Kirkcaldy's rich history with linoleum explored in new gallery exhibition

The Fife town was the world’s largest producer of the floor covering in the 1920s.

Kirkcaldy’s rich history with linoleum is being detailed at a new exhibition in the town’s art gallery.

In the 1920s, Kirkcaldy was the world’s largest producer of the floor covering, with no fewer than six manufacturers based there.

That led to the Fife town becoming renowned for ‘lino’ with many locals still remembering the distinct smell it created – which famously was the butt of the joke for Billy Connolly.

These days just one factory remains in Kirkcaldy. Forbo Flooring Systems runs the site built by Nairn’s in 1925, and still employs hundreds of people.

The ‘On Fife’ exhibition is based at Kirkcaldy Galleries, with the building itself actually gifted to the town by linoleum manufacturer John Nairn.

Curator Lily Barnes says she is “really, really excited” to see the presentation open.

Linoleum on display at the exhibit

She told STV News: “When I first started this job whenever I would talk to people outside of Fife and tell them what they were doing they’d be like ‘why are you working on that, that’s kind of strange’.

“But everybody in Fife gets it immediately, they know exactly what you’re talking about, they can tell you what their Gran did in the industry, what their Grandad did, what their cousins did, everything – they know all about it”.

Amongst the items on display is a piece of linoleum flooring from Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool.

Another key piece is a fragment with a William Morris pattern on it, designed in the 1870’s and saved from a skip during a home renovation in London around a century later.

One item which has never been displayed before is a mosaic of Queen Elizabeth II, made out of linoleum, presented to the town shortly after her coronation.

Lily added: “The floor covering industry started in Fife in Kirkcaldy in 1847, and it’s had a presence in this town since then – there’s still linoleum made here today.

“From those roots in Kirkcaldy it then spread out across Fife, so linoleum was also made in Newburgh and Falkland.”

Artworks depict how linoleum was made in the 20th century

Technology has progressed to the point that the one remaining factory in Kirkcaldy no longer produces that distinct odour, but it certainly still produces a lot of linoleum – with some particularly fruitful international markets.

Forbo Flooring Systems’ general manager Angus Fotheringhame said: “We export all over the world, US, Canada, Australasia, Europe.

“For this factory in particular it’s the US that’s the biggest market.

“We make several million square meters every single year.

“We’ve been making linoleum here in Kirkcaldy since 1847 so it’s about 175 years we’ve been doing it, there are many generations of people who have worked here, we’ve got lots of families within the company and a long legacy of staff here in Kirkcaldy.”

Linoleum has left a lasting legacy in Fife, due to the jobs it created, the smells it omitted and a particularly famous Billy Connolly sketch it inspired – saying it will always be a bit of a mouthful.

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