Woodcockdale was built in 1822, the year the Union Canal opened. The 1st West Lothian Sea Scouts were formed in 1942 by the Reverend P H R Mackay of Torphicen and apart from a short period in the 1990’s, have been at Woodcockdale since then. The origins of the Group are interesting as is the period in the 1990’s when they fought a hard battle to remain there. We have documented this history here as a way of preserving it for future generations of Sea scouts.
A history of the Group (written by Rev PHR McKay in the 1980’s)
Woodcockdale is one of the last surviving functional buildings on the banks of the Union Canal,. The fact that the Dale still stands is a consequence, if a very minor one, of the 1939-1945 War.
Designed as a Staging Post, at which barges could change horses, the buildings provided two single ends, one above the other at either end of the block and these were separated by two four stall stables for horses. Each single end was home to a horseman and his wife and family, if he were married. The writer was visited once by a man who claimed that the upper room at the East end had been home to his family, all crowed into its limited space by day, his mother and sisters sleeping in it by night, when father and sons went to the hayloft. Before the end of the Canal’s life as a commercial waterway, the two rooms at each end had been converted into single homes, a sink with cold water had been installed in the downstairs room, porches added to the house, closets with flush toilets and a washboiler provided in a small detached building, but the houses were still substandard. By the late 1930’s, they had ceased to be occupied by Canal workers, the East was unoccupied, the West let to a tenant.
The Local Authority had condemned the whole, as unfit for human occupation and was waiting an opportunity to rehouse the tenant, when the building would have been closed and demolished, either officially or by vandals. With the outbreak of War, came the cessation of house building and the freezing of the situation at Woodcockdale.
As the war dragged on its way, the Government, to encourage young men to volunteer for service rather than to wait reluctantly for their call-up, devised a scheme whereby youth might choose the Arm in which they would serve, if he volunteered before he was seventeen and undertook to do pre-service training in the appropriate Corp. Volunteers for the Navy, if they were fortunately placed, could choose to train with the Sea Cadets or with an Admiralty recognised Sea Scout Group, but the West Lothian Scout who wanted to join the Navy, had no choice but to go to Falkirk and join The Sea Cadets. To certain keen Scouts, this seemed a very unsatisfactory situation, but for which there was only one solution – to form a Sea Scout Troup and seek Admiralty recognition.
There were large problems to be overcome if the plan was to be put into action. There was the question whether enough boys would be interested to form a Troop of adequate size and what was to be the relation of The Sea Scout Group to that of which the prospective Naval Volunteer was already a member. There was the problem of finding headquarters with easy access to water. Boats must be an essential part of the training equipment and where were they to be found and what of the standard of training which the Admiralty would require.
Very conscious of the problem, the Pioneers approached the Scout Council and got permission to form a Sea Scout Troop which would recruit boys who were attracted to it in the ordinary way but would also offer supplementary Pre-Service training to Naval volunteers, without requiring them to sever their connections with their own Troop and that was the basis on which the 1st West Lothian Sea Scout Troop was launched at a meeting held in the lounge of Bathgate Public Baths.
As to Headquarters, a careful survey of the County revealed that the eastern half of Woodcockdale House and Stable were unoccupied, the waters of the Canal almost lapped the doorstep and the long overgrown garden offered itself as a parade ground. Near derelict as the buildings were, and limited as they were the waters, this seemed the most hopeful site. At the same time, it was the property of the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) and was administered from an office called the Sack Department, part of the Waverly Complex, so thither the Pioneers went.
But the problem they raised was too great for the Sack Department and they found themselves directed to Waterloo Place and the Office of the General Manager. The Patriotic Motive underlying their request smoothed the way and they went home with the offer of a lease on a year to year basis, on condition that they accepted the building as it was, kept it wind and weather tight and made no alterations to its exterior. Internal alterations were allowed in order that it might be adapted to its new use. The owners unwillingness to lease for a period of years, was to prove a great misfortune for the Troop and it excluded them from Grants from Public Funds towards Capital Expenditure on the building, however nothing venture nothing win. In spite of the restrictions and the burdens they were required to undertake, the Troop accepted the terms offered, entered into possession and bent their energies to making Woodcockdale the happy HOME it has proved to be.
Life was never easy. There was always much to be done to maintain the property. Funds were never plentiful, vandals and thieves were always in the offing but men and boys brought vision, practical skills, energy amd goodwill to the common pool and successive generations of Sea Scouts have happy memories which cluster around Woodcockdale.
Long after the War was over, the tenants in the West end were rehoused and before the vandals had done too much damage, the British Waterways Board (BWB) who by this time owned the property agreed to extend the Troop’s tenancy to cover the whole block so the work of adaptation and preservation was carried a stage further with energy to match that of the pioneers.
The battle with thieves and vandals continues, with the added risk of sallies by speculative developers, but Woodcockdale is home of the Sea Scouts and not to be lightly vacated.
When the old Stirling County Council wished to make the canal the last resting place for the spoil from their pit bings, the Troop was one of the objectors heard by the reporter who conducted the public enquiry and advised the Secretary of State to reject the Council’s plan.
The 1st has not yet given an Admiral to Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, but she is an unsung pioneer among the workers for the preservation of our Waterways heritage; Woodcockdale is her trophy and long may it be so.
The Scout Troop continued to lease Woodcockdale from the Waterways Board. On the way it made significant improvements to the property, and in spite of this had a rather fractured relationship with the Waterways Board, who increased the rent to reflect the added value the Scouts had created !
This relationship came to an end on 1st August 1989 when the Scouts were served notice to quit by the Waterways. They had sought Planning permission to change the buildings use in order they could sell it to turn into a restaurant.
A very public battle ensued between the Scouts and the British Waterways Board. This was played out in the local press, radio and television. In fact, it was mentioned by Tam Dalyell in the House of Commons who presented the then Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind with a copy of a newspaper article. The Scouts received support from past and present members and several local councillors.
Attempts were made to find a new home for the Scouts and in the interim they moved in with the 4th West Lothian Scouts in the McKinnon Hall.
A fund raising campaign was started but in 1991, West Lothian District Council, agreed to buy the building from British Waterways Board and lease it to the Scouts.
The council offered a 30 years lease, secured the building by making it watertight, and the Scouts then used their funds to redevelop it internally to how it is today. Special mention to those involved in this goes to the Leaders at the time, John Kelly, Kenneth MacDonald, Sandy Morrison, Iain MacDonald and others including Roy Dewer, Bill Stirling, Joan Sprowl, Charles Bell and Councillor Jimmy McGinley.
A copy of the newspaper articles from the time can be found in the Mess deck book case.