The Glenlair House Fire

The following is a report from the GALLOWAY NEWS of September 28, 1929.


Something of a sensation was caused in the Stewartry on Saturday evening when it became known that another well-known mansion house, that of Glenlair, near Corsock and about eight miles from Castle Douglas, had been destroyed by fire. A rumour that Sir James Baird, who has leased the house and estate for the past three years from Major Wedderburn Maxwell, had been trapped in one of the rooms and severely injured added to the excitement of public interest. Happily this latter report was considerably coloured, for although Sir James, in an effort, to recover the passport and other personal property belonging to one of his guests, Miss Von Wolffe who had only arrived from Austria that morning on a visit to Lady Baird, received painful cuts to his forearm and fingers when endeavoring to smash his way through a window, the injuries were not so severe as at first surmised.

The Damage

The house however, which contains five public rooms, nine bedrooms, servants’ accommodation, etc., was almost completely gutted, only the drawing-room and a bedroom in the south-west wing, and the kitchen premises, which were ruined by water, remaining intact. A large band of workers, attracted to the scene, helped the staff’ to save a considerable quantity of the furnishings, including all the valuable paintings and silver, on the ground floor, but that on the upper storeys and most of the personal property of Sir James and Lady Baird were destroyed. The house damage is estimated at £15,000, this, it is understood, being covered by insurance, while the personal loss of Sir James and Lady Baird and their guests would amount to over £700, only a small portion of which comes under an insurance claim.
Only eighteen months ago, it will be recalled, the mansion house of Mollance, near Castle-Douglas, was destroyed under similar circumstances, and it is a curious coincidence that Mr. Cowie, head gardener at Glenlair, was also gardener at Mollance at the time of that occurrence.
Another interesting feature of the occurrence was that only a short time ago Sir James, with curious premonition of fire had erected all around the house a special type of chain ladder fire escape, and it was by one of these he was able to effect an entrance when the fire was at its height and recover important documents and personable valuables of Lady Baird and his guests. Such is the construction of the house that had the outbreak occurred during the night the staff would have had great difficulty in getting clear and there might have been serious loss of life.
Sir James Baird, who is the ninth baronet of Saughton Hall, near Edinburgh, was taken to Castle-Douglas Hospital to have his arm attended to, and he was afterwards able to return to the house and superintend the salvage operations. The other guest was Mrs. Osborne Smith, Bray on Thames, and along with Sir James and Lady Baird they subsequently took accommodation at the Douglas Arms where the party remained until Tuesday, when they left for the North.

Origin of the Outbreak

The alarm was first raised about one o’clock, and it is presumed that the fire originated from the kitchen vent, probably a spark igniting a beam which had been smoldering for some time and was fanned into flame by a strong wind. The house staff were at lunch when Miss Cowie, the gardener’s daughter, informed Mr. Dunbar, caretaker, that there was a peculiar smell of burning wood emanating from the house. About the same time; Cyril Blacklock; a joiner with Messrs. W. McNaught Ltd., Oakwell Mill, Castle-Douglas, and was on his way home, called Mr. Dunbar’s attention to the smoke, which was issuing from the roof. Investigations were then made by Mr. Dunbar and the butler, Mr. R Colwill, and they found that in an attic room the ceiling and walls were quite warm. While endeavoring to locate the seat of the trouble part of the ceiling came down on their heads. Immediately afterwards the roof burst unto flames.

Furnishings Saved

A call was at once sent to Castle-Douglas, only to learn that the town had no brigade for country service, and thereafter the assistance of Dumfries brigade was sought. In the meantime all the house staff had gathered, but the house fire equipment was useless in the circumstances, and they found themselves helpless so far as arresting the progress of the fire was concerned. Their efforts however, were directed to salvaging the furniture and silver from the ground floors, and along with the large number of farm workers, who had been attracted to the scene good work was done in this connection. With a strong breeze blowing from the north the fire spread at an alarming rate. When Dumfries fire brigade arrived they had some difficulty connecting with a sufficient supply of water, and before they could get into action the house was doomed. With their assistance, however, more of the furnishings were saved than otherwise would have been recovered, nearly everything of real value being taken out from the ground rooms.

Baronet’s Plucky Effort

At the time Sir James and Lady Baird and their guests were out shooting, and on their return at 1.30 p.m. they were horrified to find the house a blazing furnace. Miss Von Wolffe’s luggage had not been unpacked, but she had left her passport and about £60 in her room. With great daring Sir James, followed by his butler, climbed up one of the fire escapes and entered the burning house to retrieve this property and other personal valuables of Lady Baird.
Several times they returned and were successful in recovering a considerable portion of this property. On one occasion they were almost entrapped by the rapid progress of the flames, while a portion of the ceiling also fell in their path. A fire escape at another window enabled them to get clear. It was on a further attempt to enter the house that Sir James was badly cut. Seizing a piece of burning wood he made to break his way through a window. The wood, however, snapped in his hand and the glass inflicted severe cuts to his forearm and fingers. Undaunted he went on and recovered the passport and money. It was only then it was seen he was bleeding profusely, and was immediately taken to Castle-Douglas Hospital to have his wounds dressed by Dr. Forde.
The fire continued with unabating fury till well into the evening, and did not burn itself out till early the following morning, most of the staff being on duty all night.

Fire Brigade Criticism

This further loss has again directed attention to the position in the county in regard to an up-to-date fire brigade service. A good deal of criticism has been directed at Castle Douglas Town Council in certain quarters for the organisation there not being allowed to go outside the burgh boundaries. Undoubtedly had there been in existence a well-equipped brigade in Castle-Douglas there would have been a good chance of saving the house, as has been the case in several outbreaks within recent years. When the position is examined, however, it will be seen that such criticism is to say the least of it, doing an injustice to the Town Council. As has been pointed out before in our columns, there is throughout the town, ample water pressure to reach thirty feet above the highest building. Consequently all that is required for the burgh purposes is an ample range of fire hose and sufficient hydrants to give service to all parts. This provision has been made by the Council, and so far as the town itself is concerned no fire brigade is required.
In regard to service outwith the town it has to be recalled that some time ago Provost Forde instituted a movement for the provision of a modern fire brigade, which would be available for service throughout the county. A letter was sent out to all the principal farmers and proprietors asking them if they were prepared to pay a small sum towards the initial outlay and an annual subscription of about £1. If this were done the Council undertook to provide an up-to-date motor fire engine, and an efficient staff officered by an experienced man from one of the big city fire brigades. It would be also part of the agreement that the burgh would maintain the equipment, and that the brigade would attend any fire free of cost to all subscribers. The response received to the proposal gave no encouragement, and it was seen that it was useless to go any further in the matter. There the position has since rested, but it is probable that this latest occurrence will bring wiser counsel to prevail.

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