‘By 1962, recreation was at the centre of ‘the centrifugal energy’ which had built-up in Thurso since the announcement of the Dounreay project. From the local perspective, the arrival of the atomics happened all of a sudden; the mass of people arrived all at once’.
(Linda Ross, ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966, PhD thesis, p. 254.)
‘If Dounreay was about energy, the social scene in Thurso changed as a fresh social energy swept through it’.
(William A. Paterson, 50 Years of Dounreay, Wick: North of Scotland Newspapers, 2008, p. 61.)
Our previous exhibition, ATOMIC HOUSING: Thurso Transformed, explored the amazing changes to the built landscape of the Thurso area. This was the result of a new type of nuclear reactor being built at Dounreay from 1954 and the subsequent need to house a wave of new workers that tripled the population of the town.
We also touched on the social change this influx of new families made upon life in the county. This exhibition looks to explore further that unbelievable social change through the archives of the Dounreay Social Clubs held at Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives.
What has been aptly described as an invigorating ‘centrifugal energy’ can be witnessed in the amazing photographic collections, excerpts from oral history interviews and textual sources.
There is much to see and hear so please take your time, browse at your leisure, and explore the fascinating history of the Dounreay Social Clubs.
THE ORMLIE LODGE CLUB
‘This rich social life of the late 1950s was developed before the 1958 opening of the official Dounreay Sports and Social Club (DSSC) at Viewfirth House, in the Brownhill area of the atomic estate. The focus for much of this early activity was the UKAEA’s hostel at Ormlie Lodge, a private house which had been purchased and extended to accommodate 250 single employees or those awaiting housing and the arrival of their families. As a residence for a generally young, vibrant group of people keen to get involved in the social aspects of the community, it was a natural place for a social hub to develop: as Christina Munro explained, ‘that’s how so many clubs and different groups started up because people were young and keen to do this, that and the other and so on – they were young, it was exciting’.
(Linda Ross, ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966, PhD thesis, pp. 254-255.)
The Ormlie Lodge Club was established in Thurso in 1955. Its object, as stated in the 1958 Club Constitution, was “to provide social amenities and to promote cultural activities and amateur sports and athletics for its members.”
Membership was open to residents of Ormlie Lodge Hostel and all UKAEA employees. The Club’s official opening was marked with a dance in Thurso Town Hall on the 26th October 1955.
The first Ormlie Ball was held in the Royal Hotel, Thurso on 7th December 1956. The six piece Bill Johns band provided the music. It was a very formal affair and many of the ladies wore their wedding dresses! 186 people attended this first ball.
By 1958 there were 500 full and 100 associate members.
Table Tennis was introduced as one of the first sub-sections to the Club (the other two being badminton and country dancing). Cricket, angling, sailing, fencing, photography and film sections followed.
The photographs below show the club during this bustling period, bar prices from 1958, and the well known Manageress, Miss Bentley, on her retirement in 1964. Also included are some reminiscences from past members, both textual and recorded, providing complementary stories that bring the photographs to life.
Natural Beauty: A history of the Ormlie Lodge Club 1955-1992, (Ref: P778/1/11) gives us some wonderful insights into happenings at the club.Tom Ladyman has shared his memories from the bar area:
“In the original bar there used to be a fire place and in winter a fire was kept burning and made the bar a warm and cheerful place. A good customer was one fellow known as “Wee Alistair” and when he was well in his cups he would hold onto the bar by his finger tips and swing backwards on the bar stool. He overdid the backward swing one night and fell backwards and landed with his head in the fire. Fortunately it had died down a bit. We rushed forward and pulled him up and dusted him down and cleaned off the singed hair and sat him back on his stool and he demanded to know what the rush was, he said it was the warmest he had been all day.”
Tom Ladyman remembers the well known manageress (Ref: P778/1/11):
“I remember a few humorous things that have happened over the years, like the night Miss Bentley, the Hostel Manageress, came into the bar to have a chat- she said- and left her walking stick outside the door. She stayed for a while and when she decided to leave, went out and picked up her walking stick only to find it completely covered over in beer bottle labels. Some members realising whose stick it was had gone to the trouble to soak off the labels from the beer bottles outside and then plastered them all over her stick. She was not amused.
In those days beer was in bottles or cans, keg beer had not yet reached the Club. One night a bunch of us collected as many as we could carry and went and stacked them, as quietly as we could, into a pyramid outside her door then rapped on the door and beat a hasty retreat around the corner. The door opened and out she came, smack into the stack of cans and down they came with one loud clatter. She didn’t seem to mind this and we heard her say to herself, “Oh, those naughty boys, what will they be up to next?” None of us were under the age of 30 years. However, when she closed the door we quietly removed the cans and returned to our favourite pastime in the bar.”
