina were tenants in the upstairs level of my own home at Lochside House. Working with Jack in the business was an old chap called Wullie Logan. Wullie came through the first world war in the 9th Black Watch—a tidbit of information which comes courtesy of the fact that Wullie was able to describe how my own Uncle Eck was alongside him and “Jist disappeared” in a shellburst during one of the futile charges on the Somme in 1916.
Jack and his family moved on eventually, and the business was taken up by Bill Paton . Bill was married to May Wilson, a daughter of the Knockshinnoch farm, by Connel Park, and they, too, had a spell as tenants at Lochside.
We can’t leave behind the Castle buildings without some comment about other aspects, in the buildings or close by. There was a “close” alongside Henderson’s shop—indeed, referred to as ‘Hennerson’s close”–which led to the rear of the buildings and to the stairway access to the homes of the folks who lived in the second and third floors. I cannot name all of the families who lived there, but one or two I can; I know the Condy twins, Joe and Davie, were brought up there as laddies, and Bobby Pollok , of “Nighthawks Dance Band” fame lived there with his family. Bob Turnbull—a bosom friend of many years, died in Toronto a couple of years back—was reared by his Aunt and Uncle on the second floor. Back at ground level, and a short walk further down through Henderson’s close, another two-storey building loomed. A sharp right turn brought you to the first step on the Golden Stairs. The famous Hughie Neish’s Golden Stairs. Well, they weren’t really “golden”. Not even the “Castle” holds such treasures in its past. The label must have been derived from the function of the treasure house at the top landing, and from the myriad bargains which were to be found there. A favourite shopping venue for the New Cumnockians, the Golden Stairs retailed everything from Umbrellas to ready-made suits—all marketed as bankrupt stock or end-of-the-line bargains etc.. Hughie combed the country for his goods, and it was small wonder that New Cumnock folks came up with the illustrious name.
Back at the foot of the [wooden] Golden stairs, you could stroll further downhill till, after a short walk, you came out on to the Castle Green. This was a piece of common land approaching an acre in size which was used by residents for recreation. It was for some years the site favoured by Codona’s travelling fairground, a visitation much anticipated and enjoyed by all. At the east end of the Castle green was an old cothouse, set at right angles to Afton banks. This, for many years, was the Scout hut.
Let’s get back up to Henderson/Post office/McFarlane shopfronts on the highway. Past the Castle buildings on the east side of the roadway, there was a range of dwellings which stretched in a continuous terrace all the way to the access road to the Castle green at the foot of the hill. One shopping unit was set incongruously in the middle of the terrace—-Sturrock’s Drapery. There wasn’t much to distinguish it from the rest of the houses other than the signage and a slightly larger window containing a merchandise display. If I remember rightly, knitwear and wools etc. was the mainstay of the business. [If I DON’T remember rightly, brother Lachie’s wife, Moira will cuff my ears—-she was employed there for some years]. Of the few families I remember from this block of buildings, the one which comes most readily to mind is the Robertson family. I never knew the older generation, but the “young-uns” were Hettie, Davy and Billy. Davy was a workmate of mine, an engineer at Bank Colliery, and an ex-Platoon Sergeant in the Guards Armoured Division [tanks] who had some very unkind things to say about the Americans who were caught asleep in the Ardennes while the Guards were churning up through Holland towards Arnhem, and Davy and his pals had to turn around and hit Gerry’s northern flank. So said Davy, anyway. Set beside some of his other tales, however, it was difficult to give great credence to each individual story. And I’m glad he’s not around to read this—he once gave me a playful pat in the gut which took two full days of recovery— Billy was better kenn’t than any of the others. A big awkward fella, he was the butt of many a joke, to which he used to threaten dire reprisal, but being a gentle giant at heart, no such reprisal ever materialised. There was a tale in circulation [a complete fiction, no doubt, ] about a fella arriving at the front door inquiring as to the whereabouts of Billy’s Dad. “Ah”, says Billy” Ma Faither’s doon the back yaird feedin’ the pigs. Jist gae doon—ye’ll ken ‘im, ‘cos he’s goat a hat oan!” As I say, almost certainly a fiction—but still, they DID rear pigs doon the back yaird…..
The buildings that were demolished to make way for the new shops and houses in the Castle
The access road to the left at the foot of the hill is still in evidence to this day, running between the rear of the present day post office and shops and what was till fairly recently, “Trotter’s building”. It gives access not only to the Castle Green, but to the ford and “steps” across Afton which lead to Castlemains Farm. It could well be that in the far past this was the main thoroughfare over Afton, allowing progress to the south of the Parish and so to Kirkconnel and beyond. There is, after all, no evidence of a conveniently fordable stretch of the river between there and “Danny’s brig”, where there is, alongside the bridge, another set of steps. Just my musings—why build a brig, when ye can walk yer horse an’ cairt across the watter?
