Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Kirkcaldy: Linoleum capital of the world

A group of women
Image caption The inspection and packaging line of the world's first DIY flooring tiles - circa 1958

The Scottish coastal town of Kirkcaldy became the world centre for linoleum thanks to one local entrepreneur's willingness to take a gamble.

Michael Nairn was a canvas trader from Kirkcaldy who realised that floor cloth was a growing market.

He borrowed £4,000 to set up Scotland's first factory of its type in his home town of Kirkcaldy in Fife.

Opening in 1847, the perceived risk was so great that the factory was nicknamed "Nairn's Folly".

But his entrepreneurial vision laid the foundations of an industry, with other floor cloth businesses soon setting up in the town.

Nairn's leadership of the factory was short-lived - he died in 1858 three years before a new material was invented which would transform the town's fortunes.

It was an English bookmaker who invented linoleum in 1861.

Frederick Walton stumbled on the solution when he looked at an open paint pot where linseed oil had oxidised leaving a solid top layer on the paint.

His idea was to combine linum with oleum to produce a durable floor covering. He named it linoleum after the two vital ingredients.

Image caption Michael Nairn (left) and Frederick Walton

Within three years, Walton's new floor surface was being manufactured commercially and began to rival the traditional floor cloth of firms like Nairn's.

But just as the new surface was gaining popularity, the patent on the manufacturing process expired.

Nairn's saw an opportunity and began to convert part of their factory in anticipation of the patent expiry.

Within months, Nairn's was producing its own linoleum resulting in Walton taking Nairn's to court over breach of copyright.

The judge found in favour of Nairn's, citing that linoleum had become such a household name that it was impossible for Walton's to now claim it.

In Kirkcaldy, the firm, which had passed to Nairn's wife and sons continued to innovate and grow. At its peak, there were seven factories occupying 55 acres and employing more than 4,000 people.

Michael Nairn & Co and local rival Barry, Ostlere & Shepherd put the town on the map, exporting nationally and internationally.

Val McDermid, the crime writer who was born in Kirkcaldy, recalls the affect the industry had on the town in a BBC Scotland documentary The Town That Floored the World.

"I think linoleum was at the heart of the town because the factories were right at the heart of the town," she says.

Many families had more than one generation employed in the business.

Working for Nairn's

Janet Potts has worked for Nairn's for 47 years, starting with the business two weeks before her 16th birthday.

She worked in the mailroom where she delivered correspondence to the departments in the head office.

Image copyright Angela Catlin
Image caption Janet Potts has worked at Nairn's for 47 years, she joined straight from school aged 15

For many young people, getting a job with Nairn's, was regarded as a job for life.

The number of employees meant that many social clubs were established including the gramophone society, a football team and cricket team.

Many of the sporting clubs competed against rival linoleum manufacturers in the town.

The war years

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 led to big changes for Kirkcaldy's linoleum factories.

Instead of manufacturing flooring, they repurposed their production lines to produce fuel tanks and munitions to help the war effort.

The scale of the factory made them ideal for manufacturing the largest non-atomic bombs used in the war.

When the war ended, Kirkcaldy concentrated on getting back on its feet and manufacture of linoleum was back in production within a few years.

However, in the 1950s and 60s sales of linoleum dwindled as consumers opted for vinyl flooring or carpets.

Changes to women's fashion meant that vinyl was a more durable option with the trend for stiletto heels.

The closure of some of the linoleum factories and the the loss of coal mines in the area brought large scale unemployment.

Nairn's biggest competitor Barry, Ostlere & Shepherd ceased trading in 1963 affecting a further 2,000 jobs.

Nairn's was left as the sole linoleum company in Kirkcaldy.

Image copyright Angela Catlin
Image caption Peter Stevenson is now a process controller at the factory

The company was bought by British-Dutch multinational Unilever in 1975. It retained the business for 10 years before selling it to international flooring company Forbo.

Forbo decided to revive production of linoleum, marketing it as an eco-friendly and natural product that appealed to a new generation of consumers.

Peter Stevenson, current employee of Nairn Forbo, said: "Forbo had realised that linoleum was coming back and that it was only a cycle of decline, and it had cycled into decline for many times before and always come back."

Today the Forbo Nairn factory employs over 200 people and is the only UK manufacturer of linoleum.

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