Kilmacolm Civic Trust: More than buildings!

Kilmacolm Civic Trust share with us how their work concerns more than the built environment.

Kilmacolm lies close to Port Glasgow, Greenock, Paisley and Glasgow Airport, yet it’s surrounded by countryside.  Two swathes of Green Belt run into the village, reinforcing its bucolic appeal.  A rural hamlet through most of recorded history, there are few references to the built environment until 1489, when King James IV personally oversaw some alterations to nearby Duchal Castle, attacking it with the famous Mons Meg cannon during a siege.

The arrival of the railway in 1869 transformed the village and its prospects.  The clean air drew new, wealthy entrepreneurs, who wanted to raise their families away from the grime and pestilences of Glasgow – while the railway let them live close enough to the ports and factories to keep an eye on their growing businesses.

They commissioned the leading architects of the day to build fine houses, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Lieper, Austin Laird and James Salmon.  Many of these are to be found in the higher ground in the village, and this area has enjoyed Conservation Area status since 1976.  In 2014 conservation status was also given to the heart of Kilmacolm, with its unique late Victorian/Edwardian character.   In 1876 William Quarrier established his first Orphan Home, creating Quarriers Village two miles away, alongside the river Gryffe; and its original core is a further Conservation Area.  The closure of the railway line in 1983 eventually led to the creation of a cycle track, which has become a popular amenity.

Both these villages are the focus of the Kilmacolm Civic Trust, formed in 1969.  Our objective is to enhance, preserve and promote the character and amenities of Kilmacolm, Quarriers and the surrounding countryside, not just within the Conservation Areas.

The built environment is extremely important to us, and each month our Executive Committee examines all relevant planning applications, to help secure our heritage and try to ensure the highest calibre of any future development.  Of course we can’t keep the villages in aspic, and homes, new and old, will always need to adapt to the changing needs of their inhabitants.  Indeed, rather than being excessively conservative, sometimes we’re disappointed that applicants and architects are not  a little bolder, or that materials have not been selected with the same care that has gone into designing otherwise promising new structures.

The work of the Trust concerns more than the built environment – we are proud custodians of an extensive archive of documents, books, maps and memorabilia.  We are beginning an exciting project to list, organise and safely store this material, and digitising items where possible.  The cost and time entailed are daunting, especially at this first stage, as our Committee members painstakingly go through the boxes of documents to list each item.  The Trust has been extremely fortunate to have expertise within the Committee, as well as practical help from both Glasgow University Archive Service and Inverclyde Libraries.  Right now, we’re learning about copyright issues and how to negotiate the funding maze.

Ultimately, this project will enable the Trust to engage more fully with its members, local residents, and beyond, and to create more dynamic resources for academic and lay interests alike.

Our other, equally ambitious project is to create an Oral History, and several exploratory recordings have already taken place as proof of concept.  Our ‘talking heads’ format, with two locals reminiscing on a theme has produced some fascinating stories about village life, and residents’ adventures further afield.  We were captivated by a tale of Stalin’s gift of a (live) reindeer to a local resident’s young daughter during WWII.  Unfortunately the animal didn’t survive the journey from Murmansk!

In the past two years we have also worked on projects with local schools, helping to develop artistic skills and engage the students’ interest in the villages.  A permanent exhibition has been established in the Kilmacolm Community Centre, of pupils’ architectural drawings, mounted on slates by a local community enterprise.   Spreading our brief even further, a second set of slates was commissioned for our French twin town of Mérignies.

A creative writing project by pupils of St Columba’s School and their Writer in Residence resulted in a series of monologues about village life, which were recorded and posted online.  These included an account of a true story about a visit by Charles Rennie Mackintosh to his clients, the Davidsons at Windyhill, the home he had designed for them.

So for Kilmacolm Civic Trust, the built environment is important, but the further challenge is for us to re-awaken the material in our custody, to crystallise the living memories of our residents, and to ensure our youngsters understand their stake in our wonderful corner of Scotland.  With our 50th Anniversary in two years’ time, we’re celebrating our past and embracing the future!