Glenbuck revisited

Bill Shankly – footballing legend and Glenbuck’s most celebrated son – once noted that the mining village he called home felt akin to ‘outer Mongolia’ in the long dark Ayrshire winters. On Friday the 2nd of September, 109 years to the day Shankly was born, our team of researchers from the Scottish Oral History Centre, former residents and local councillors were much more fortunate with the weather. Under sun-split Ayrshire skies, we were taken on a tour of the Glenbuck memorial site by former residents Sam Purdie and Barbara Alexander (who also happens to be Bill Shankly’s niece), both of whom kindly shared stories of life in the miners’ rows. 

Man with a walking stick standing on some pathways surrounded by green grass and hills.

IMAGE: Sam looking out over the memorial site

These days, the Glenbuck memorial site which opened in 2019 is only accessible by car from the A70. However, as Sam told us, in the early 20th century, three different railways ran through Glenbuck, transporting goods and people to and from the busy mining village. While the import and export of industrial labour and products were the source of many of these journeys, people also came for leisure. In particular, many came to play with the local football team, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers, who held matches on a stretch of land behind the Monkey Row. As Sam recalled, visiting teams (and the referee) often had to sprint over the hill to make it on the train out of Glenbuck, and ‘they had to be fast if they happened to win’.

Three women standing in a rural area next to a video camera.

Image: Barbara talking to project researchers Yvonne and Kate q about her family, the Shankly’s

As well as mining, football was the village’s other great export, with an astonishing 55 professional footballers emerging from Glenbuck and going on to decorated careers all over the country. The Cherrypickers themselves were highly popular too; as Sam recounted, ‘occasionally you would find out the Cherrypickers had five right-wingers’ as spectators jumped over the rope to join in the game. The Cherrypickers disbanded in the 1930s, after the pit closed. Their former pitch is now an empty expanse of marshy field, its former life as homeground to some of Scotland’s footballing greats demarcated by four small white posts. 

Two figure, one male and one female, looking at a field with hills in the background. A recorder is the in the foreground

Image: Barbara telling Arthur McIvor about her memories of the football pitch

black and white photo of row of houses with a church in the background. Two children are in the street and and number of people on the doorstep of the first house

Image: The Monkey Row- the family on the doorstep has been identified as the Shankly’s

Reflecting on the volume of footballing talent which emerged from Glenbuck, Barbara recalled that the sport was a chance for those who worked in the pits to take in as much fresh air as possible after days spent underground, as well as a potential escape from some the difficulties of heavy labour. But even its most well-travelled footballing heroes often returned home. During our visit, Barbara pointed out the site of the former Co-op in the village, telling us how it once held the FA Cup: after Sandy Brown and Sandy Tait won the trophy with Tottenham Hotspur in 1901, it was brought back on the train and briefly displayed in the Co-op’s window.

Barbara also recalled the texture of life for women in the village. While some later took on jobs such as seamstresses or in the service industry, most commonly women found their time occupied with the management of the home. As Barbara noted, in the case of the Shankly family, managing a home with twelve residents in a village with no running water or electricity was more than a full-time job, and making ends meet was often deeply challenging. The village was served by a butcher and some families grew vegetables, though Barbara imagined for the older generation, food may sometimes have been scarce. Barbara also remembered her time as a pupil at Cumnock Academy, which involved leaving her house in Glenbuck at 7am and returning at 6pm, further testament to the challenges and relative isolation of village life.

Two figures, one male and one female, looking a mining cart filled with stones next to a sign saying 'In Memory of the Glenbuck Miners'

Image: The mining memorial at the entrance to the site

Despite many of the hardships of life in the village, its residents found time to enjoy themselves. Some, like Barbara’s grandfather Johnny Shankly – a middle-distance runner – would walk to the picturehouse in neighbouring Muirkirk. Poignantly, Barbara and Sam both recalled the deep sense of community in the village; for many, free time involved poaching the abundant rainbow trout, partridges, hares or rabbits, which were then shared with others in the village, such as pensioners. 

