The Clement Wilson Room at 'Wellwood' was opened in 2012 by James Wilson, OBE, with President Tim Swan and North Ayrshire Provost Joan Sturgeon. James Wilson was elected the first ever Honorary President of Irvine Burns Club in 2019.
R Clement Wilson, entrepreneur and philanthropist, sought to improve the lives of his employees and of the local community and the environment of the Irvine area. The Barcapel Foundation continues his work.
He served as President of Irvine Burns Club in 1971. His inspiring Immortal Memory is printed below. See also the 'Films of Scotland' film of excerpts from the 1971 Dinner.
The young Robert Clement Wilson, from an Ayrshire farming family, grew up with a deep concern both for the environment and for community affairs. Like his hero, Andrew Carnegie, he believed that business success brought social responsibilities and that some of its benefits should be passed on to society at large.
An ancestor, James Wilson, rearing pigs and producing ham in the early 1800s, had introduced the Ayrshire Cure. In 1849, Clement’s grandfather Robert established the first bacon factory in Scotland at Dunlop, as Robert Wilson & Sons (1849) Ltd. When he retired, his son Robert, Clement’s father, took full control, and they moved to larger premises at Barrhead in 1912. By the time a young Clement appeared on the factory floor, in 1922, it was producing hams, lards and sausages as well as cured bacon.
Clement Wilson sensed that what people threw away as waste could be a commercial opportunity and in 1928, aged 25, visited Chicago to see the meat by-product industry at first hand. In 1929, he bought a former clog factory in Belfast, where he landscaped the grounds into gardens for employees to enjoy in their breaks, creating the first 'factory garden' in Northern Ireland. The factory closed during World War II, the council bought the land for a public park in the 1970s, and Clement Wilson Park was officially opened in 1975. Other factories were soon needed and at its height the Wilson Group employed over 2,000 people in Ireland, while the Barrhead factory continued to be a leader in bacon and ham production.
In Belfast he saw the potential for producing pet foods as a by-product and registered ‘Kennomeat’ in 1932, though it took another twenty years for canned pet food to catch on. When it did, Kennomeat and Kattomeat were launched, more factory space was needed, the Barrhead factory was converted to their production, and Clement Wilson, having returned to Ayrshire after the death of his father, sought, in 1953, a site for a new factory. He stipulated not only industrial requirements, but a location with history and tradition, so selected the Eglinton Castle grounds and stable block as a site for the factory and Skelmorlie Castle as the family home and headquarters of the Wilson group.
The Eglinton Factory and Gardens were officially opened by the Earl of Eglinton in 1958. The gardens served both as a pleasant environment for his employees and as an open space for the public, and the factory, by the early ‘80s, employed about 400 people, enjoying a turnover of over £16m. Clement Wilson is said to have spent more time in the gardens than in his office. The factory closed in 1997.
Selling the Renfrewshire factory to Spillers in 1964, Clement Wilson, a ‘man of vision' (John Strawhorn, 'The History of Irvine'), established the Clement Wilson Foundation, enabling the proceeds of his industry to improve the local environment. Soon after the designation of the New Town, he personally financed a survey of over 100 local clubs and organisations. He joined the Rotary Club of Irvine, enabling him to promote several projects dear to his heart. In 1973, he created a Federation of Arts linking local arts organisations. He died in 1975.
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The picture shows Eglinton Castle and the Tournament Bridge in 1876. The castle is since demolished.
The country park, gifted to the local authority by the Wilson family in 1978, is a major recreational and cultural resource in North Ayrshire. A visitor going to the Tournament Café may chance on an art exhibition in the Rackets Hall, a group of children investigating the making of homes for insects, intrepid modern explorers on the trail of geocaches, or simply those enjoying a walk, whether for their own exercise or that of their dogs.
This might not have happened but for the foresight and imagination of Clement Wilson. From the beginnings of his use of the grounds for his factory, he believed that his workers needed an environment which would inspire them, and that the surrounding community deserved a commitment from the businessmen who prospered in the area.
For a full, and fascinating, account of all things relating to Eglinton Park, see the Wikipedia article on Eglinton Country Park.
