The 15th April, 1949 was a memorable day for Milngavie: the official opening of the zoo at Craigend Castle. Over that Easter weekend 50,000 visitors flocked to the new zoo. The sun shone and tramcars from Glasgow arrived at the Corporation Terminus in Milngavie’s Park Road at the astonishing rate of one per minute! From there, fleets of single and double-decker Alexanders buses ferried the excited visitors the remainder of the way to Milngavie’s newest and most unprecedented attraction: the Zoological and Botanical Park at Craigend Castle Estate.
A contemporary report in the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald states that ‘At the peak of the rush on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, Mugdock Road leading to Craigend Castle looked like the approach to Hampden Park for the cup final.’ But then, having got so many people to the zoo, there was the matter of getting them all back again. Despite the very many extra trams and buses, the waiting queues of returning visitors were so long that it was after midnight before the last passengers finally found themselves on their journey home!
Craigend Castle Estate had been bought by Andrew Wilson, the proprietor of Wilson’s Zoo in the centre of Glasgow (for more on this see Part 2). He and his son William were both Fellows of the Zoological Society and had long worked towards the creation of a zoological park in the West of Scotland: their achievement, Craigend Castle Zoo, was the most up-to-date zoo in the country at that time.
But it was not all plain sailing! The Lion and Albert, a 1930s monologue performed so memorably by Stanley Holloway, could have applied just as easily at Craigend. In April 1949 the headline ‘Accident at Milngavie Zoo: Lion pounces on boy’ appeared in the local paper. Just days before the official opening, a twelve-year-old boy living on the estate had climbed onto the 18ft open cage transferring the lions to their new home: he stumbled and his foot went through the bars, to be immediately pounced on by one of the lions! Fortunately he was pulled clear by the keeper and taken off to the Glasgow Western Infirmary.
And the animals? They may have come in ‘two by two’, but it didn’t take some of them long to get away again! In ‘Escapes from the Zoo’, another report in the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald, readers discovered that a crane ‘bored with life behind the wire netting, decided to try his wings’ – and succeeded! Not a small bird (5ft tall) there were soon sightings – but even after a dramatic 23-mile car chase to Kippen, the crane simply soared gracefully away.
Who knows what became of this exotic, and, at a cost of £78, expensive bird, but as the paper said: ‘Somewhere on the Stockiemuir he may join forces with the five Himalayan deer and the two goats which jumped the netting at Craigend in the early days before the zoo was open to the public.’
However, there was more to a day at Craigend Zoo than the animals. There was a picnic area, a children’s paddling pool, pony rides, a miniature train, rowing boats and even petrol-driven “dodgem craft” which could be hired on the estate’s boating lakes. Plenty of eating places too: ‘the first-class licensed restaurant with spacious dining’ or one of the splendid rooms in the castle that had been converted into tearooms to provide sustenance for the thousands of visitors who came each day!
It’s all gone now, and the Castle in ruins – but what a place it must have been! In the days before television and the internet this would have been an astonishing experience for so many people, especially in the still-bleak aftermath of the Second World War. It’s hard for us today to appreciate the impact a visit to the zoo would have had back then. But what wonderful memories would have been taken home by so many people, both young and old, after a day at Craigend Castle Zoological Park!!