Carbeth: How wooden huts set people free

I note on re-reading this that I suggest that the Fire That Never Goes out was actually at the Carbeth site, when it was half a mile away at Craigallian, as my subsequent piece, the Men Who Made the Outdoors Great, confirmed.

It has to be the most unlikely-looking conservation area in Scotland. Ramshackle wooden huts are scattered around 90 acres or so of heathland and trees. Kids’ toys poke out of the undergrowth, stuffed animals are wedged in a tree, there are bits of old carpet on the grass.

Some of the huts look near collapse, and others are cobbled together from scraps and old pallets. There’s a tattered flag fluttering in the sunshine, dogs barking and plenty of paint that’s peeling.

But this scattering of perhaps 150 huts on a site ten miles north of Glasgow at Carbeth is a unique slice of social history, a place that has its roots in the radical outdoors movement of the 1920s – and one that very nearly disappeared.

After a bitter 13-year battle to stay on the site, the hut owners – hutters – say  gaining that unlikely conservation area status was the key to what is now happening: the site is being saved for future generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

After a rent strike, eviction notices, and court cases the hut owners – joined together as the Carbeth Hutters Community Company – have won the right to buy the site. None of them is wealthy, and they face a struggle to fund the £1.75m asking price.

The company secretary, Gerry Loose, declares: “We will do it now – nothing’s going to stop us.”

Whether the Carbeth community can retain the independent-minded ethos which brought it into being and has helped save it is the next question it faces.

New rules on the sale and improvement of huts are meant to preserve the Carbeth way of life, but the company knows it will have to take great care to make sure the spirit of the place lives on.

 

In the fight to stay at Carbeth, the hutters tell a dark tale of huts burning down, bankruptcies and bitterness, with echoes, they say, of the Highland clearances.

The landlord, Allan Barns-Graham sees things very differently. His account coincides with that of the hutters in key places; but the details and the motives he ascribes are very different.

Many Glasgow folk will know the history of the place. The socialist Clarion Cycling Scouts used the site, part of the Carbeth estate, before the First World War.

In the 1920s the owner, Barns-Graham’s grandfather, let people from Glasgow and Clydebank build small huts, and by the 1930s the place was a hub for the outdoors movement, with climbers and cyclists heading there en route for the Highlands.

The legend of “The fire that never goes out” grew up: it was said that any time, day or night, all year round, a man could stop for a warm, a place to sleep and some tea there.

Among those who met at the campfire were adventurous spirits who went on to volunteer for the International Brigades, and they used the site for training before sailing for Spain and the civil war.

It was a holiday destination in its own right: one observer has called the place in the early days a “co-operative version of Butlins”, with its own swimming pool made by damming up a stream.

Many hutters came from the Clydebank area, often making the ten-mile trek over the Kilpatrick Hills on foot carrying all they needed for a weekend away.

In the Second World War, families headed for Carbeth to escape the ministrations of the Luftwaffe. With 35,000 left homeless in the Clydebank Blitz alone in 1941, many more huts were built and some families spent the rest of the war there, with children attending the local school.

In the 1950s Jane Kirkwood’s father, a shipyard worker, took on a hut. Jane, now 63, remembers going there, an hour by bus from their tenement flat in Clydebank, from the age of five. She says: “It was just a hut but it was a paradise – in the country, away out of the town – it was very special.”

The family would spend the entire summer holidays at the huts, and weekends too: “Hail rain or snow, I was waiting for my dad to go up to the hut, every Friday night.”

After a period of decline the huts began to regain popularity in the 1990s – then, in 1997, Barns Graham decided to put up the rent. He says it was by 26%. The hutters say it was doubled and more in many cases.

The result was outrage from the hutters – and they were unlikely to just pay up. There was a strong streak of red straight off the Clyde painted though the site, dating back to the days of those socialist scouts, and running right through to Tommy Kirkwood.

Jane Kirkwood’s 69-year-old husband is a former shipyard worker who became a leading member of the hutters’ association and a director of the community company.

He says: “I don’t think Barns-Graham realised a lot of the people up there were very politically minded. I was a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, and there were people there from the Scottish Communists and the British Communist Party.

“They weren’t likely to stand for being ordered around by a landlord.”

A demonstration was organised to march to Barns-Graham’s home, says Kirkwood, but the landlord would not talk, and a rent strike began.

It turned into a bitter and protracted battle. Barns-Graham issued eviction notices. The hutters believed he wanted them out so he could develop the site.

Bill and Margaret McQueen were taken to court. When they appealed and could not pay their costs Bill, then 70, was made bankrupt. Their hut mysteriously burned down. Others were taken to court by the estate, and two more huts belonging to leading strikers went up in smoke.

Loose says: “That was the worry – you would be thinking ‘Will my hut still be standing or will someone had thought ‘this is a Bolshie wee bastard, let’s teach him a lesson.’”

