Going to the Zoo: Mugdock Country Park’s intriguing past (part 3)

Craigend Castle Zoo poastcard

Craigend Castle Zoo postcard (picture courtesy of EDLC)

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!

The lions'den on Gallowhill

The lions’ den on Gallowhill (picture courtesy of EDLC)

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.

Cheetahs at play, Craigend Zoo (picture courtesy of EDLC)

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.

The Picnic Park at Craigend Zoo (courtesy of EDLC)

The Picnic Park at Craigend Zoo (picture courtesy of EDLC)

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!

Craigend Castle in its heyday! (Picture courtesy of EDLC)

Craigend Castle in its heyday! (Picture courtesy of EDLC)

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!!

Mugdock Country Park

Lions, Llamas, Lochs and Lichen: Mugdock Country Park’s intriguing past (part 2)

The forlorn remains of the once opulent Craigend Castle

In some ways the history of Mugdock can be summed up as A Tale of Two Castles. The first one, Mugdock Castle, was built in the dark and violent days of the 14th century. The second, Craigend Castle, was erected in the 19th century as a mark of ostentatious wealth, its interiors awash with opulent furnishings. This was a ‘castle’ built not for warfare or bloodshed, but for luxurious comfort, and set in magnificent landscaped gardens.

Today Craigend is a dangerous ruin, but it had a diverse and varied existence, with numerous proprietors.  However, for me, its most colourful era was under the ownership of father and son Andrew and William Wilson. Andrew Wilson was a successful businessman, his son William a zoologist.

Report of the fire at Wilson's Zoo in Glasgow 15th March 1944 (c) The Glasgow Herald

Report of the fire at Wilson’s Zoo in Glasgow 15th March 1944 (c) The Glasgow Herald

The Wilsons were the well-known owners of Wilson’s Zoo in Glasgow: but what a ‘zoo’ that was! Housed in a tenement building on Oswald Street in the heart of Glasgow and close to Central Station, it had two floors of ‘wild’ animals, including a lion and lioness, with a pet shop in the basement. Definitely not the surroundings we would expect today, and not without accident (see report on the right), but nonetheless very popular with visitors in the 1930s-1950s. The smell must have been quite something and it is said to have boasted a mynah bird that spoke with a broad Glasgow accent!

By 1949 the Wilsons had moved to Craigend Castle and decided to establish a new zoo there, which opened to the public in the April of that year. In cages and pens around Gallowhill there were not only thousands of birds and reptiles, but also lions, llamas, chimpanzees, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, an elephant and innumerable other creatures. Once again the conditions the animals were kept in would probably not be acceptable today, but what a difference from the smelly tenement home of their fellows!

Charlie the Elephant and Singh Ibraham his faithful keeper (picture courtesy of EDC)

Charlie the Elephant and Singh Ibraham his faithful keeper (picture courtesy of Mugdock Country Park)

Without doubt though, the zoo’s star attraction was Charlie the Elephant, who was cared for faithfully by his mahout, or keeper, Singh Ibraham. Such was Charlie’s popularity and lasting fame that Charlie’s Theatre Cafe Bar, one of Mugdock’s eating places, was named in his honour a few years ago.

However, a trip to Craigend Zoo was more than simply a chance to see exotic and unusual animals. There was a picnic area, a children’s paddling pool, pony rides, and boats, both motor and rowing, which could be hired to sail on the estate’s lochs. On top of that, there was even a miniature train which ran from Mugdock Village to the castle! While for many of the visitors the highlight of the day would be taking tea in the one of the three palatial rooms in the castle that had been converted into tearooms to provide sustenance for the thousands of visitors who came each day.

Abundant lichen: a testimony to the clean, fresh air of Mugdock Country Park

Abundant lichen: a testimony to the clean, fresh air of Mugdock Country Park

But unfortunately the zoo began to lose money and was eventually closed in 1955. There are many more interesting tales about the zoo – some of which will be told in Part 3! Since the closure, Craigend Castle has gradually fallen into disrepair.

But the castles are only part of the story of Mugdock Country Park. It’s a wonderful place to spend a day exploring. Wildlife and plant life abound.  Plenteous lichen on the trees shows just how fresh and clean the air is here. Walking and cycling are popular and there is a new bike shop, Mugdock Country Cycles, with bikes for all ages and abilities. A colourful playpark for younger children, an adventure trail for older children, orienteering, history and tree trails: it really is a place for everyone.

