Michael Portillo article for Mail on Sunday
27 July 2003
Kirkcaldy Lino Factory

The town of Kirkcaldy in Fife, which was home to Gordon Brown, to the political philosopher Adam Smith and to my mother, produces a smell so notorious that it has been celebrated in poetry:

“For I ken mysel’ by the queer-like smell
That the next stop’s Kirkcaldy!”

Mary Campbell Smith’s “The Boy in the Train” reminds me of my childhood. My mother would travel “back home” taking my brothers and me to visit our grandparents on the overnight train from London. We travelled the cheapest way, sitting upright on a train whimsically named “The Starlight Special”. The morning brought the great excitement of clanking across the magnificent Forth Rail Bridge, peering through its massive red girders to the uninviting waters of the Forth far below. Shortly after, our nostrils would fill with the smoky smell of linseed, the raw material for linoleum, which was the principal industry of Kirkcaldy.

My grandfather, John W Blyth, was in linen not linoleum. By the time I knew him in the late 1950s, linen was in decline and he was in retirement. He lived a comfortable bourgeois existence, but to my brothers and me, brought up in a suburban London semi, it seemed like unlimited opulence. Tom, the chauffeur, met us at Kirkcaldy station. He wore a double-breasted high-buttoned dark blue tunic, with cap and driving gloves. The car was a 1953 Daimler. Along its deep maroon paintwork a single gold line was traced across the mudguard and the doors, interrupted by grandad’s elegant monogram, JWB. After five minutes the Daimler would swing us between impressive stone gate posts and along a twisting gravel drive that led to the front door of Wilby House.

In truth, it was typical of many Scottish middle class houses. Its rooms were huge. Its oak staircase was imposing. Even then, however, we had a sense of its faded grandeur. The Daimler rarely left the garage. We liked to visit it, exchanging the ambient smell of linseed for the polished wood and leather of the car’s interior.

Although a chauffeur, Tom spent most of his time tending the gravel, perfecting the lawns and pruning the roses. His wife, Mary, cooked and polished inside the house. There had once been a much bigger staff, as evidenced by the call button in every room connected to a bell in the scullery. By the time I knew the house, although it gave me childish pleasure to ring and ring, I rang in vain.

The linen factory was already empty. Grandad had devised a great game pushing us on the old industrial trolleys between the looms. Later I discovered that its employees had been mainly women, working for low pay. It had been noisy and even dangerous. Those were the days before equal pay, and health and safety standards were not as they are now. Not that Britain has many factories today.

Now the loom hall stands empty. Wilby House has become an old people’s home. The gravel has given way to tarmac, and Tom’s unblemished lawns have succumbed to weeds. Much of the town’s linoleum plant has been demolished. One of the oldest and strongest-built factories still dominates the town, but it’s a ruin. It’s remarkable for its three tall arched windows rising four storeys high: incongruously beautiful in such a utilitarian building. But they, too, served a purpose. As part of the drying process the longest rolls of linoleum were stretched out, hauled up high and looped around the curved tops of the windows.

As I pick my way through the tangled metal that now litters that building’s broken floors, I think of it as hugely symbolic of the industrial revolution. Those entrepreneurs built on a scale that expressed their confidence, and they expected their great halls of manufacture to last.

It symbolises, too, the suffering of those who sweated to create wealth. This is a monument worth restoring, and I am its champion on the BBC2’s series Restoration. It will be left to the public to decide which building is most deserving of restoration but I hope my appeal on behalf of the lino works will help gather support from those unfamiliar with Kirkcaldy’s great heritage. Such us the town’s cultural diversity today that, as well as providing space for new businesses, part of the restoration plan is to bring the factory’s top floors back to life as a mosque!

My grandfather would have been amazed. His true religion was art. Indeed, it was a passion that gripped Kirkcaldy. If you visit the town’s museum and art gallery today, you will encounter a striking portrait of a boy called Iain Couper Nairn, painted by the society portraitist Harrington Mann in 1899. The lad’s father was John Nairn, proprietor of the linoleum factory. During the First World War, Iain Couper Nairn was killed, and his father built in his honour, and in memory of the town’s other young men lost in the war, a war memorial, museum and art gallery, close to the station. My mother, at the age of five, was chosen to present a bouquet at the opening ceremony in 1924.

My grandfather became the gallery’s first convener, and held the position until his death in 1962. He, and other businessmen in Scotland, had discovered the Scottish colourists: S.J. Peploe, George Leslie Hunter, J.W. Fergusson and F.C.B. Cadell. Painting mainly in the early decades of the 20th Century, these artists were immensely influenced by the French impressionists, and their collective name came from their exuberant love of colour.

My grandfather collected them addictively. When Wilby House’s walls could hold no more, he made room by lending an increasing proportion of his paintings to the art gallery. When my grandmother objected to his extravagance, he took to hiding his new acquisitions. But he would slip home from the factory in his lunch hour to sit in contemplation of his latest treasure.

I came to know those pictures as a boy. The oil paint was often thickly applied. Close up, the swirls were sometimes indecipherable. It was only when standing back that I could discern maybe a hillside, a church and a grazing cow.

My grandfather also collected William McTaggart. His paintings were huge and massively framed. Some depicted storms and in them children cowered on the shore battered by wind and surf, perhaps doomed to perish in the mounting tide. The size and subject matter of those pictures terrified me. I had to pass them at a rush, simultaneously scared of drowning in the foam or being crushed by the picture falling from the wall.

Today my grandfather’s collection hangs in the Kirkcaldy art gallery. Paintings by the colourists can now command prices in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. That gallery is the Mecca of Scottish art, but few people enter it.

Perhaps it just seems too unlikely that this dour town should house such beauty. True, Adam Smith’s house is tall and noble as well as austere. But elsewhere in Kirkcaldy, the austerity is pretty undiluted: a town of greys and browns stretched out along the grey-brown sea of the Firth of Forth. Whenever I look at that water I remember a jellyfish washed up on that coal-stained beach when I was six. It was blood red and the size of a coffee table.

The ghastly civic architecture of the Sixties took its toll on Kirkcaldy, bringing charmless public buildings, brutalist landscaping and an unforgiving highway that cuts the town off from its waterfront. Linoleum and its descendant products are still made here; but linen and coal-mining have gone.

I sometimes think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s biography might be entitled “Kirkcaldy Made Me”, and I would understand. His father was a church minister in the town, and I can imagine how young Gordon, watching him at work amongst the needy and the unemployed, became both serious and socialist.

Brown seems as dour as his home town. During the time when I was his shadow, we had only one conversation. One year, as the Queen summoned the Commons to the House of Lords for the Opening of Parliament, the cameras caught Brown and me processing together, chatting relaxedly. Our topic was not national finance but the Scottish colourists, on which he is knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

Nonetheless, my Kirkcaldy experience and the Chancellor’s were very different. While he lived there through its painful years of industrial decline, I was merely a boy on the train: an occasional holiday visitor to the town. I remember that whiff of linseed well enough. But to be honest, more evocative for me would be that smell of wood and upholstery, carrying me back to the unprecedented luxury of my grandad’s superb maroon Daimler.