The successor to the Clement Wilson Foundation, the Barcapel Foundation, continues to sponsor projects in Irvine and elsewhere, supporting projects for health, for heritage, and for youth. In 2009, the Foundation made a substantial contribution to the creation of the Burns National Heritage Park at Alloway.
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Clement Wilson purchased this fine Belgian statue of Burns, on finding it in the salesroom of Deuchars of Perth. For many years, it stood in the centre of an elliptical ring of yew trees – the yews formed a dark back-cloth, with, in spring, an inner ellipse of colour from the azaleas and rhododendrons, until being stolen and found unceremoniously dumped in the River Garnock. Later, it was moved to the Eglinton Country Park Visitor Centre, and is now curated at 'Wellwood'.
Cast in normal artistic bronze in the early part of the 19th century, markings indicate that it was produced in a Belgian factory, but, unfortunately, it bears no artist’s name.
Belgian and French factories of that period would stove-enamel bronze castings in this way. Unfortunately, at a fairly early date in the statue’s life, the enamel was partially and inexpertly removed and several successive layers of paint and varnish were applied.
Mr Lindsay Aitkenhead, a Glasgow sculptor and teacher, restored the statue, requiring the use of various acids and wire brushes and, finally, the total immersion of the 2’ 6” statue in an acid bath. It is now in its original state.
(The Burns Chronicle, 1968, p.54)
Glasgow Vennel, where Robert Burns came as a young farmer eager to learn the trade of flax dressing, was by the 1970s derelict, mostly unoccupied, and facing almost certain demolition. The Heckling Shed, also known as the Heckling Shop or House, where Burns had worked in 1781, until the New Year’s Eve fire burned it down, was at the rear of no. 10. These photos show it before restoration and as it is today, and, below, the 1980s planning model.
Irvine Development Corporation’s Chief Architect Ian Downs persuaded the authorities that restoration of this historic street was feasible. In July 1980 the Corporation initiated discussions with Cunninghame District Council with a view to setting up a joint project for restoration of the Vennel. Other bodies such as Irvine Burns Club, the Scottish Tourist Board, the National Trust for Scotland and the Clement Wilson Foundation also declared their interest. This led to a Steering Committee, chaired by Lord Ross of Marnock, a noted Burnsian. Restoration work began in 1981.
Early success prompted further phases. The third phase, funded jointly by the Scottish Tourist Board and the Clement Wilson Foundation, included restoration of the Heckling Shed and no. 10, with its unique curved frontage. A fourth phase renovated the flat where Burns had resided.
The Vennel gained a Europa Nostra Award for conservation in 1984 – a street of history bringing pleasure and pride to the modern town.
In June 2019, James Wilson graciously accepted the post of Honorary President - the first in the Club's long history. Here, in the Clement Wilson Room, he is congratulated by President Archie Chalmers. Read about his business career below.
The Wilson family have long supported the Club in celebrating the importance of Irvine in the rise of Robert Burns as a poet of world-wide renown.
James W Wilson, OBE, 1933-2022, President, Irvine Burns Club, 1981, Honorary Member, 2008, Honorary President, 2019
In the late 1950s, James Wilson, Clement’s son, made a highly significant contribution not only to the family business of Robert Wilson & Sons but also to marketing as a recognised business tool. It is no exaggeration to suggest that his visionary work in advertising Kennomeat, a pet food for dogs, changed the image and impact of British advertising.
On his return from the Harvard Business School, and by then living in London, James Wilson became a pioneer of effective television advertising when, involved in the pet food side of the family food business, he persuaded the Board of Robert Wilson & Sons Ltd. to invest a relatively small sum in promoting Kennomeat in a series of high profile television commercials featuring the voice of Peter Sellers.
Coupled with an entertaining storyline involving Albert and Sidney, two dogs whose role in life was man management, i.e. they had to select suitable male owners who could be trained to bring home Kennomeat, Wilson’s adverts from 1960 simply revolutionised television advertising in the UK. As a direct result of its television campaign, Robert Wilson & Sons Ltd. captured 18% of the UK pet food market within two years, selling 3 million cans of Kennomeat weekly and making a massive dent in the market shares of both Petfoods Ltd and Spillers Ltd., the industry’s giants.