The large building beyond this road, the erstwhile centre of commerce which held Peter Turnbull, barber, Jocky Lees, cobbler and footwear retailer and the famed drapery of the Trotter family. On my last visit home it still stood behind boarded up windows, dark brooding and forlorn. The barbershop was first in line, the entry not parallel to the road, but facing back uphill towards the Castle buildings. Like all barbershops, it served the dual purpose of haircutting and men’s blather-centre—gossip-shop, if you like. And Peter Turnbull was just the man to get the newsreels rolling while snipping away with the scissors. Son Hugh eventually took over the business, and the old shop and its functions finally moved to Bridgend, into new premises next to Scoulars “superstore”—now, of course, the “Spar”.
Jocky Lees kept the footwear of the New Cumnockians in good order in the shop next door. A worthy competitor for Roager Hood at the other end of the Castle. I was well acquainted with Jocky when in my twenties through membership of the Royal Observer Corps. Jocky was the”hied-bummer “in the New Cumnock unit of that worthy organisation. At that time, the strength included Henry Trotter [of the family next door to Jocky’s shop] , Bill McMurdo, Dan Kennedy, Alex Turnbull, Bob Turnbull, Wullie [plane-spotting wizard] Blackwood, and yours truly. The “headquarters” was in the attic section of part of Trotter’s warehouse, to the rear of the shop. The actual Observer Post was set on the highest point on the Shillin Hill, up to the rear of the Auld Mill farm steading.
Trotter’s shop, as I mentioned, was a drapery business. The boss-man was “Auld Johnnie “, and he was ably assisted by son Henry, and daughter Betty.
The final place of business on that side of the road which could strictly claim to be part of the “Castle,” was Tweedie’s Garage. Not Tweedie’s nowadays, but still a garage, and changed surprisingly little over the years. And this, to my mind, is the last edifice which can legitimately be said to be part of “The Castle” on the East side of the highway. The swimming pool which arrived some years back [can’t put a date on it—perhaps someone can help], and the Community Centre beyond encroached on what was in my teen years an area of common land known as the “glebe”
There were no community buildings back then [a ramshackle public lavvy excepted!]. No swimming pool, no communty centre, no games hall –not even a “Hall’s Factory! ” The kids’ swings, “joywheel” and maypole were situated just about where the rear wall of the library now is. A lot could be said about the functions and events associated with the Glebe, but we are now beyond the bounds of the Castle, and must retrace our steps to Gino’s chippie, cross to the west side of the road, and attempt to paint some word-pictures about the buildings, their functions, and to recall the lives and activities of some of the folks who lived and worked there. One thing can be said straight away—-if it were possible to resurrect a New Cumnockian [even a long departed citizen of the Castle], set him/her facing west on the middle of the road. He/She would in all probability be immediately aware of the fact that they were in the Castle, New Cumnock. If they were to be set down facing eastward, they wouldn’t have a clue as to their whereabouts. Beyond McKechnie’s pub [the Glen’s Bar], there is absolutely nothing recognisable left of the old Castle. It hardly behooves me to start describing the now-existing layout, the houses and their occupants. For a start, it has all come to pass since I left my Home and began wandering; and secondly those who read this will be overwhelmingly part of New Cumnock as it now is. So I’ll get back to the west side and blether a wee about Hunter, Rose Crawford and Mrs Glendinning, to name but three.
When I was a wee shaver at the Gatehouse in Connel Park—I was there till I was nine—the highlight of the week was the jaunt, under the supposed supervision of some of the older kids, doon the toon oan a Setturday afternoon to Biddals matinee, where we could get lost in the world of The Mystery Riders, The Dead End Kids, Tom Mix, Gene Autrey, Buck Jones, Flash Gordon, Breezy Baker—-ach!—they don’t make them like yon nooadays! For us wee yins, an auld tanner [six old pence] would have been an incredible fortune—but we did usually manage to wheedle threepence out of Mither’s purse before we set out on the great adventure. Our arrival in the Castle didn’t mean an immediate descent on the pay booth at Biddals, though; there was shopping to do. The “big yins” mostly favoured Gino’s shop; me, I followed all my wee pals into the wondrous interior of Rose Crawford’s sweetie shop. The best I can do nowadays in pinpointing the location of Rose’s shop is to say that it was about halfway between Hunter’s grocery and the Stamp Brae. Tuppence had to be retained for our couple of hours wi’ the cowboys in Biddals. That left one whole penny to spend as we pleased. Nae sweat! , as they say in these modern times—it is amazing, nowadays, to know just how far a penny could take you in the auld days. I could buy a cake o’ Coo Candy [so called because of the picture of a highland coo on the wrapper], or maybe two “chunks”. Ramming a “chunk” in yer gob was equivalent to getting your teeth around a half cake of the aforementioned candy. More often than not, I would settle for a penny-worth of chocolate caramels. A quarter pound of chocolate caramels. Go to the sweetie shop today and try a pennyworth of chocolate caramels; or don’t bother—ye widnae get lickin yin o’ the wrappers for a penny! Some of the more adventurous bought cinnamon bark. I used to like nibbling on cinnamon bark. But it wasn’t bought for nibbling—it was lit and smoked in the cosy dark of Biddals auditorium.
