Fire Stories - 1

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Background History

The 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of enthusiasm for open-air life and country pursuits like hiking and cycling.  It was most marked in industrial working class people who wanted to escape the poverty, hardships and stresses of industrial life.  In Scotland, the conurbations of Glasgow and Clydebank were at the forefront of this movement partly because they had the densest concentration of working class people and partly because they had wild countryside within 18 miles of Glasgow city centre.  It was here, too, that unemployment was greatest during the Great Depression years following 1929.

In those years, an outing to the countryside at Milngavie was likely to be the best 'holiday' a family might get from the Clyde basin.   At weekends particularly, walkers and families of picnickers could be found spread over Mugdock Water Works, Drumclog Moor, Mugdock Bank, Craigallian and Carbeth (click for area map).   A one penny tram ride from the centre of Glasgow took you to Hillfoot tram terminus and nearby Milngavie and then open country.   From Hillfoot, a 3-mile walk took you to Craigallian Loch, 4 miles took you to Strathblane and the Campsie Fells and from there, all Scotland lay before you.

During this time too, the socialist-inspired Clarion Holiday Fellowship camp at Craigmore appeared in Carbeth Estate - it was open from April to September.  Its aim was to help working class people to escape their grim living and working conditions and spend some time in the health-giving air of the countryside and, of course, to spread the principles of socialism.  At one time, this site appears to have comprised up to 40 individual tented campsites.   At some time, too, there was a campsite close to Craigallian where Ruth Kerrigan, the wife of the well-known 'Red Clydesider' Peter Kerrigan, organised pre-natal classes for expectant Glasgow mothers.   Around this time, too, it's said there was a Traveller's camp at or near Craigallian bridge.   Certainly there is evidence of their presence from such local names as 'Tinker's Burn' and 'Tinker's Close'.

The owner of Carbeth Estate, Allan Barns-Graham, was clearly sympathetic to the Fellowship's aims and from the mid-1920s, he oversaw the erection of several hutted areas which catered for a variety of ex-Servicemen, unemployed and working men and their families from Glasgow and Clydebank.   The deal was that you could stay every weekend and for two weeks holiday a year, though this rule was interpreted fairly loosely by all accounts!

So this area was very popular by the latter half of the 1920s and a great proportion of foot-traffic came along tracks to the West of Craigallian loch – walkers from Glasgow via Milngavie, the Allander and Carbeth Muir or the 'Bankies', the Clydebankers, who walked to Carbeth over the Kilpatricks via Faifly to Craigton on the Drymen road then down towards Craigallian bridge and on to Carbeth Muir (see area map above).

When the Great Depression really hit in the 1930s, it was hardly surprising that young enterprising outdoor types would want to escape the poverty, grime and hopelessness of unemployent in the Clyde basin and spend it exploring the countryside outside Glasgow.   Many young unemployed men took to the country and returned to the city once a week to 'the buroo' to collect their 15 shillings (75p) dole money - they were the rural version of the 'Lobby Dosser'.   The term 'Lobby Dosser' originated from the iniquitous 'Family Means Test' of that era which meant that, if any member of a family gained a job, all other family members had their benefit reduced or completely withdrawn.   To prevent this, many adult children left home to prevent further suffering for their family, and slept in tenement hallways - 'lobbies' - creeping away at first light to avoid detection.  

For many of these young men food was always a major concern for they were often half-starved so that, in many ways, they were much better off in the country than the city – they could supplement their meagre rations (and those of their families) by some poaching or 'borrowing' tatties and turnips from the fields.

Periodically, there would have been wee fires being lit over this area by walkers 'drumming-up' (and in the encampments too of course). The Craigallian Fire, most probably, would have started this way towards the latter half of the 1920s, although one contemporary account of the Fire by a David McConnell in 1931 suggests that this spot was in use as early as 1916 !   It was a good site for a fire, a drum-up and a sing-song - a finger of conifers reached down Carbeth hill from Carbeth forest to the track and it had a wee burn running down it.   Wood, water and some shelter with a fine view over the loch to Craigallian House – perfect!   Was it hikers or tenters or maybe the Travellers who started it - who knows ?

It appears that Allen Barns-Graham was not too happy about a fire being lit here because 'the police were involved at the beginning of it'.  Not surprising really – he'd be worried about the hazard of a fire spreading through the woods to the huts and encampments. However, he must have come to some arrangement with the firelighters……….for the Fire continued to be lit and so a legend was born.

During the 1930s, it was a meeting-place and beacon for many types – climbers, walkers, adventurers and wanderers talked and sometimes slept round it, and by its firelight were born the legendary Creagh Dhu, Lomond and Ptarmigan climbing clubs.  The Fire offered warmth, company, interesting discussions and an ever-boiling dixie of tea into which the visitor’s mug or can could be dipped.   At any one time, there might be upwards of 30 people sitting round the Fire.

Hill-lore, philosophy and socialist topics of the time were discussed at length for this was a great time of socialist-driven change.  Even atomic theory was discussed when a local chemist used to drop in!  Several of the fire-sitters would go on to fight in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939.   Adolescent schoolboys and even families with young children would come to the Fire and listen to the 'old timers' telling tales of adventure in the wild places further North.   They, in turn, were fired to seek wider horizons.  Some of those who sat at the Fire and shared its bounty would be notably instrumental in fighting for the freedom of all people to enjoy the Scottish countryside through the development of such things as our Rights of Way and National Parks.

The Fire was still in existence at the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 but, due to blackout restrictions, it was moved further up Carbeth hill into a small clearing deeper in the woods.   A one-time member of the Lomond MC remembers an instance in October 1939 when he and a schoolboy friend were at the Fire listening to the residents 'jawing' when the gamekeeper appeared with a couple of policeman to warn the sitters about the light and torches etc.....the said schoolboys melted into the woods like true Indians before they became involved in any trouble.....!

By this time, though, the Fire's heyday was over - the Spanish Civil War then WW II made their call on the veteran sitters and re-employment for the war effort did the same.   The popularity of hiking brought with it litter louts and despoilers and the landowner banned fires - blackout restrictions also would have been a factor.   Notice boards went up banning fires (judging by the bullet holes in the last contemporary metal one at the site, they didn't last too long!) and the area was patrolled by vigilant 'gamies'.   As related by Jock Nimlin in the following page, one attempt was made in the 1940s to revive the Fire but that ended in a court case and the Fire finally died.

The next pages give recollections and stories of the Fire by outdoorsmen like Jock Nimlin, Tom Weir, Chris Lyon, Bob Grieve and others.  We'll add more as we get 'em - it all depends on you!

 
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