A story stitched with love

School's out for Mary Birrell
School's out for Mary Birrell

For almost 40 years, come rain, shine or snow, Mary Birrell unlocked the doors to one of Fife’s hidden treasures, sat at her desk and waited for curious visitors to find her.

Tucked away in the village of Coaltown on Wemyss, the Wemyss School of Needlework has helped to keep this corner of Fife on the map for more than 100 years. Yet the school’s story could have ended decades ago if it hadn’t been for Mary’s dedication.

In the week of her retirement Mary, who will be 83 next month, looked back on almost 40 years at the school.

When she first arrived in 1975, having been persuaded to help out by Lady Victoria Wemyss, the small building had only one lamp in each room, no central heating and an outhouse in the garden.

Mary said: “In the winters I would huddle up close to the log fire with my work. Keeping warm on cold days was the hardest thing.”

In the decades Mary ran the school she never received a salary, making just enough through commissions to pay for materials and postage, while the Wemyss family covered the costs of maintaining the building. But her commitment did not go unnoticed and in 1994 she received an MBE for her work.

“It wasn’t for my talent when it comes to sewing – there are much more talented people than me. It was for my dedication to the school. Since the day I started my aim has simply been to keep the school open and working.”

It was Jean Webster, Mary’s great grandmother, who served as the school’s first mistress, putting local girls through six months of pain-staking tuition in embroidery and needlework. Though a great deal has changed since the school first opened Mary says it has never stopped teaching in one way or another.

“When people came to visit we would choose the colours and cut the canvas to size. Then I would start off the design for them and they would repeat the pattern. That’s how they learned. Patience is very important.”

As well as keeping skills alive, Mary has worked to keep the history of the school and its place in the town alive too.

The school is packed with an immense collection of needlework and embroidery and Mary makes an expert guide, knowing the story behind each piece and the work and care demanded by the smallest of designs.

She was not the only one to become enchanted by the school. Mary’s husband, Jack Birrell, who managed a golf trolley factory in Kirkcaldy, discovered a passion for tracing the school’s precious designs on to canvas and preserving them.

Mary said “He always very good at drawing and painting. Our children are all artistic in some way, though none of them can sew a button so I won’t be passing the school on to any of them.”

Today Mary lives next door in Threadneedle Cottage where she’ll be able to keep a close eye on the school as refurbishment gets under way.

Whatever the future holds Mary’s wishes for the school are simple.

“I hope it will go on, continue to be supported and attain the same standards it always has.”

Mary rounded off her years of service in style with a party held in her honour at Wemyss Castle.