It is at this point that I am searching the memory somewhat. Mrs Glendinning had a bakery there for a lot o’ years. I am racking the auld brains trying to remember if the Bakers was contemporary to Rose’s sweetie shop—or did Mrs Glendinning move into Rose’s premises after she retired? Somebody even aulder than me [nae names, nae packdrill—but his initials are Donald McIver—] might be able to straighten that one out. Having hedged my responsibilities somewhat there, I will move southward along the street to Hunter’s Grocery. Agnes Glendinning started her home bakery and tearoom in the early 1930’s in the next shop down from Rose Crawford. When Rose Crawford retired in 1957 Mrs Glendinning bought the building and the bakehouse moved into Rose Crawford’s house at the back of the shop. A wall was knocked down connecting bakehouse and shop. Annie Love opened a baby shop in what had been the tearoom. Mrs Glendinning retired in late 1980 at the age of 79!
Hunter had a grocer’s business here for as long as I lived in New Cumnock. There’s not much I can say about it, since we were “Davie Hennerson” folk [and “Murray’s” of Connel Burn brig], and weren’t often enough in Hunter’s to be familiarised with the folks there. The only member of the family with whom I had any dealings at all—and they were mere conversations—was Campbell “Coogh” Hunter, who carried on the family retail tradition in a rented space in the “Forum” in Irvine shopping mall. Incidentally, Bill Murray of the Connel Burn Brig grocery family also had a business going there for a time. Both have moved on, I believe—where, I don’t know. Bill Murray can be spotted now and again on the t.v. appearances of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra.
Moving on along the Castle on the west side, past the roadway leading up to the ruins of the old kirk building, and just before the portals of the Regal Cinema, there used to be a billiard hall. I’m not quite certain what has taken its place, but in the approximate location there are now a Chinese takeaway and, next door, a newsagent. The fella who ran the billiards facility I knew only as “Charlie”. I seem to recollect he had some connection with Gino’s fish and chip shop at an earlier time.
Biddal’s “Regal Cinema’ has been referred to more than once here already, and not much more can be profitably said. Like every Castle “institution”, a whole book could be written about it; employees, favourite films, auditorium incidents [and there were many !] were all part of the Biddals story. Some of my own exploits would be found interesting, I’m sure—but with respect to who-ever censors internet tales, I will refrain from going into detail!
Next door to Biddals, the Castle Inn. I believe this is the oldest hostelry in New Cumnock. It never was a favourite of mine, although I cannot give any strong reason for that. I reckon it was akin to my smoking co-operative “Riever Plug” in my pipe to the exclusion of nearly every other baccy—you form habits and loyalties, and if by so doing you gain satisfaction, there is no incentive to experiment with any other. Riever was my baccy, my pub was Kechie’s.
Just past the Castle Inn, and in the remaining buildings on the west side of the road which can still be called “the Castle”, an intriguing bunch of characters—not necessarily all contemporary, each with the other,–lived or carried on their particular enterprise down the years
If I remember rightly, the offices of Mr William Young, solicitor, had their entrance doorway next to the Castle Inn. Wee Wullie had something in common with several of the New Cumnock “merchant class”; he was an avid golfer. He and his cronies were often to be seen “wastin’ a guid walk” [ a descriptive phrase coined by Wullie Shankly of Glenbuck and Liverpool fame] on the golf course adjacent to Lochside. Thereby hangs a tale, as the Victorian writers [no quips, Stephen—] were wont to say. When I was a kid of fifteen years and living at Lochside, I was keen to earn some spare cash. The greenkeeper’s job on the golf course came up. I applied and was duly interviewd by none other than the Reverend Andrew Burnett, the esteemed local Meenister at the auld kirk. Firmly esconced by God’s right hand, if ye believed my Grandfaither, auld Bob Rogerson [again, nae quips, Stephen—].
