Features > History

24 September 2020

Huts, a place beyond by Lesley Riddoch is available from the author (with inscription or dedication) via lesleyriddoch.com

William Ferris and the Carbeth hutters

In an extract from Lesley Riddoch’s new book, the author recounts how detective work, and some luck, led her to track down information about a pioneering Scottish hutter

WILLIAM Ferris would have remained a name on a page, had it not been for a stroke of luck. For years, I’d been following the trials of the Carbeth hutters and I knew that a William Ferris had been largely responsible for getting hutting off the ground there in the 1920s. But who was he? What motivated him? I could see he’d been in the Highland Cycling Battalion during the war, and later ran a clutch of Scottish and UK outdoor organisations. But calls and emails to them drew a blank. No-one had heard of him, which made me all the more curious.

After sessions in the Mitchell, Glasgow and Strathclyde University libraries and an online surf of the National Cooperative Archive in Manchester, I was starting to despair. There was nothing. Or at least nothing I could find.

So, I went back to basics and started flicking through the Glasgow phone book. If William Ferris had children, if they stayed in the Glasgow area and if they weren’t ex-directory, it would just be a matter of time before I found them. How hard could this be? The answer was fairly hard, given the involvement of one Paul Ferris in the longest and most expensive trial in Scottish legal history (which I hasten to add, ended in his acquittal on all charges). After three bruising phone encounters, I reconsidered my strategy. Ferris had a stamp shop in West Nile Street between the wars. He helped set up the Ramblers Federation and the Citizen’s Theatre and persuaded a reluctant landowner to embrace hutting. Where would the children of such a man live? I took a punt on Glasgow’s West End. So, I scanned the directory for a Ferris with a 339 prefix, found one, called the number and found myself speaking to Murray Ferris, William’s son, who was busy preparing to move house and leave Scotland.

Archive searches bedamned. I’d found my man just in time and headed south a few days later to record a two-hour conversation. Happily, Murray had a mini-archive of newspaper cuttings about his dad and was able to bring the paperwork alive with his own vivid memories. Without this faithful custodianship of his dad’s eventful life, I would simply be none the wiser and the history of leisure in the west of Scotland would be missing an inspiring and formative influence.

William Ferris was born in Govan in 1894 – one of 11 children, only two of whom survived past the age of 5. That tells its own story. He also seems to have been involved in two of the great socialist movements that swept the west – the Socialist Sunday Schools and the Clarion Cyclists. Both are as unknown today as William Ferris himself.

Murray recalls that his father was a keen cyclist, who found a firm in Glasgow able to make bicycles with gears that could cope with the Scottish hills and paniers long enough to take tents by Blacks of Greenock, which were light enough for weekend jaunts. Murray recalls going to David Rattray’s workshop and showroom off Parliamentary Road in Glasgow as a boy to buy his own first grown-up bike. “They couldn’t do enough for us and I found out later that dad had lent the family a tent and equipment at a time when such things were like hens’ teeth.”

The war brought the days of relatively carefree cycling to a temporary end for Ferris Senior. In 1914, he signed up to the Highland Cyclist Battalion (HCB) which provided mobile infantry, signals and scouting. By 1918 he was a sergeant, stationed at Ballinrobe in Ireland, and it was here that Ferris drafted the letters that eventually kick-started hutting at Carbeth. But in December of that year, just weeks after the Armistice, his letters had only one immediate aim – to get a hut at Carbeth for himself and his closest colleagues. A modest enough reward you’d think, for surviving a hideous war.

Ferris’ plan was to write to Allan Barns-Graham, the owner of Carbeth, to ask for land to build a hut. Realising that rank and social class mattered when addressing a Scottish landowner, Ferris wrote first to an officer in the HCB – a Mr Hotchkiss – asking him to intervene on behalf of a Corporal Fraser, Sergeant McCallum, two other colleagues Smith and Robertson and himself. Ferris explained that Craigallion near Carbeth “was a favourite camping site” before the war and “our little camping club would like a ‘club house’ in the district for weekends afterwards,” to be financed by £30 the men had put aside in War Savings Certificates. Ferris made the case for a humble hut with great skill, citing the men’s war records and single-mindedness of purpose.

We have always been optimists about seeing this war through – never once did we cease our contributions [to the War Savings Scheme]. Corporal Fraser went out with the big draft in 1916 and has since been twice wounded. The other member of our club has been through the Jutland battle and got wounded during his ship’s hunt after the old German raider “Moewe”. He also got clear of Antwerp before the Boshe got in during 1914. We are all looking forward to the time when we may resume our peacetime outings.

Astonishingly, given the power of their case and modest nature of their request, Barns Graham turned them down, offering the chance to camp instead. Nothing daunted, Ferris wrote again, this time directly to Barns Graham in July 1919 after being demobbed. Again, he was refused. We don’t have the landowner’s letters, but Ferris’ reply tackled the apparent source of his anxiety – the state of revolutionary fervour in Scotland, months after the first ever General Strike. Thanking Barns Graham for sharing the thoughts of a “Soldier”, Ferris suggests the anonymous neighbour who apparently objected to their presence should know more about the “Bolshies” before passing judgement:

There are five of us and we have all served during the war. Robertson was in the RNVR at the outbreak of war and has Antwerp, Jutland and a broken leg as his war honours. Fraser joined when the Post Office allowed him (1915) and managed to have a few years “holiday” in France where he collected a few wounded stripes until demobbed a few months ago. Smith visited Gallipoli, Egypt and France perhaps on “bolshie” propaganda, but his three gold bars indicate he did not have it all his own way. McCallum and myself both joined voluntary in September 1914 and came with the others to enjoy the lovely district of Carbeth just a few weeks after being demobbed. I wish sincerely that such [neighbours] as “A Soldier” would not hastily rush to conclusions.
Yours Sincerely W Ferris “one of the Bolshies”

It seems extraordinary, but even this heartfelt letter made no difference. Ferris however was determined. He took up the offer of camping along with many others. By the 1920s visitors to Carbeth were using tents with wooden floors, stored in a recreational hall – very like the lemmehytte (half tent-half hut structures) on the distant island of Lindøya in Oslo Fjord. And miraculously, within a few years, the same transition to huts took place.