John Webster began learning his trade as a baker with Charles S. Muir’s Castle Bakery in Rothesay 48 years ago - but his memories of working for one of the best-known and most highly-regarded firms on Bute remain as fresh as ever.
At the time John began working for the company, in September 1967, it still had seven shops around the island - in Port Bannatyne, Ardbeg and Kilchattan Bay, as well as four premises in Rothesay, one of them attached to the firm’s bakehouse, between High Street and Watergate. And while the work was hard, it was fun too.
“Muir’s was the biggest baker on the island at that time,” John recalls. “As well as seven shops, they had three vans making deliveries around the island - and the bakehouse itself was a big place.
“There were 12 bakers and four apprentices in those days - the guys I worked with included Davie Kennedy, Donald Scott, John McPherson, Andy McPherson, Donnie Grant and Jimmy Poole.
“You could always tell when Jimmy Poole was on the nightshift because you would get loads of burnt rolls after he fell asleep at the oven!
“The bakehouse was massive. It had white tiles on the walls, right up to the ceiling. There were three big ovens, fired up with char, and an apprentice had to climb into the oven, take the old char off, rake it down, put in a new load of sticks, and paper, and char - and reverse back out pretty quick!”
The Castle Bakery’s sultana cake, cherry cake and shortbread were popular Christmas gifts for many years, with generations of island residents sending the delicious treats to friends and family members across the world.
Its shortbread in particular enjoyed a great reputation - not just with customers but at UK-wide baking competitions in London, and a clutch of prize certificates forms a small part of an extensive archive of items relating to the Castle Bakery which is now held by the Bute Museum.
But, if you’ll pardon the phrase in this context, winning prizes and sending Christmas treats around the globe weren’t the firm’s bread and butter.
“It was a really, really busy place,” John recalls. “I worked the night shift and the day shift. We made thousands and thousands of rolls by hand, with no shape-cutters or anything.
“The batch ovens were huge - you could get 21 pans in at a time. Everything was put in the ovens in trays about 14 feet long. There were trolleys on wheels that could carry about two hundred loaves at a time and could be pushed straight into the oven - the loaves had to be separated by hand when they were ready.
“I remember spending hours and hours rolling shortbread, too. I had to cut every single square with a knife when it came out.
“Apprentices also had to unload the flour trucks, clean the floors and make pie shells for four or five hours on end.
“Every Friday night, every butcher on the island brought in their steak pies - we had to put a different design on the puff pastry for each butcher. We were left with maybe four or five hundred pies which had to be cooked on the Friday night, ready to sell on Saturday for folk’s Sunday dinners.”
John has fond recollections, too, of the third Charles Muir - the man who still ran the company when John went to work there, and whose grandfather had established the firm on a site in Montague Street in 1878.
Almost a century later, the youngest Charles Muir - distinguished from his father and grandfather by a middle initial, S for Shirreff - was still playing an active daily role in the business.
“Mr Muir was a real gentleman,” John remembers. “He had crashed in an aeroplane in the war, and I think he had a steel plate in his head.
“He worked from morning through to night, and went round the bakehouse every day to make sure the loaves were all right. But he never lost his temper, and he looked after the staff very well.”
Muir’s may have been the largest bakers in Rothesay at the time John went to work for the firm, but they were far from the only company producing rolls, bread, cakes and confectionery. John recalls Ferguson’s, who had three shops, in John Street, Montague Street and Port Bannatyne, along with More’s, Alastair Stewart, Cuthill, McIlroy, McKenzie and a lady called Maggie Love - and even one or two small-scale bakers who sold cakes from their own homes.
But there was still no shortage of work for John and his Castle Bakery colleagues: so much so that John, who combined his work at the bakery with college studies in Paisley, was only able to travel away for classes in the winter.
“It was a very physical job - you were on your feet for ten hours each day, sometimes 12 - but it was great fun,” he says.
“I eventually left because I was young, and I was ambitious, and I wanted to make more money - I went to work for Fisher and Donaldson’s in Fife, a very posh firm who paid better wages.
“Later on I went to work on the oil rigs, making cakes, doing it all the way it used to be done here. Other bakers were all using instant mixes, but we’d never done that with Muir’s in my time there.
“Unfortunately Muir’s problem was that they didn’t invest in new equipment, and that proved to be their downfall. After Mr Muir died, they tried to find ways of saving money, like using instant mixes, but it didn’t work.
“It was a disaster to see the Castle Bakery close, because it had been a big employer, and a very good employer.
“It was hard work, especially in the summer, when there wasn’t time to go away to college. But it was fun too.”
* Thanks to all those who have got in touch over recent months to share their Castle Bakery stories. If you have memories of working at a Rothesay business of the past why not share them with us? Call (01700) 502503 or email email@example.com.