Black memorial stone surrounded by red and white scarves of Liverpool football club. Hills and a cloudy sky in the background

Image: The memorial to Bill Shankly

For many years the bustle and life of Glenbuck was almost lost entirely. Opencast mining destroyed the former village’s landscape, including almost all of its architecture (save one church wall), leaving the environment resembling a ‘black moonscape’, according to Sam. Today, owing to decades of tireless campaigning by people like Barbara and Sam, memories of the village are being kept alive. The area has been transformed, and a steady stream of people travel from all over to see the site at Glenbuck each day. Visitors can read about the history of the village on information boards put together by the Scottish Mining Restoration Fund and East Ayrshire Council which have been informed by Sam’s extensive local knowledge, or pay tribute to Bill Shankly at the memorial installed by the Liverpool Away Supporters Club. Thanks to these continued efforts, the voices of those who lived and worked in this small mining village are being heard once more. 

Benwhat Reunion 2011 Screening with Councillor Drew Filson

The Lost Villages team were kindly invited to Dalmellington by Councillor Drew Filson to watch a video of the 2011 Reunion for the village of Benwhat. Looking through the local newspapers, there have often been articles on reunions for these lost mining villages. 

A screen on the wall showing a blue background with a photo in the centre. The words, The Benwhat Reunion, 2011, are along the top.

IMAGE: The Benwhat Reunion 2011 Screening, October 2021 at Dalmellington Community Centre (Image reproduced with permission from Yvonne McFadden)

In 2010, Drew Filson contacted Fiona Lees, CEO of East Ayrshire Council at the time. to request the railings around the War Memorial be renewed. The railings had been damaged by the local population of Benwhat today, the cows, who had been using them as their favourite scratching post! The railings were beautifully restored with replica fleur de lis ironwork in a foundry in Fife and Councillor Filson, whose dad came from Benwhat, thought this would be a good time to organise a Benwhat reunion. 

War memorial at Benwhat. An obelisk surrounded by iron railing on a grass hill with a cloudy sky above with the sun breaking through

IMAGE: Benwhat Memorial. 2021 (Image reproduced with permission from Arthur McIvor)

The exposed hillside village is almost completely flattened and all that significantly remains is the War Memorial above the village and some of the ‘new’ school. With the loss of the footprint of the village, the War Memorial is a focal point for those who climb up to the village. Jutting out on the hillside, the granite obelisk is assertive indication that there once was a community who commemorated and cherished their fallen sons, brothers, and fathers. And latterly, for the people whose families came from the hill, it is a marker of their heritage and history. It is a beautiful, peaceful spot to remember not only the fallen soldiers but also those who once lived in this remote, thriving community. A strong sense of place and belonging is still evident decades after the village was emptied. There are memorial benches scattered across the hillside and some villagers ask for their ashes scatter on their site of their old home. 

a group of people sitting on a memorial bench at the site of the lost mining village of Benwhat.

IMAGE: Councillor Drew Filson and his family at the memorial bench placed at his grandparents Benwhat home where their ashes are scattered. 2018 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson

The video created from Councillor Filson’s photographs and with the editing skills of Walter McCrae shows the amount of preparation and time that went into planning the reunion. The commitment and the real sense of pulling together to make this happen was evident from the video. Ahead of the event, a team worked into the fading summer evening to haul the equipment up the hill, cut the grass and erect the marquee. Scottish Coal filled the potholes to allow the local bus company to get the elderly villagers two miles up the steep hill to the their village. One man, Robin Farell signed himself out of hospital to make that last trip up Benwhat. It was quite emotional watching all the smiling faces being piped off the bus to the event, as Councillor Filson commented on who was sadly no longer with us. As oral historians, it is one of the most poignant and difficult things about working on projects that go back so far that many stories are already lost and pressing sense of urgency that we need to capture these histories quickly before that wonderful living memory is gone. While at the same time, many narrators express in their recordings that they feel a sense of legacy and for their families it means they have their story for generations to come. 

