We are the Engineers! They Taught Us Skill for Life
Scotland’s labour history has been the subject of many important studies, surveys, articles and books. Some of those published represent the invaluable collection of local groups and amateur historians, while others have been, and are, produced by academics and labour officials. The general expectation, even in Scotland, is that these works should be written in Standard English, regardless of the everyday speech of the workforce. For this publication, however, it seemed more important to transcribe, as recorded, the voices of folk whose vitality of language and expression gives a brighter reflection of their experiences during work and leisure.
This book has grown out of an oral history project, ‘The End of the Shift’, which aims to record the working practices and conditions of skilled workers in Scotland’s past industries. Publicity about the project caught the interest of a group of retired engineers, who had all served apprenticeships with a prestigious Kirkcaldy firm, Melville-Brodie Engineering Company. Having lived through times when Scotland seemed blighted by industrial closures, the engineers could identify with ‘the end of the shift’ as they had experienced the effect of closing down Melville-Brodie Engineering Company. The entire workforce was dispersed, and with it, the skills, expertise and wisdom of generations. Kirkcaldy also lost a company that had been the pride of Scottish engineering.
Over the years, as the retired engineers reflected on the radical changes that have taken place since their ‘second to none’ training, they began to realise the importance of recording knowledge and skills for posterity. They also wanted to remember the firm that trained them, and so they planned a memorial to be erected on the site of Melville-Brodie Engineering works. It was to be designed and made by the men themselves, and in May 2014, the group had the satisfaction of seeing the plaque unveiled by Mrs June Shanks, daughter of the celebrated engineer, Robert Burt Brodie. Standing beside her were the two oldest Melville- Brodie ‘boys’ (aged 94 and 89), Bob Thomson and Willie Black, and the Secretary of the Melville-Brodie Retired Engineers’ Club, Dougie Reid. Councillor for Kirkcaldy East, Kay Carrington, who supported the project, represented Fife Council as she addressed the audience and the media:
This is a really exciting project because it shows our past history, how we made a difference, not just in Kirkcaldy, but in the wider world. Melville-Brodie engineers did everything that we’re proud of in Scotland. We need to keep the story alive to enable us to take that forward to children and grandchildren in the future.
Introduction and Acknowledgements
- Kirkcaldy: A Cradle of Scottish Engineering
- William Main Melville
- Robert Burt Brodie
- Apprenticeships in the Thirties and Forties
- The Wartime Years, 1939–1945 54
- Apprenticeships in the Fifties and Sixties
- Health and Safety
- Machines and Tools of the Trade
- Sport, Leisure and Social Life
- Unity is Strength
- The National Apprentices’ Strike
- Another Eventful Year
- High days, Holidays and Seein in the Bells
- Ringing the Changes at Melville-Brodie Engineering Company
- Job Satisfaction
Review: "We are the Engineers!" Christopher Harvie
We Are The Engineers! They Taught Us Skills For Life by Margaret Bennett
Ochtertyre: Grace Note Publications, 2015, 197 pp, with many
illustrations, pb, £12,99, ISBN 978-1-907676-66-6.
Margaret Bennett is one of the great authorities on, as well as performers of, Scotland’s folk music. But her family background was in the ‘new itinerant’ community of engineering, whose bard, Ewan McColl, provides its title. Kirkcaldy was where my own caravan was pitched as SNP list MSP 2007-11, very recently, over thirty years after the firm of Melville-Brodie Ltd. of Pathhead closed. Two of its veterans, Dougie Reid and Willie Black, had meanwhile been collecting photographs, news stories. Along with Dr Bennett, who recorded them and wrote the book, they deserve a warm tribute for this absorbing paperback which mixes critical analysis with respect for the emotional and rational responses of those involved.
Melville-Brodie closed down in circumstances of some obscurity, suggesting an international fraud; not long afterwards, most of industrial Kirkcaldy was cleared, leaving a trim parkland stretching away from its slick modern station, with elegant if rather dilapidated Victorian buildings irrupting from the greenery. Before, there had been a spectacular townscape – with canyon-like streets and deep gullies dividing factories – which lasted as late as the 1970s: the linoleum-works of Barry Ostlere or Nairn and Company. One lino factory, originally Nairn, now Nairn-Forbo, survives, but for Dr Bennett’s collaborators, witnesses and interviewees these vanished buildings seem to have an almost tangible reality, a common heritage to the now very old former apprentices, an explanation of why their town and country still look to them the way they did. The pride, wit and also the possibility remain, as in that McColl song, but also a sense of divided life: ‘See they trees! That’s where aa the hooses used to be,’ as another local Homer, Dr Keith Armstrong, recorded of modern Geordieland.
Dr Bennett roots her narrative in a sharp analysis of Adam Smith. Yes, the marvellous Pin Factory did exist locally (I had once thought it pure myth). Yes, it was known to Smith but, intriguingly, it was not very successful, ultimately losing out to specialism in canvas and then floor cloth, linoleum’s ancestors. And lino itself has proved to have unique germicidal properties, holding the line against MRSA.
The centre of the book is fired up by the experience of apprenticeship in one of the cluster of engineering firms which supplied the complex one-off machines for the floor-covering works. Something that tends to be underestimated is that mid-twentieth century Scottish society could often be a sort of interior, occupational diaspora focused on specific foreign-oriented trades. The experience of learning their Art und Weise was a complex and demanding one: thole it and you could survive anywhere. ‘The dance of the apprentices’ could meet the comparison with Wagner’s Meistersinger that the Glasgow novelist Edward Gaitens made. Indeed, school teaching in the Lang Toun had helped forge Wagner’s near-exact contemporary Thomas Carlyle.
The apprentices photographed in the 1960s have gentle, open, witty faces, something borne out by the memoirs of the Upper Clyde generation, or John Byrne’s Slab Boys. The rise of the real Tartan Noir, a society of professional trickery, seems to have shut this openness of manner down, more or less at the time that Scots manufacturing finally imploded in the noughties.
In fact, it was the people recruited from this circumspect polity, who often transferred as production engineers to the oilfields or the banking and capital-investment of the Chinese and Asiatic Russian ‘growth zones’, that enabled cheap production and dodgy finance to undermine the last significant survivals of Scottish manufacturing and depart to wealth and privilege. Gordon Brown, who provides a brief foreword, became from 1990 the powerful instrument of shifting production to newly-industrialising-countries with little regard to social or environmental outcomes there or back here. Footloose capital accelerated the industrial cycle, making traditional collective high/low points unmemorable.
Kirkcaldy’s big call-centre CMT employed 500 when I was an MSP (a worker in the so-called ‘knowledge-industries’ cost £3000 – a tenth of a skilled engineer – to ‘train’). No-one is there now. And who will remember it with a fraction of the affection of those who were schooled at Melville-Brodie?