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  • Gavin Grant

Flooring the World – Exploring the Fife Linoleum Industry

An exciting new social and industrial history project has just been launched by OnFife. Flooring the World – Exploring the Fife Linoleum Industry aims to engage people with OnFife’s amazing linoleum collections.

For many years Kirkcaldy was the world’s leading producer of linoleum and still has the UK’s only factory, operated by Forbo. Linoleum was also made in Falkland and Newburgh, so it is very appropriate that this project is launching in Fife! Linoleum was exported across the world, raw materials came from overseas and Kirkcaldy companies ran factories abroad – so we want to find out more about the worldwide connections of the industry.

The project aims to engage people with linoleum held by OnFife in its Museums, Archive and Local Studies collections. This has been built up over many years at Kirkcaldy Galleries and in our other venues. The collection we look after is the most comprehensive in the world. It’s a rich resource for research and interpretation, consisting of 6,000 items including archives, banners, costume, paintings, pattern books, photographs, sculpture and tools.

Linoleum pattern made by Michael Nairn & Co, 1880s.

For the next two years a £115,000 grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (administered by the Museums Association) is funding the project. A new Engagement Curator, Lily Barnes, has been appointed to make the collections more accessible and find out about people’s memories of linoleum – from those who made the floorcovering to those who walked on it in their own homes!

Curator Lily Barnes with a Nairn’s pattern book recently donated by Forbo.

Curator Lily Barnes said: “Our existing collection is strong on the first century of linoleum but has fewer objects from the 1960s onwards. As this time period is well within living memory of contemporary Fifers, we’d like your help. We’d like to hear from anyone with a connection to the industry, to discover out more about their working life as well as their recreational and social lives connected to the factories. We’d especially like to hear from women workers.’

The project also involves adding more objects to the collection. A major addition are items from the Forbo company archive, including many samples of floorcloth and linoleum as well as pattern books, documents and photographs. Some of the first donations are now on display in the Moments in Time exhibition in Kirkcaldy Galleries. Also on show is one of the unique floorcloth banners that are already in the Museum collection. Hundreds of banners were carried by Nairn’s workers in processions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and only five are now known to exist. The banner on display was in need of conservation and recent treatment was funded by the Friends of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

You can see the Nairn’s thistle logo at the top of the banner, with the date ‘1847’ representing the start of the floorcloth industry in Kirkcaldy. That’s when Michael Nairn built what was called The Scottish Floorcloth Manufactory, which stood looking down on Pathhead Sands. This was later dubbed ‘Nairn’s Folly’, supposedly because locals were sceptical of the chances of Nairn’s success (although we’ve found no evidence so far to confirm this was actually said at the time it was built).

Floorcloth banner, recently conserved.

The next two years will see a range of events, activities and displays. Collections are being catalogued, stored and photographed at our new Collections Centre in Glenrothes where we also plan to work with volunteers to help the project. The project culminates in late 2023 with an exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries. We hope that everyone finds the project of interest and people can contribute to it in different ways. If you have any memories, objects or photographs that you think may help, or want to find out more, then please email and we will be delighted to speak with you.

Look out soon for more information and images about the industry on the Kirkcaldy Civic Society website. We will be contributing to the Society’s Kirkcaldy’s Heritage in 50 Objects series. Coming up will be a feature on floorcloth, which was the precursor of linoleum and played a major role in the success of the industry in Fife. A later feature will be about linoleum itself, followed next year with one about what has happened during the project.

Linoleum being prepared for despatch at one of the factories run by Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd in Kirkcaldy, 1918

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