Philanthropy Almost Without Limit

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The contribution of the Nairn family businesses will always be central to the story of Kirkcaldy's economic and industrial past.

Without them, we could never have become the linoleum capital of the world. Nor, indeed, would the boy on the train have detected that particular 'queer-like smell'.

The looms and workshops may have fallen silent. But the Nairn family name lives on today for its benefactions as much as for its factories.

They left us - and in this case it is us, the humble public - an iconic War Memorial and Gallery, a lovely coastal public park and a remarkable medieval castle, and much more besides.

Philanthropy Amost Without Limit
00:00 / 06:46

In depth written study

Temporary socially distanced recording

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The Philanthropy of a Kirkcaldy Family

Since 1828 the name Nairn, in its various guises, has provided continuous employment in Kirkcaldy. Over the years members of the Nairn family have provided philanthropic benefits to both Kirkcaldy and the wider Fife.

While Andrew Carnegie’s gifts to his home town of Dunfermline  cannot be underestimated, it is a fact that no employment opportunities were provided in his home town.  His industries were located far from his native town – even his native country, therefore it can be argued that Nairns provided benefits on two fronts against Carnegie’s one.

In truth, the massive industrial powerhouse that Nairns became was not unlike the battle of Waterloo – ‘it was a close run thing’. It could very easily have disappeared, hardly out of its infancy, had it not been for the resolve of a strong woman.

Michael Nairn was born into a weaving family in Kirkcaldy in 1804. It seemed inevitable that he would enter that industry and he completed his training in Dundee. On returning to Kirkcaldy he set up a small business in Linktown of Abbotshall. In 1828 he was elected as a burgess of Kirkcaldy, which allowed him to move inside the town boundaries and set up a business close to Coal Wynd.

His house at the Port Brae had a long garden (rigg) which ran all the way up to Hill Place. Here he built his first factory to manufacture canvas. His products were canvas itself, oilcloth, canvas for sails and backing for the new floorcloth industry.

On a visit to one of his clients he had the opportunity of seeing the manufacture of floorcloth from first to last, all on the same premises. At the time the closest company manufacturing floorcloth was in Newcastle. He also knew that the days of sail were disappearing and after considerable thought decided to set up his own floorcloth business in Kirkcaldy.  He saw floorcloth as an expanding industry against his current operation which was perhaps already on the slope of decline. For this reason he had a purpose built factory constructed at the top of the Path.

This was a risky undertaking as it took months to turn the raw materials into the finished article. During that six month period wages and overheads still had to be met. This lack of income, the cost of his factory and giving up a solid business for this new venture, saw his factory nicknamed “Nairn’s Folly” by the doubting population.

However through hard work, attention to detail, a continual drive to improve both design and processes saw the business thrive. However, his hard work and  long hours took their toll and he died in 1858 at only 54.

This is where it could all have ended. Would his widow the forty three year old Catherine simply give up? It would perhaps have been understandable, but she was a strong woman who believed in divine providence. Her thought process was that it was God’s will to take her husband and therefore it fell to her to step into the breach. She formed a partnership with her teenage son Robert and James Shepherd. They followed the plans and enhancements which Michael had planned before his sudden death.

The business continued, but it was when Michael Barker Nairn, the second son, joined the business that it took off. While his father had laid the foundations, it was Michael’s business acumen which took it to the next level. This was despite the experienced James Shepherd leaving to set up a competitor business with Michael Beveridge. He became chairman and by the time of his death in 1915 it was a company  of international renown employing thousands in its sprawling factories.

It was Michael who appears to have turned on the tap of philanthropy. While it cannot be argued that he made a considerable fortune from the business – his gifts were equally considerable – amongst a variety both large and small – he provided at his own cost a hospital which he then extended twice. He also rebuilt the Burgh School, again from his own pocket.

On his death it was his younger brother, John, who took up the chairman’s reins. John saw the firm through the difficulties of the war and its aftermath. John Nairn had lost his only son in the conflict and his gift to the town was the Museum and Art Gallery which was swiftly followed by the library. The cost was estimated at £80,000 and formed the backdrop to the town’s war memorial. On his death his home, Forth Park, was gifted to the town as a maternity hospital.

When John retired it was his nephew, Sir Michael Nairn, who became chairman. Sir Michael was connected with the firm for over fifty years and he also had to grapple with the issues of war. Despite these difficulties, Sir Michael’s chairmanship saw further expansion and the firm becoming one of  pre-eminence in the floorcloth industry.

In 1929 Sir Michael gifted the policies of Dysart House to the town as a public park. His modesty prevented the park being named after him – he had suggested Ravenscraig Park – and that is what it became.

On his retiral in 1952 his brother, Sir Robert Spencer Nairn, became chairman. Sir Robert had made his home for many years at Leslie House, but in 1953 he gifted the property to the Church of Scotland as an Eventide Home.

On Sir Robert’s retiral it was his nephew (Michael) George Nairn who succeeded to the chair. It fell to him to put in place the merger of his firm and that of James Williamson to form Nairn Williamson.

In a short narrative it is impossible to cover all the benefits gifted by the family. It is made doubly difficult with this family as they did so much under the cloak of anonymity.

What can be said however is that no one has and it is doubtful if anyone ever will match, never mind surpass, what they have done for the “Lang Toun” in terms of health, education and culture.

Why did they do it? –difficult to say – but quite possibly it was because at heart they were Kirkcaldy boys

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