Being of that opinion, the auld yin was very much affronted when I described the arrival of the Reverend Burnett’s whisky delivery–a full case of Johnny Walker taking the place of an empty yin right there in the middle of my interview. Nae wonder auld Burnett had a nose like a Belisha Beacon. I got the job. Cutting nine greens and nine tees—with a push mower!!
We haven’t run out of “characters” in this wee corner of the Castle yet. The premises between Young’s and Sanny Gibson’s [haud oan —Sanny is the climax of the story—!] was occupied during my school years by a dapper gent by the name of Mick Clark—yet another who carried on the cobbler’s craft. Mick was an ex-army man, and carried himself accordingly–straight-backed head high, chest out, and no feart tae tell ye about his army days. He had a spell, I seem to recall, as janitor at the Town School. A popular figure, he kept himself fit, and busied himself hobbywise by helping to train local athletes. In describing the other tenants of this shop, I may be getting my chronological order confused; I don’t think it’ll matter all that much. A chap by the name of John Ferguson, an electrician, installed himself in Mick’s old premises. I think John hailed from Mauchline. Anyway, besides carrying on an electrical contractor’s business and a retail department, John took a great interest in the local 46th Ayrshire Scout Troop. By the time John was established in the Castle, I was a resident in Hexham, Northumberland, but still closely associated with the fellas in the Scout movement in New Cumnock. It follows that I cannot be expected to know of ALL of John’s exploits, but I can share a couple of yarns. The first is an account [second-hand, mind you,] of an incident which took place at one of the Scout camps at the Bine Hill, by Girvan. John was one of those Scouters who encouraged young lads to use initiative, and take some risks which were frowned upon by other youth leaders. In fact, it must be said, by MOST other youth leaders. This trait was manifest one fine summer day when it was reported by an observer on the shore at Girvan that there was a group of New Cumnock scouts far out to sea, apparently bent upon an expedition to paddle round Ailsa Craig and back again. Aye—and guess who was leading them! Who turned them around, or how, I never did learn, but there was some consternation among the public—and the other scout leaders—about the fact that the bold John could place such confidence in the ability of a bunch of young kids to circumnavigate Ailsa Craig in one-man canoes, and in what are usually fairly choppy waters. And judging by all the moans from wee Wullie and his mates, I was expected to run around after the sheep with a do-do scoop and a bucket. I leave you to guess how long THAT job lasted. One thing I do know—my successor had the joy of working with a motorised mower, for greens, tees and fairways. Guid luck tae him.
Another encounter with John and his scouts was closer to home as far as I was concerned. I lived in Hexham, on Tyneside. About three miles down the Tyne was an old estate called Dilston, which had become a designated Scout camping ground. Mainly through my close friendship with Johnny Burgoyne—a lifelong scout leader—the 46th Ayrshire New Cumnock Scouts arrived in camp at Dilston, with the bold John Ferguson as one of the men in charge. Saturday night arrived, and a raucous bunch of the older lads—“seniors” of 18 plus—arrived in Hexham town looking for weekend entertainment. They arrived at my local club. First question—what’s the best beer? I recommended my own favourite, Club Federation Special, with the warning that it was a strong beer. Ach!—English beer—we’ll haunle that nae boather. So they did, and not too badly—-till Harold Burgoyne [now Squadron Leader Burgoyne, RAF], won the raffle—a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. You can guess what happened next. Not that it made any difference to the man in charge, Scouter John Ferguson. When Harold went to claim the prize, John was already well ahead, sitting grinning all around with SEVEN glasses of scotch lined up in front of him. And I suspect that a wheen of empty glasses had been taken away from his table by then, too…..By the time the shutters came down at the bar, the unblootered Scout was the exception. And they all were resolved that they had to have supper with me and my good Lady. Accordingly, they all piled into their transport [ a big white van, as I recall, and who drove it I have no clue—maybe J.f?] and duly arrived at our front door. They all piled out, and came trooping into the house. About a third of them managed to stop in the living room; the rest carried on through and out the back door to be sick in the gairdin. I never thought to see the time when I would be glad to see a bunch of scouts dissapear from my sight—-but when John Ferguson led his merry band off in the direction of Dilston Hall in the ‘wee sma oors’ I heaved a sigh of relief! Aye—some fella, was John.
