Nostalgia: The “folly” doomed to fail that stood for 120 years

Demolition work at Nairn's in 1969
Demolition work at Nairn's in 1969

In June 1969 work began to demolish the complex of factories in Kirkcaldy’s Nether Street owned by the linoleum company Nairn’s.

In amongst the buildings was ‘Nairn’s Folly’, the first floorcloth (or linoleum) factory in Scotland, which locals predicted was doomed to fail when it was first built – 122 years earlier.

In 1928 Michael Nairn moved from Linktown to Kirkcaldy where he started to produce canvas to sell to the floor-cloth trade from a factory in Coal Wynd.

By 1844 he was supplying canvas to some two dozen floorcloth firms and realised that it was a rapidly expanding market. So after discussion with his wife Catherine, he decided to produce floorcloth only, thinking he would be able to make a reasonable profit.

Local merchants, though some decided to invest, and other in the town were sceptical of Nairn’s plan. And that scepticism was heightened when he decided to build his new factory outwith Kirkcaldy in Pathhead.

But the location of his new factory had been carefully chosen. It was five minutes walk from the new railway station at Sinclairtown and it was also near the harbour.

Building of the ‘Scottish Floor Cloth Manufactory’ as it was originally named, began in March 1847 and was not fully completed until the following year.

It could be seen for miles Standing forty feet high on Nether Street and backing onto the cliff edge at the seafront, it could be seen for miles around. Nairn closed his Coal Wynd factory, transferring his looms and selling some others.

“Nairn’s Folly” was now ready for production.

The sceptics were soon proved wrong. Nairn’s factory went from strength to strength and by 1850 his linoleum was being sold all across the UK and Nairn was making schemes for further expansion. Sadly, he died in 1958 so didn’t see many of those plans come to fruition.

With his passing a partnership came into being named Michael Nairn & Company. There were three partners; Nairn’s widow, Catherine, her son Robert and James Shepherd.

They were soon joined by Robert’s brother, also named Michael, who was to play a vital role in the expansion of the company.

Shepherd was to later leave Nairn’s and go into partnership with Michael Beveridge and set up Kirkcaldy’s main linoleum rival to his previous employer, Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd, though by 1877, there were another four firms making the popular floorcloth covering in Kirkcaldy; Hendry, White and Strachan, Tait, Chorley and Co, The Patent Floorcloth Co. Ltd. and The North British Floorcloth Co. Ltd.

At this time, without question, Kirkcaldy was the main manufacturer of linoleum in the world.

However, after the Second World War after World War II demand for linoleum fell and the factory scaled back production leading to the 1969 demolition.

Kirkcaldy Town Council built flats and houses on the area where the imposing factory once stood. Though the buildings were gone – it’s “eyesore” works on Factory Road were also demolished in 2014 – Nairn’s itself was far from finished.

Though an increase in the price of linseed oil, one of the key raw materials, further reduced the profitability of linoleum manufacture, by 1986, Nairn’s was the only remaining producer in Kirkcaldy, and one of only three in the world.

The company is now known as Forbo-Nairn Ltd., still going strong, and Forbo Flooring Systems, based at Den Road in Kirkcaldy, remain hugely popular – 170 years after Michael Nairn built his soon-to-fail “folly”!