An ugly stalemate was reached. There were meetings between the estate representatives and the hutters but no progress. As Loose’s partner Morven Gregor put it:  “After you have scowled at each other across a court room, where else can you go?”

The first real progress, according to Loose and Gregor, who now chairs the company, was when Stirling Council began to be involved. The hutters began to lobby for statutory protection for the site, and in 2001 it was granted Conservation Area status.

That, they say, stunted any development plans, but the matter dragged on for eight more years with more fruitless meetings at the offices of Barns-Graham’s advisers.

Then, in 2009, something changed. The hutters half-jokingly say it happened after Barns-Graham remarried; Barns-Graham praises the common sense of Loose, a talkative writer and artist who mixes amiability with iron determination.

Whatever it was, the parties began to meet around Barns-Graham’s kitchen table instead of at impersonal offices, and the atmosphere started to thaw.

In October 2009 the hutters presented Barns-Graham with a list of options, from giving them the site for free to letting the deadlock continue.

Nothing happened then, but, says Loose, Allan Barns-Graham got back in touch next day: “He rang me and said he’d had a gin-and-tonic and a cigarette in the garden and come up with a plan.”

On the gin and cigarette, Barns-Graham agrees – but he says he put his offer in an email: the hutters could buy the site, and while they raised the money to do so could have a legal agreement to manage it.

The hutters agreed, and after some haggling, a price of £1.75m was put on site. The deal was done.

 

Allan Barns-Graham’s home lies just a few hundred metres from the huts. The big plain house has spacious well-tended grounds and we talk in an airy kitchen.

One thing he is adamant on is that he never had plans for a wholesale redevelopment of the hut site: a shop and a few other buildings were all he ever intended, and conservation status did not affect that.

Rents had to rise to cover the site costs, he says, and he points out that despite court cases and eviction notices, he never evicted a single tenant.

“We had to make clear the legal position.” he says. “People were not paying the money so the only way to recover the money was to have a case in court to terminate the leases, but to give them every opportunity of paying it. But we didn’t actually physically evict anyone.”

He laughs at the idea his wife influenced the situation, and as for suggestions of skulduggery, his brisk reply is: “Nonsense.” On the cause of the fires he says: “I don’t want to make any comment because I would only be guessing.”

He says relations with the hutters were always good, and blames bitterness on political motives: “I wonder whether it was because there were one or two people who had their own agenda.”

By his account both parties were heading towards the same goal, proper management of the site which would then pay its way. He adds: “We have achieved a win-win situation for everyone. You can talk about bitterness but I don’t think anything the estate has done has caused that.

“The estate had to put up rents and they HAVE gone up anyway: they are now £1,000 a year and I think that’s a sensible level.”

As for the future, he says: “That’s up to the hutters now – and I wish them the best of luck with it.”

 

The hutters now have two years to raise the cash. They are hoping to get grants, possibly from the National Lottery. What they can’t raise that way they will be able to borrow on mortgage terms, paid back with rents.

There are signs of creeping gentrification on the site, with some smart modern structures, but there are still plenty of people for whom Carbeth is a golden opportunity to escape from urban estates and pressures.

Roofer Mark Crossland from Duntocher in Clydebank was given his hut at Carbeth 18 years ago by an elderly tenant who could no longer maintain it.

He has transformed it into a cosy open-plan home where he now spends the majority of his time.

He’s used reclaimed slates to clad the wooden exterior, and any double-glazed windows that turn up on a building site the wrong size are snapped up: “I can just cut a hole in the wall the right size and put it in,” he laughs.

He grows all his own vegetables there, and produces 60lb of grapes a year in the large wood-framed conservatory on the side of the hut, warmed by the roaring log fire which backs onto it. It makes powerful wine.

“It’s been a challenge,” he says. “It costs me around £2,000 to extend it, and I used recycled wood that had come from old tenements that were being knocked down. I’ll just go on now improving it as I go.”

Duncan Paul is 48 and has had his hut for nine years, buying it for £500. A bricklayer by trade, he demolished the existing structure and has rebuild it in timber from scratch.

Paul admits frankly that the place has transformed him.

As a younger man, he says: “If someone said a wrong word to me I would bop them on the nose. I would take any banter as personal cheek and end up fighting them.”

Court appearances and several short prison sentences followed. But he says: “I have actually changed altogether since I came up here.

“Now I can see they don’t mean any harm. Down in Glasgow you feel you need to stand up to them but here it’s a different way of life – you’ve not got the pressure.”

There is a 50-strong waiting list for huts and old hut sites for new buildings. The company will be asking for a £4,000 contribution to the buyout fund for anyone taking on a blank site.