It is fitting that the last citizen [denizen?] of the old Castle whom I am about to describe was one of the most prominent “worthies” in his day. If you want a New Cumnockian of a certain age to launch into comic reminiscence, just say “Sanny Gibson”. Sanny was keeper of the last shop on the west side of the road. I believe the memorial garden and mural now occupy the site of Sanny’s grocery. Sanny was more of an entertainer than a shopkeeper. Stepping into his domain you were enveloped in the aromas associated with every veggie that ever grew in the valley of Nith. You were hemmed in by walls which were seemingly built using myriad canned produce, alternate with cardboard cartons of every imaginable hue and content. And Sanny had as much room to move as any of his customers–which wasn’t much \room at all! If you didn’t get a laugh to accompany your groceries, your dog had either just died or you simply had no soul—-. We have seen many and varied photos on tartantammy’s website depicting the New Cumnock drama group. Well, ‘way back afore they started taking photies, Sanny Gibson was a member of the Dramatic Club. Sanny was cast as the villain in one particular play [was it “the Clutching Hand”?] in which his dramatic stage entrance was to be accompanied by a flourish of his black cape, and the ominous words–“this is a night for bloody deeds!!” Now, Sanny, in spite of his extrovert lifestyle and talent for comedic cairry-oan in his daily dealings with the public, was oddly nervous when it came to formal public appearance on the stage. He awaited his cue with some trembling trepidation. Then, a brilliant flash of inspiration—-he had a fair wee spell before he was due to appear and mouth the fateful “this is a night for bloody deeds!!”; and the Crown Hotel was a mere hundred yards up the road frae the toon hall! A drop of the Dutch [Scotch] courage Sanny thought, was in order. Sanny got back in time for his cue—just.
He stumbled up the steps, came waltzing out to stage centre and cheerfully announced to all and sundry, “it’s a bliddy fine night indeed!!” What the rest of the cast [Johnny Edwards, Jim “Pompey” Brown and others] thought of the incident, or if and how they salvaged the remainder of the play is not recorded!
There was a national miner’s strike in 1926. Things got rather serious [Mr Winston Churchill famously suggested “turning the guns” on the miners]. The other salient event in the life of Sanny Gibson as this writer knows it came to pass through an event which occurred during this long strike. Blackleg miners were being brought in to work the coal mines in Kirkconnel. This caused some rage in New Cumnock. So much so that an “expedition’ was organised with the intention of, at the very least, intimidating the said blacklegs. The bold Sanny, being a loyal New Cumnockian and a champion of the common man, decided to show solidarity, and was subsequently to be found marching with the lads, and approaching Kirkconnel. Sanny, of course had again taken recourse to the Crown Hotel “Dutch Courage”, and had a hauf-bottle of Johnny Walker snugly tucked into his back pocket. As it turned out, the guns were literally being turned on the miners, in the form of an armed section of the British Army, sent to protect the blackleg workers. Undeterred, the lads marched forward. Then, there came the order to prepare to fire—–. Sensibly , discretion became the better part of valour, and the gallant expeditioners took to their heels, Sanny somewhere in the ranks. The story goes that just as Sanny had a stane dyke to clamber over the order”fire!” was heard. Sanny got ower the dyke just as smartly –and inelegantly—as he could, and, unfortunately, just as the volley of rifle shots [blanks, as it later transpired] rang out Sanny’s Dutch Courage came a cropper on th top of the stane dyke and caused a wet cascade of fluid to go coursing down his leg. “Goad!!” cried Sanny, “Ah hope that’s bluid!!!”
With the telling of that tale about the irrepressible Sanny, this account of the Castle, its environs and its folks as I knew them is more or less complete. Perhaps it would be unfair to neglect the folks upstairs from Sanny—the Youngs. Wullie Young and his sister Jessie. Wullie was a blacksmith [and a good one too] at the Bank Auld Pit. Wullie’s most memorable characteristic other than his smithy skills was the ever-present pipeful of baccy clenched between his teeth. There was, at all times, a slaver or two dripping from under the bowl. When Wullie got excited—which was often—the slaver-intensity quotient increased dramatically, and it paid anyone near at hand either to retreat smartly or put up a brolly.
Sister Jessie will more than likely be known to some reading this. She was a teacher at Bank school; the only Bank school teacher, incidentally, to ever give me the “tawse”! Och—a nice wee wumman all the same.
So there you have it; the Castle as it used to be. It would make no sense for me to go into any discourse about the place in the present day; there are dozens—aye, scores—out there who know the Castle as it now is much more intimately than a dweller on Vancouver Island possibly could. Some say life is like a patchwork quilt–some patches catching the light of happiness, others the darkness of inevitable sorrow. I think I have shared one of the light patches; I trust it hasn’t been found boring.
I asked Bobby to do this article and I knew he would do me, himself and New Cumnock proud. He surpassed even my expectations though….many thanks Bobby – yer a gem!