The 1975 Kirkcaldy teen firebug who torched a church and school and planned more

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Kirkcaldy found itself at the mercy of a teenage firebug in 1975, and several major buildings sustained horrendous damage - one who was stopped before he could execute a plan to torch Fife College in what he said “would have been the most spectacular blaze of them all.” Incredibly, he was just 16 years old, and his trail of destruction sparked a major investigation.

The fires came at a time when several buildings had already gone up in smoke. The Odeon Cinema was destroyed on Boxing Day 1974 – two youths aged 14 and 16 were culpable for £250,000 of damage. Torbain Primary School was gutted, and firefighters then raced to save St Brycedale Church as flames swept through it. The Co-op on the High Street also burned down.

One of the worst incidents came in July 1975 when the historic St John’s Church was destroyed by a fire started deliberately. The Gothic building on the corner of Meldrum Road and Elgin Street was targeted in the early hours of the morning – just 48 hours after Torbain was gutted. As police and firemen sifted through the remains, Chief Constable Robert Murison called a hasty meeting of representatives of churches across the town, and asked them to step up supervision of their buildings

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CID and uniformed patrols were stepped up during the hours of darkness as real concern grew over where the firebug might strike next. Police issued an appeal to trace four youths seen in the area, one of them wearing the uniform of teen pop band the Bay City Rollers – wide white trousers trimmed with tartan, and a white shirt.

The extent of the damage to St John's Church in 1975 (Pic montage: Fife Free Press)The extent of the damage to St John's Church in 1975 (Pic montage: Fife Free Press)
The extent of the damage to St John's Church in 1975 (Pic montage: Fife Free Press)

The church blaze was spotted by Inspector John Black on his way home from Kirkcaldy Police Station. Five units from Fife Fire Brigade raced from Kirkcaldy, Thornton and Methil and they managed to prevent flames spreading to the nearby garage and houses. At the height of the blaze, the gable wall of the church collapsed and fell through the roof of the adjoining church hall.

The Rev Samuel M. McNaught, who only took up his post three months earlier said: “I am desolate, but there is more to a church than a building and the life of this church will continue.”

He conducted his Sunday service in the canteen of the nearby Meikle’s carpet factory which, interestingly, was where the church had its roots – the congregation began as a breakaway from the old parish in Kirkcaldy, and the first group met in the factory which was then known as Wemyss Linen Works

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The fired outraged the town. In a rare front page editorial, the Fife Free Press asked: “What new breed of vandal is at large in Kirkcaldy? What type of hooligan, vandal madman – call him what you will is prepared to commit such senselessness and savage crimes against the community?”

Firefighters at the scene of the 1975 fire (Pic: Fife Free Press)Firefighters at the scene of the 1975 fire (Pic: Fife Free Press)
Firefighters at the scene of the 1975 fire (Pic: Fife Free Press)

The editorial concluded: “ Let there be full retribution in the form of the absolute maximum penalties the law will allow. Public opinion will accept nothing less. Deterrents, not do-gooders will provide the only real answer to this problem.”

St John’s was a landmark. It was founded in 1707; a suite of halls was added in 1931 and, in 1959, a magnificent stain glass windows was incorporated at a cost of £250.

s the extent of the damage became evident, the sealed casket laid in the foundation stone in 1707 was recovered from the ruins, and deposited unopened in a bank for safe keeping

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Workmen also recovered a plauque bearing the names of the war dead and a brass plate marking the opening of the transept in 1969.

The firebug was finally caught when he mistook a police car – patrolling the area to protect local buildings – for a taxi!

A 16-year-old youth was charged with starting the fire at St John’s, and Torbain, and other incidents at Kirkcaldy High School and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.

The repair bill in total ran to some £700,000, but, in the case of St John’s the cost of the damage was beyond calculation. He was sent to the High Court for sentencing. Jailing him for six years, Lord Cameron said: “The community must be protected and other people have to be deterred from wanton enterprises of this kind.”

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The extent of his trail of destruction also became apparent in a chilling postscript. Written notes divulged at his trial showed he planned to burn down Kirkcaldy Tech, now Fife College, before “retiring.”

He said it “would have been the most spectacular blaze of them all.”