One couple I met eager to put their names down had decided on Carbeth because they could no longer afford their dream of a holiday home in the Cairngorm National Park, and a sale currently going through is for what Loose calls a “phenomenally high” amount.

But the hutting company wants to make sure that despite the pressures of demand for huts, ordinary working men like Crossland and Duncan can still get onto the site.

All future sales will be made through it, and the company aims to limit prices and sell to people with Carbeth connections. It also hopes to let anyone taking on a run-down old-style hut have it for free if they’re committed to restoring it appropriately.

Conservation status, with rules about the shape and style of huts, could also change old attitudes. Built into the Kirkwood’s hut was the wheel-house of a boat; another is built around a caravan, and one hut still has the chassis of a bus buried in its fabric, but one hutter was recently refused permission to use a giant whisky vat for an extension.

The hut company’s treasurer, Alan Graham, says: “Inevitably there are going to be some changes … People will have to pay rent, and at the moment not everybody’s doing that, and we’re going to have to tackle non-payers … I’m quite sure there will be accusations from some quarters that we’re now acting just like the landlord but part of the process means that you have to collect money from people if you want to look after the place.

“With conservation status the thing that is being conserved is the old green huts and while the majority of hutters recognise that and want to hang onto that there’s a bit of a tension between the traditionalists and those who want something a bit more 21st century.”

But Gerry Loose says the place will keep its radical ethos: “The people who were here 14 years ago will be the people who are still here. They fought for what they had in the past and fought for the ownership of the huts and security of tenure, and those are the people who are now the Carbeth Hutters Community Company.”

And old socialist Tommy Kirkwood hopes eventually they establish a system whereby anyone who stops using a hut hands it back to the company, so it can be allocated to the next family on the waiting list.

“We we want to maintain the idea of access for everyone – it’s what the place is about,” he says.

 

Huts in Scotland

In 2000 a Scottish Government report prompted by the dispute at Carbeth found there were still more than 700 holiday huts – DIY holiday cabins – in Scotland.

With 170 at the time, Carbeth was the largest site, with others across the country from Angus to the Clyde coast, including sites in the Borders and Fife, and on the Forth.

Many of the sites are in small pockets of just a few huts. The Government report indicated that many were being replaced by caravans; other huts have become more permanent holiday homes.

One of the biggest sites was near Carnoustie in Angus. Until four months ago the hut owners were fighting a battle similar to that at Carbeth, having gone to court against the landowner to establish their tenancy rights.

The battle has, however, now been surrendered: the huts were becoming increasingly vandalised, new tenants were reluctant to take them on,  and the uncertainty led to the hutters, led by truck driver Jim Rowling from Maryhill in Glasgow, to give up the battle.

Rowling says problems started in 2007 when the site was sold to a firm called Shoreline Management, which ran the nearby caravan park.

He says the landlord told them to leave the site and leave the huts, and refused to take their rent.

The court cases followed, but people were leaving the site, and with fewer huts occupied many were getting vandalised.

Rowling was still appealing over his tenancy case when he returned to the site last autumn to find his hut had been badly smashed up: “I couldn’t afford to keep replacing windows and repairing the place, so that was it for me.”

At the caravan park office Andrew Young – who Jimmy Rowling named as the owner – said he had ordered the hutters off the site because the huts were unsafe and unsanitary. He said the company had had no part in damaging any huts.

Mr Young has been quoted by other newspapers on several occasions about the huts, but after a short interview he said he was not entitled to act as a spokesman for the company, refused to give any contact details for anyone who was, and hung up.

 

Hutting memories

Many the hutters at Carbeth have connections there going back to their childhoods, and that goes some way to explaining their fierce loyalty to the place, and their determination to keep it.

Liz Hill, now 50, came to Carbeth as a five-year-old. She spent every summer there, met her husband Alan Graham there – he was a biker who frequented the Carbeth Inn – and still takes her own children to their hut.

Entertainment for her as a child was helping her mum mangle the washing, hanging it over the fire to dry, going to the tiny shop to buy ice cream, and most of all, running wild through the bracken and playing endlessly into the long summer nights.

She says. “We would build a dam in the burn and make it about three feet deep so we could play and swim in it. There was a big muddy swamp beside it and we would go and roll in the swamp, get ourselves covered in mud, then go and jump in the burn and rinse it off. We just did that all day.”

Best all was the rubbish dump: “Someone would be clearing out all their ornaments and things that they didn’t want in their huts and we would be doing the same, and we would go and have a right old rummage through and come back with the stuff we found. It was like a car boot sale except we didn’t have to pay and there were no cars!”

Her own children still enjoy the site, sometimes sleeping under the stars and, with no mains electricity, taking a break from TV and computers.

“They will bring their pals up and instead of sitting around with DVDs and using electricity up we have a game of cards and then we have a game of charades ­­– all with a group of teenage boys, having a really good laugh.”