West Lothian village stands tests of time

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THREE centuries of history come together in this one image of a Lothian village. The wonderfully-shaped hats worn by the smartly-dressed girls in the procession are the telltale sign that this is the 1920s, with flapper fashions having reached even a small mining community in Scotland.

The small, single-storey white houses in the middle of the row of homes on the north side of East Main Street, Blackburn, West Lothian, date back to the 18th century, and are among the original houses built in the 1770s at the village's present location. Many of those original homes, though, were replaced in the 19th century by slightly grander varieties, like those on the right of the picture.

Fashions, in homes as well as clothes, come and go. But the gala day pictured here survives.

It's not the only image of a Blackburn gala day published in a new book on the history of the village by West Lothian local studies librarian Sybil Cavanagh. This picture of the West End of the village was probably taken around 1910 and shows the men in all their finery - some holding banners aloft . "Banners were very popular items in the Victorian era," explained Sybil. "Friendly societies, freemasons and so on all had their own gala day banners. Generally they were silk and the design was painted straight on to the silk. They are rare now and the ones still existing are quite fragile."

The village itself has been resilient enough to weather the whims of wealthy landowners and economic booms and busts.

Sybil said: "It's the village which 'flitted'. In the 1770s, a new landowner, George Moncrieff, moved in and built a new mansion, then decided the village was too near to his house, so he shunted the village about three-quarters of a mile to the west."

Moncrieff was from fairly humble origins in Perthshire but made his fortune in the West Indies. "He made his money in sugar plantations in Antigua, so it was based on slavery," said Sybil. "He came back to the country and bought the estate in Blackburn."

The house he built in 1772 still stands, between the present village of Blackburn and Seafield, and is now being restored by the Cockburn Conservation Trust.

For Blackburn, prosperity arrived with the Industrial Revolution when, in 1793, Charles Hamilton borrowed funds from, among others, the novelist Walter Scott, to build a cotton mill. This is the only known photograph of the mill, which burned down in 1877, but it and the later textile mill did lead to an expansion of the village with houses being built for the new workers.

The houses probably looked like those in the 1903 picture though thatch would originally have been turf as tenants on the Blackburn estate were allowed to cut turf without cost.

After textiles came coal, with two mines, Riddochhill and Whitrigg, the most important to the village. The industry kept the village going for around 80 years but by the middle of last century coal production was in decline. Riddochhill closed in 1968 and Whitrigg in 1972.

In the 1960s, British Leyland arrived in nearby Bathgate. Its massive factory saw the village grow rapidly. It expanded to double its size during the 1960s, partly because of Leyland and partly through rehousing Glasgow overspill," said Sybil.

When Leyland closed in 1986, the village went into decline. But, according to Sybil, it has never lost its community spirit. "It really is still a community with lots of people actively involved in community life and community organisations," she said.

New housing on the site of the former Blackburn Academy is attracting people to the village and the revamp of Blackburn House is due for completion next year. Perhaps the village's fortunes are on the up again.

Blackburn: The Story of West Lothian's Cotton and Coal Town, by Sybil Cavanagh, is published by Luath Press, priced 10.99.