Inside the delightful Stable Tearoom

Inside the delightful Stables Tearoom

Add to that an arts and crafts shop, a plantaria with a restaurant overlooking the former walled garden, the Stables Tearoom, and a theatre, then a visit to Mugdock Country Park is a treat – come rain or shine!

Mugdock Country Park

Mugdock Country Cycles

Mugdock Plantaria and Garden Restaurant

Mugdock Makkers Arts and Crafts

Gallows, Ghosts and Guns: Mugdock Country Park’s intriguing past (part 1)

Mugdock Castle at the heart of Mugdock County Park

There’s a wonderful passage in Paul Gallico’s book The Adventures of Hiram Holliday where Hiram speaks of ‘…the cries of history that swirled up around him, rising, seemingly from every crack in the pavement.’  I love the idea that the history of a particular place can be felt like that, almost as if it were echoing up through the soles of your feet. And no matter where you go, you’ll always find landscapes rich with tales of the past.

Mugdock County Park, north of Glasgow, is no exception. From the northern boundaries of Milngavie to the edge of Dumbrock Moor and the Campsie Fells, the park covers an area of 260 hectares that is rich in wildlife, plant life and history.  Go for a visit, and it won’t be long before you begin to understand some if its intriguing past.

The mighty tower of Mugdock Castle

Perhaps the most visible evidence of the past lives of the people of this area is Mugdock Castle itself. No one knows exactly how old this once formidable stronghold is, though it must have existed at least as far back as the 14th century for a document relating to the castle – an agreement over land between the castle’s owner, Sir Patrick Graham, and one Angus Hawinroyss – was signed there on the 24th of August, 1372.

Over the years the Grahams extended their lands and the estate prospered, becoming both a centre for regular markets and fairs, and also the seat of the Barony court, where ‘justice’ would be meted out. If you were tried and found guilty in the Courthall of the castle what happened next?  Where would be your fate be determined?  Read on!

During the Dark Ages and Medieval times Mugdock Loch was far larger and deeper than it is today. On a small island, only a few hundred yards from the castle, was the Moot Hill, or Hill of Judgement. It was on this spot that the unfortunate criminal would hear his sentence: seldom a happy one!  In many cases it would be straight back across the causeway and over to the grimly named Gallowhill for execution.

A reconstruction of a crannog (c) Education Scotland

A reconstruction of a crannog (c) Education Scotland

In earlier times Moot Hill was home to Bronze Age and Iron age crannogs, dwellings built out on the water for protection from enemies. Some were reached by circuitous stone paths hidden just below the surface of the water, others by wooden or stone causeways above the water, linking the crannog to the shore. Gallowhill too has many archaeological remains and may have housed a large Iron Age fort or even a village.

Next to Gallowhill was the equally fearsome Drowning Pond, where unfortunate women accused of witchcraft were forcibly held under water: if you drowned you were innocent, if you survived you were guilty and burned at the stake. A lose-lose situation if ever there was one!   Walk round the pond today and listen for the ghostly laments of its victims.

The Mugdock Anti-aircraft battery overlooking Glasgow

The Mugdock Anti-aircraft battery overlooking Glasgow

From a war much nearer our own time are the silent remains of the Mugdock anti-aircraft gunsite built in 1942 in the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz. This gun emplacement was part of a series of anti-aircraft batteries constructed around the Clyde Basin to protect the heavy industries in and around Glasgow. The nearby Nissen huts housed the army personnel stationed to man the guns, complete with showers and sleeping accommodation.

Michael Gambon and Iain Cuthbertson, the rugged stars of 'The Borderers'!

Michael Gambon and Iain Cuthbertson, the rugged stars of ‘The Borderers’!

But to go back to Mugdock Castle. Here’s a question: what’s the connection between Mugdock Castle and Michael Gambon? The answer: Gambon starred as heroic young Gavin Ker of Slitrig,  in the 1960s/70s television series The Borderers, which was filmed at Mugdock Castle. It was an exciting historical drama, set in the 16th century, which told the tale of the Warden of the Middle March (Iain Cuthbertson) and his family during the troubled and violent times of the Border Reivers. The Warden’s dashing young nephew, Gavin Ker, fought to protect his family and remain a decent man. It was stirring stuff!

So as you take that stroll in the park on a peaceful afternoon, stop for a moment and think about all that’s happened around you.  You’ll be surprised just how rich and varied the past has been!

Mugdock County Park