Heritage Centre Cumnock

We visit a diamond in the coalfields

By David Milloy

What do you do when you’ve finally got enough free time to display your beloved collection of vehicles and memorabilia but can only take a small part of it to shows? That’s the question that presented itself to Jim Smith after he took a step back from the garage business he had co-founded, Kerr & Smith.

Jim’s solution was to put his collection on permanent display under one roof and invite the public to come and see it. So with the aid of some friends, he set about the task of turning a building he owned at Caponacre Industrial Estate in Cumnock into a heritage centre. After much cleaning and painting, the building (now known as the Heritage Centre Cumnock) was ready to receive its first visitors in 2019, holding its first open day in December.

Scarcely had the centre opened, however, than the world was thrown into chaos by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the centre was able to admit some visitors during 2020 and 2021, when government rules permitted, it wasn’t until 2022 that it was able to open its doors properly, with the official opening ceremony taking place in May of that year.

The centre is tucked away at the far end of the industrial estate – which was once home to household names such as Handley Page, Falmer’s Jeans, and Kingsmead Carpets – and is comprised of a main display hall plus several side rooms packed with interesting and varied artefacts and memorabilia.

One such side room is the Bill Reid Memorial Room (named after a friend of Jim’s who passed away before the centre opened), home to a sizeable portion of Bill Reid’s impressive collection of over 100,000 photographs of trucks and commercial vehicles. The centre aims to store and preserve these photographs in digital form, a time-consuming and painstaking process. In the meantime, around 18,000 of the photographs have been catalogued and can be viewed by visitors.

Bill Reid’s collection of transport books represents the backbone of the room’s reference library, the size and scope of which continues to grow as works are donated to it. The room also hosts a substantial number of model vehicles. Again, the seed for this display came from Bill Reid’s own collection but subsequent donations have increased the number and variety of models on display.

Model vehicles also form part of the centre’s display of police memorabilia, the bulk of which is contained in a side room – easily identifiable due to the illuminated ‘Police’ sign outside it. This display came about as a result of Jim’s friendship with Jim Manson, a retired police officer with whom he had previously joined forces (no pun intended!) to exhibit vehicles and memorabilia at outdoor shows. With Jim Manson being on the committee of the Lanarkshire Police Historical Society, the path was open for an agreement to be reached whereby the Society’s collection of police memorabilia could be displayed at the heritage centre. And a very impressive and interesting collection it is, with items on display including an 1880’s police daybook from Girvan Police Station, a CAMIC breath-analysis machine formerly located at the Scottish Police College at Tulliallan, police uniforms, badges, radios, torches, photographs, an identikit book, a replica police station cell (the door to which was once situated in Douglas Police Station), and some police radar ‘guns’ so beloved of speeding motorists! As with the Bill Reid room, it would be very easy to spend an entire visit here.

Next up is a replica of a small telephone exchange from the days when mobile phones could only be found in the imagination of science fiction writers. The display includes a switchboard as well as a collection of telephones, some of which will no doubt be very familiar to visitors who lived through the pre-digital era.

Arts and crafts take pride of place in the next side room, which features items ranging from pottery to sewing machines. The distinctive amber-coloured pottery hails from Cumnock itself, the town having been well known for its pottery between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The room also includes a collection of wooden souvenirs adorned with transfer prints of landmarks. Although later also made in Lanark, these souvenirs originated in Mauchline, becoming known as ‘Mauchline Ware’. They were first produced by W.A. Smith and reached the height of their popularity in the 1860s. Both the pottery and the Mauchline Ware were donated to the centre by Jim McGhee of Pollock Farm Equipment. In addition, a large and varied collection of thimbles and several Scottish-made Singer sewing machines are also on display in the room.

Having served with the Fire Brigade for 34 years (during which time he became the Chief Fire Officer at Cumnock, was made an Assistant Inspector with HM Fire Services Inspectorate, and was awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal), Jim is very passionate about the emergency services and the work they do. This passion is reflected in many of the centre’s exhibits, which include a replica of a small fire station, complete with uniforms and equipment, and a number of vehicles. Supplied by Jim from his sizeable personal collection (which is too large for even the centre to display in its entirety), the vehicular exhibits are rotated from time to time. At the time of our visit, the dozen or so vehicles on show included a 1950s Bedford ‘Green Goddess’ built for the Auxiliary Fire Service, a six-wheeled Land Rover previously used at Barra airport, and a Vauxhall Viva HA police ‘panda’ car.

Steam power is one of Jim’s other great passions, and this is marked by the presence of several steam-powered engines, both mobile and stationary. Maintained in working order, these wonderful engines lie at the heart of one of the centre’s most popular open days, the outdoor Live Steam Event. Two such events were held in 2022 and the centre hopes to at least match that number this year.

Having been raised on a farm, Jim is also an avid collector of agricultural vehicles and memorabilia. Several tractors are on display in the centre along with a range of vintage and modern farming equipment.

There’s also a vehicle servicing and restoration area. When we visited, one of the vehicles undergoing work was a three axle off-road (6×4) Stonefield fire appliance built just a few hundred yards from the heritage centre.

Oh, and if you like music then you’re sure to love the working fairground organ. Be advised, though, it’s best enjoyed from a good few yards away!

All of the centre’s staff are volunteers. Between them, they are responsible for administration, maintenance and cleaning, the ongoing photographic digitisation process, and the restoration and maintenance of the centre’s vehicles. Opportunities exist to join the centre’s team of volunteers, and interested persons are invited to contact the centre.

The centre is open both to individual visitors and to groups. Persons representing the latter should, however, book their visit by contacting the centre in advance. The exhibits are all on one level and there is both access and toilet facilities for persons with disabilities. Dogs are welcome.

Admission is free, but a donation to help with the cost of running and maintaining the centre and its exhibits would be welcomed.

The centre is currently open on Fridays between 1.00pm and 4.00pm. Details of any changes to this, as well as further information about the centre and the times and dates of special events can be found on the centre’s website:
www.heritagecentrecumnock.com.