Welcome to the first article in a series entitled: The People’s History of Peebles.
Although some of my family have lived in the Border area of Scotland for around 25 years, I have only resided in the town within the last year.
I have quickly come to love Peebles and I believe that every resident (old and new) should take some interest in its past, present and future. I also love history and hold a keen fascination for hearing other people’s stories.
So I wondered how this project could be brought to life? I need not have worried, because after a chat with Ian Litster my conundrum was quickly answered.
Ian is a born and bred Peebles man with an infectious enthusiasm for the town’s rich history. He runs the Ramblers Coffee Shop and has been regaling customers with stories of the town for many a year. So I was delighted when Ian offered to show me the sites, particularly as he loves to focus on Peebles more obscure and unusual history.
In the months ahead I will also be interviewing many more people from the town as well. There may be small 'inaccuracies' along the way but for me History has never been about the cold facts. It is about bringing the past to life through the telling of stories and the recollections of people you know, meet or listen to.
I will strive to learn about why the town’s history has become so entwined with the life story of each person I speak to.
I truly hope that you enjoy the journey and would very much welcome your feedback.
The town of Peebles has changed greatly from its traditional, industrial past when the majority of employment was based in the various mills dotted along the River Tweed. The town is now home to a large commuter population and given its close proximity to Edinburgh, tourism has become the biggest local industry.
Peebles industrial backdrop was still a prominent part of the town's landscape until the 1960s, but on 6th February (1965) Thorburn’s Tweedside Mill suffered a crushing blow when it was ravaged by fire. It took only two hours for the large building to be raised to the ground and some say that the flames could be seen as far away as the Leadburn (near Penicuik), over 10 miles away.
Many of those who watched the building crumble that evening probably did not realise that the event would spell the end of an era for the textiles industry in Peebles. No lives were lost but any other consolation would still have been welcome. Given that the parish church suffered very little damage (despite its close proximity) perhaps a few prayers were answered.
The mill was located between Peebles Parish Church and the River Tweed - on the site of today’s swimming pool - built in 1983. Some remnants of the mill still remain, the best example being the weir system located just past the pool towards Neidpath Castle.
As Ian Litster recalls, “the three main mills in the town basically supported the whole community, everybody worked in the mills. But strangely, I mostly remember that it was the beginning and the end of my music career."
"I used to go to piano lessons with a lady called Miss Prentice who was actually blind but still managed to teach piano. So Monday night was my practice night and I played my piece.” She said to me 'Ian, play that piece again, you're not concentrating!' So I played the piece again and again. On the fourth time she said 'Ian, just stop playing and come over here!' So I sat down and she said, 'Ian, you're concentration is not on the piano at all. What's wrong with you tonight?' So I said, 'well the Mill is burning down and I would quite like to go and see it...'That was the end of my music ‘career’ because I was never invited back…”
The mill had operated for over one hundred years since its inception in 1860. Around seventy people were estimated to have been employed and the workers received full pay until alternative employment could be found. The company promised that the mill would be re-built on a new site in the town, thereby securing jobs for its workers. So most of those who had given so much to the company would undoubtedly have felt that all was not lost, despite these catastrophic events. However, the reality of the textile industries decline later led the company to ‘about turn’ and announce that they would no longer be going ahead with the plan for re-building. The Thorburn family were also answerable to consortium partners Border Woollen Mills so new investment was not forthcoming. Many of the workers and their families were subsequently forced to leave the town and seek employment elsewhere.
A little known leisure pursuit thrived just to the side of where the mill would once have stood. Boats could be hired and rowed from the weir (that still exists) all the way up to the first bridge towards Neidpath Castle. There was a boathouse located just over the small foot bridge that can be located today at the far side of the car park. “In the 1940s people could actually hire boats from here” says Ian. “There was a boat house and one of the big houses was actually connected to it. One of Colin Veitch's relatives was the guy that would hire the boats out. You could hire rowing boats here and take them right up to Fotheringham Bridge."