A group of people being led by a piper through the green hills of to the former mining village of Benwhat

IMAGE: The participants of the Benwhat Reunion being piped off the bus to the marquee, 2011 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

The combination of the music and the images of these Benwhatonians climbing the steep hill to then bow their heads in silence for what once was and all those that were now gone was moving to watch. However, the laughter, the buzz of the day was clear from the pictures. Councillor Filson’s own father and uncle, twins who grew up in the village, took part in the day and are also no longer with us. The memory of this day, the stories that were shared there with generations of families whose fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers makes this video special. The story of the snow covering the houses so that you had to dig your way out your front door. The playing of the Dalmellington Silver Band in memory of the now gone Benwhat band. The woman who brought up a child’s potty to make everyone laugh about the outhouses, now no longer standing. Middleton Park, the baker, who made a cake of the village with the words: ‘Brick and mortar may be gone, but Benwhat’s spirit lingers on’.

photo of a cake with a scene on it of grass hills, a row of houses and sheet. The message reads: Bricks and mortar may be gone but Benwhat's spirit lingers on.

IMAGE: Cake of Benwhat for the reunion, baked by Middleton Park who sadly passed away recently, 2011 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

The event seemed like a wonderful day for all who attended and those who worked hard to organise access to such a challenging site. Councillor Filson has kindly offered to put us in touch with some of the people from the video and we look forward to arranging an event in future that can once again bring together villagers and their families to share stories about life in the village of Benwhat. 

Photo of a paining showing sheep on the hills in the foreground to two rows on white housing with pitched roofs and a hill in the background depicting the lost mining village of Benwhat

IMAGE: Painting of Benwhat on the front cover of the DVD case.

Dalmellington Community Remembrance Day, 2018

The second video Councillor Filson showed us for around the Dalmellington Community Remembrance Day event for the centenary of the First World War in 2018. The first sequence shows all the meetings and preparations that went into the event. The focal point was the elegant Tommies designed by the people behind the Tower of London poppy installation. Councillor Filson had the fantastic idea to getting a steam train from Doon Valley Railway up the track towards the village to blow the whistle as a powerful reminder that the last thing many of these men heard as they left their loved ones of the whistle of the train. Again, the community resources, time, work and volunteers that created this event was remarkable. You get a real sense of Dalmellington as a community who wants to remember and keep alive the history of their village and the Doon Valley. The wonderful research of the Dalmellington History Group to uncover more about the soldiers listed on the local war memorials. The video included a list of those who had lost their lives in the major battles which must have been devastating to their families and the village to lose so many at once. 

DVD cover showing a black and red steam train surrounded by trees and greenery. The text reads Dalmellington Remembers 100 years, 1918-2018

IMAGE: Front cover of Dalmellington Parish Remembers

After the Remembrance Day event the Dalmellington Silver Band band played in the Dalmellington Community Centre where thousands of poppies fell from the ceiling (expertly rig up with cabbage netting). The school children did a fantastic job reading out the names of the fallen. The detail and effort that went into this memorial was wonderful to see. 

Finally, we see Councillor Filson and his family hauling one of the Tommy’s up the steep 2 mile hill to its resting place at the war memorial in our lost village of Benwhat. While the Tommy himself was fairly manageable, the concrete block took at tremendous amount of effort. Once installed up the hill, there is a wonderful picture of Councillor Filson with his children and grandson at the memorial. It was a lovely reminder that history is generational and something which helps us feel connected to the past and as long as these stories from our grandmothers and grandfather, mothers and fathers are told then they live on for generations to come. 

IMAGES: Councillor Filson and with his family and friend carrying the Tommy up to Benwhat 2018, (Images reproduced with permission of Drew Filson)

a man holding a poppy reef in front of the war memorial which is surrounded by black railings on a hillside

IMAGE: Councillor Drew Filson with the Tommy at Benwhat Memorial 2021 (Image reproduced with permission from Drew Filson)

If you took part in the any of the Benwhat reunions, we would love to hear from you. Whether you were a Benwhatonian yourself or your family have stories handed down about life in the village, please get in touchand help us preserve the memory of this Lost Village.  

You can find out more about the history of Benwhat here