Don Ryan’s oral history interview with James Gunn (Ref: P778/8) gives an amazing insight into the character of Miss Bentley, the history of the Ormlie Lodge and Viewfirth Clubs and his experience of the social interactions between the ‘atomics’ and ‘locals’. He also mentions the Dounreay Householders Handbook which was reproduced in it’s entirety for our ATOMIC HOUSING exhibition and can still be accessed here.
Click the link and the recording will begin playing in a separate tab, you’ll then be able to continue browsing whilst listening.
Bar Prices 1958
The bar was certainly a focal point of the social scene that developed around Ormlie Lodge. In 1962 there were a number of noteworthy incidents that resulted in disciplinary action (Ref: P778/1/11):
“For the first time, discipline of Club members showed some worrying trends and several incidents led to disciplinary action on Club members, those included the following: ….ii) A member was banned for 6 months due to “…removing a flower in a pot” on Sunday 6th May. iii) Following ‘unsuitable behaviour’ a member was banned ‘sine die’ iv) A member was censored after leaving the Club on a scooter carrying a guest who was brandishing a glass of Guinness
N.B. Only detailed investigation established that it was Guinness and not Double Century.”
Ormlie Lodge certainly had a reputation for parties and this memory from an anonymous source certainly confirms the humorous side (Ref: P778/1/11):
“Ormlie Lodge Club was the place where parties started. If you were a Hostel resident and in luck, a member might invite you home to supper after the bar closed or if not it was up to one of the rooms to a party. In either case, the essential entrance fee was a carry-out or at least a contribution to one. Money wasn’t plentiful in the old days and it still amazes me how much fun would spring from a few screw tops and a half- bottle. Did half a dozen people really get so merry (note the polite word) on a halfie? During one such party in an Ormlie room some biscuits had been thrown into the window box. The next morning, the occupier of the room was awakened by what sounded like someone banging on the window. Opening his eyes he found himself staring into the face of a seagull which, in trying to snatch the biscuits had misjudged its’ bombing run and clattered through the open window. Anyone who has had to deal with a sparrow falling down the living- room chimney can imagine the problem in getting a skorrie out of a single room in Ormlie Lodge, especially when your dangly bits are unprotected from beak and claw. For the rest of his days in Ormlie he slept with the window closed. But it was a good party for all that and it didn’t stop many more being arranged as the shutters came down in Ormlie Lodge Club.”
Membership of Ormlie Lodge was not open to those outwith the Dounreay workforce. The UKAEA sought to address this with the opening of the Dounreay Sports and Social Club at Viewfirth House in 1958.
John Lawes’ oral history interview with James Gunn (Ref: P778/8) explores the social life further, not only at Ormlie Lodge but at Viewfirth along the road as well. He reminisces about the local/atomic interaction and the many events and characters involved. This first extract focuses on Ormlie Lodge and the atmosphere of the hostel environment.
The second excerpt below discusses both Ormlie Lodge and Viewfirth. It is a little longer, however, it is so rich in detail and anecdote that we wanted to include it all. Why not let it play as you explore the next section on Viewfirth House.
‘By September 1958, membership of the DSSC had reached 1100 out of a staff complement of 1600. At this early stage membership favoured those Dounreay employees who lived in Thurso rather than those who lived at a distance in Wick, Lybster, Dunbeath or Bettyhill…Recognising that the fullest possible integration with the people of the town was a necessity, the Dounreay club was the only one in the UKAEA which catered for non-employees: another location-specific concession to place which highlights the significance of Dounreay’s social impact.’
(Linda Ross, ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966, PhD thesis, pp. 259-260.)
Viewfirth House was chosen as the site for the Dounreay Sports and Social Club. Although lacking the accommodation of Ormlie Lodge, it was equally focused on sport and recreation. The house was purchased and renovated before opening in 1958. One of the main draws was the large hall that could be used for dances, performances and large meetings. The floor plan below shows the layout including the hall.
Brian Hart’s oral history interview with James Gunn (Ref: P778/8) discusses the dances in Thurso. He discusses how the single sex school system that many workers had gone through in England had an adverse effect on their sociability, especially with women. Brian reminds us of the fascinating social experimentation that was taking place in a formerly quiet, remote town in the far north.
The photographic collections pertaining to the Viewfirth and it’s history over many decades are extensive and below we will explore the Viewfirth dances, children’s parties, folk festivals and sports days.
We’ll also highlight more oral history recordings and textual sources that add voice and colour to these amazing photographs.
