James Lothian Mitchell - Part 3

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Part 3 - The Fight for the Public Library and the Visit of Andrew Carnegie

Burntisland's fine public library in the High Street is Mitchell's main, albeit unofficial, memorial in the town. It is one of the best small town libraries in Scotland, but it was not easily secured.

Andrew Carnegie was funding new library buildings the length and breadth of the country, but there were always strings attached. In his offer to fund the capital cost of building a library in Burntisland, he stipulated that the Town Council would have to provide a site for the library, and levy a penny rate to pay for its running costs. Then, as today, issues of public expenditure were always keenly debated, and strong reservations about the levying of the penny rate were voiced by Dean of Guild Stocks. Indeed, he went as far as to declare at a public meeting that the town had no need of a library. On the other hand, Patterson and Mitchell, while finding Carnegie's business methods and his accumulation of wealth distasteful, were prepared to work with the man if the end result benefited the burgh.

The subject was debated at length at public meetings in the Music Hall and at the Town Council, and eventually a referendum of the householders was held in August 1904. The proposal for a library was endorsed by 352 votes to 251.

But where to build it? There were several competing sites, including one in Links Place and one in Buccleuch Place (now the western part of Kinghorn Road). Mitchell was pushing for the current High Street location, where stood the empty and dilapidated United Presbyterian Church. The congregation had recently moved to their fine new building in Kinghorn Road.

Mitchell's persistence attracted unexpected allies in D.J. Balfour Kirke, who mobilised support through a public meeting and a referendum of ratepayers; and James Shepherd (of Barry, Ostlere & Shepherd, linoleum manufacturers in Kirkcaldy), whose home was Rossend Castle in Burntisland. Shepherd's offer to purchase the High Street site for the library, and gift it to the town, was the clincher. He had recently gifted the site for the new Erskine Church as well.

The Town Council decided to accept James Shepherd's offer in March 1905, although two senior Councillors resigned over the issue. Progress thereafter was swift.

William Williamson of Kirkcaldy was selected from the 26 architects on the short leet, and builders were commissioned. The opening was set for the 18th of September, 1907, with Andrew Carnegie doing the honours. The complementary offer of the freedom of the burgh greatly pleased him, as he indicated in his letter of acceptance to the Town Council: "The freedom of Burntisland is most gratefully accepted, as a voice from home. Upon rare occasions, when a boy, I was taken to Burntisland, which was the utmost verge of my travels. The freedom it proposes to confer upon me will mean much more than a similar honour from much larger but more distant places."

The great day arrived, and the town was in festive mood. Bunting was everywhere, and especially around the Music Hall where Dr Carnegie was to receive the freedom of the burgh. A public holiday had been declared. Dr Carnegie received his burgess ticket in a silver casket which was a model of the new library building. Even the selection of the casket did not pass without dissent on the Town Council, with Councillor Dallas insisting that it should be fashioned from part of an old tree from the Links.

The popularity of the new library was demonstrated the day after the opening, when the police had to be summoned to control the crowds seeking to use its facilities.

The Opening of the Public Library

The scene outside the Library on opening day. Barely visible at the door are Andrew Carnegie and James Mitchell (who was chairman of the organising committee). Photo courtesy of Fife Council Museums: Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery.

Andrew Carnegie's Presentation Casket

Andrew Carnegie's presentation casket, now on display in the Carnegie museum in Dunfermline.

The Co-op

Burntisland Co-operative Society was founded in 1884. The impetus had come from migrant workers from West Lothian, attracted to the Binnend shale oil works which flourished in the 1880s.

While the Town Council was forging ahead on one front, Burntisland Co-operative Society was active in other areas. 1904 had seen the completion of the Society's new tenement flats in Links Place. The flats were let quickly, indicating the demand for quality accommodation. The Co-op looked after its tenants too, successfully petitioning the Town Council for the removal of an unsightly urinal and billboards opposite the new flats.

John Patterson, Honorary Treasurer of the Town Council, was Secretary of the Co-operative Society. He and Mitchell were to share the animosity of Archibald Stocks. At one rowdy Council meeting, Patterson had to sit and listen while Stocks said of him: "A viler wretch never sat at this Board."


Burntisland Brass Band in 1906

Burntisland Brass Band in 1906: Mitchell on the right, centre row

Please click here to continue to part 4 of 4.

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