1958 and 1959
1963 saw the Bill Pearse Showband play the Viewfirth, described as ‘the North’s most luxurious ballroom’. An advertisement from the John O’Groat Journal is shown below.
Also within our collections are copies of the Haggis Magazine, a staff newsletter published by Dounreay Sports and Social Club and Ormlie Lodge Club. We hold copies from 1961-1965. The below digitisation from the Spring 1962 edition advertises the newly opened restaurant and cocktail bar, giving a sample menu as well.
It also mentions the new extension, or ‘the Barn’, available for special parties of up to 50 people, and a great space to host the table tennis club. We also learn that the new extension has a single entrance, separate from the rest of the club, which should deter ‘gatecrashing’ of parties, previously very difficult to control.
The Spring 1964 edition mentions a ban on dancing barefoot and in certain areas.
The 1970s saw a huge turnout for Sydney Devine who played the Viewfirth on the 3rd of April 1974. The Caithness Courier ran a piece describing him as ‘the most popular entertainer ever to visit Thurso’.
The vibrant social life of the Viewfirth bar also continued into the 70s. These photographs are from 1978.
Viewfirth Children’s Parties
The Haggis Magazine from March 1961, reproduced below, reveals that children’s Christmas parties that year ‘reached mammoth proportions’ with six parties catering for 1140 children.
Viewfirth Folk Festivals
Viewfirth Folk Festival which first ran in 1971 proved very popular and continued to run throughout the 70s. Below are some digitised headlines and articles from the Caithness Courier and John O’Groat Journal highlighting the event.
Gena MacKenzie began working at Dounreay, in the typing pool, in May 1961 when she was 19 years old. Gena describes the folk festivals and the big names that played at the event.
“I used to go to the Thurso Folk Club in the Viewfirth in the 1960’s/70’s. It was a busy place and I saw some great acts such as Billy Connolly, Barbara Dickson and Archie Fisher. I was never much into pop music, but I do recall being very excited at meeting the famous pop group “The Hollies” at the Dounreay Visitor Centre in July 1964. I had my photograph taken with them along with George Malcolm the Visits Officer. I recently unearthed the photographs and autographs.”
Viewfirth Sports Days
There has so far been a lot of attention on parties and socialising, indeed a big draw of the Dounreay Clubs. However, we’d hate to give the impression that no sports activity was taking place in between.
Jimmy Simpson, Willie Sloss and David Crowe’s oral history interview with James Gunn (Ref: P778/8) discusses the sports days, alongside the parties and Haggis magazine.
The photographs below are from a 1958 sports day which ran as an annual event for some years. The photographs are dated as 8th December, meaning it must have been pretty cold!
Tug of War
Sports for Children
Sports for Adults
WICK DOUNREAY SPORTS AND SOCIAL CLUB
Finally, we come to the Wick Dounreay Sports and Social Club. And we have left it till last for good reason. Apart from the photographs below, Nucleus holds very little information on the Wick Club.
We know from the County of Caithness Valuation Rolls that the first Wick Dounreay Social Club was situated in Clubrooms in Dempster Street (now the Seaforth Club) from 1962 to 1964, before moving to premises at 33 Breadalbane Terrace until 1968, when the club moved to its long-term home, Breadalbane Hall.
At the end we will be asking for feedback and comments on what you thought about the exhibition and we would also warmly welcome any and all information regarding the Wick Dounreay Club, whether it be a story, a photograph, or a whole collection of records.
For now here are the photographs Nucleus currently holds from the opening of the club in 1964.
It is hard to disagree with this description of the vibrant atmosphere within the county as thousands made their new homes within Caithness. Dounreay seems not only to have been the centre of nuclear energy within the region but also a catalyst for the outward movement of social and sports recreation, especially evident within the town of Thurso.
The archives displayed above add insight to the lives led by those who moved to the county for work and the interactions they had amongst one another and with the local population. It is another element of the ‘atomic’ life, along with the ‘atomic’ houses, explored in our last exhibition, that goes some way to explain the enduring mark that Dounreay and its satellites have made upon the social fabric of successive generations.
BEFORE YOU GO…
A huge thank you for taking the time to explore our online exhibition, we hope that you thoroughly enjoyed the history of the Dounreay Sports Clubs. We welcome all feedback and comments on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/nucleuscaithnessarchive/.
Please also send us any of your stories, memories and feedback, or indeed, any information you may have regarding the Wick Dounreay Sports and Social Club to our email address, [email protected]
More exhibitions to follow soon…
Linda Ross, ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966, PhD thesis
William A. Paterson, 50 Years of Dounreay, Wick: North of Scotland Newspapers, 2008