James Wilson’s entrepreneurial vision and leadership within in the pet food industry were so successful that by June 1964, Spillers Ltd had taken over both Kennomeat and Kattomeat for the astonishing figure of £7,309,425 - the 2019 equivalent value would be an incredible £103,563,286!
It is as a direct result of that business development within Robert Wilson & Sons that the original Clement Wilson Foundation was made possible. Through it, and its successors, Wilforge and now Barcapel Foundation, many local and national organisations have received generous support over the years. Irvine Burns Club is only one of many bodies with reason to be grateful to the Wilson family.
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The Immortal Memory delivered by Clement Wilson in 1971 at the 145th Annual Dinner of Irvine Burns Club
As an Ayrshire man, and particularly as President of the Burns Club of Irvine, it is, for me, a privilege, a responsibility, but particularly, a great honour to propose this Toast to “The Immortal Memory” of Ayrshire's, and Scotland's poetic genius, Robert Burns. I do so, fully conscious of the fact, that almost certainly the majority of us here were well grounded in the philosophy of Burns by parents and others in our early youth, were inspired by his songs and his poems whilst still in our teens, and have been enlightened, encouraged and, I have no doubt, ennobled, when in later years, and with more mature judgment, we have turned to Burns in times of difficulty and even in times of despair.
The genius of Burns - his songs, his poems, his philosophy, his charm, his influence on men, and especially on the women he knew, his qualities and his failings have all been the subject of innumerable toasts proposed by previous Presidents of this Club, and only last year most of us listened to our immediate Past President, Alex MacMillan's most scholarly and comprehensive analysis of the character of Burns and his genius as revealed in poetry, songs and letters.
To such a well-informed company of Burns admirers, I should like tonight to depart somewhat from the usual form of toasts to his Immortal Memory, by endeavouring to take some of what I think, (most of us here believe,) were Burns’ passionately held beliefs and code of human values and sentiments, and relate them to some of the social, political and economic problems with which we today, (some 175 years after his death,) find ourselves confronted.
Who would deny that there is an urgent need today, in national and international spheres, for the exercise of these qualities of sympathy for the oppressed, indignation against tyranny, and the blessings of peace and brotherhood which Burns advocated with his incomparable eloquence?
True, much of the dire poverty, squalor, and disease, which was common in the time of Burns, has been reduced, if not eliminated, by enlightened public opinion, social legislation and medical research.
But while we have solved some social problems, in so doing we have, (at the same time,) created a whole set of new ones, some of which may be even more difficult to solve.
While he did not identify himself much with politics, still we must believe that the Burns who wrote to an Earl of Eglinton in these terms: “THERE IS SCARCELY ANYTHING TO WHICH I AM SO FEELINGLY ALIVE AS THE HONOUR AND WELFARE OF MY COUNTRY.” would find much to dismay and disappoint him if he were alive in this country today.
While he would be amazed and no doubt impressed, (as we all are,) by the tremendous scientific and industrial developments that have taken place in the last 175 years, he still would find that "man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn".
In a book entitled "THE SOCIAL PROBLEMS OF AN INDUSTRIAL CIVILISATION", the author, a distinguished economist and sociologist [Elton Mayo, 1949], has much to say, about the price we are paying in social unhappiness for all the scientific and technical development, characteristic of our modern times. The book points out that had we, over the previous fifty years, been as successful in acquiring social skill as we had been in developing scientific and industrial techniques and skills then there would not have been two World Wars. The author goes on to emphasise that unless we can quickly acquire social skill, which he defines as "OUR ABILITY TO SECURE CO-OPERATION BETWEEN PEOPLE", then, he says, the unrestricted development of science and technology in an atomic age will undoubtedly lead to a third war, which may well destroy all civilisation.
Does this fact not suggest that the very existence of society may well depend upon our ability, quickly, to achieve that human charity and understanding that Burns so eloquently advocated all his life? Is there not today as real a sense of urgency, if not desperation in our voice, as there has ever been, as we quote the well known lines:
"Then let us pray that come it may
(as come it will for a' that)
that sense and worth o'er a' the earth
shall bear the gree an' a' that,
it's comin yet for a' that,
that man to man the world o'er
shall brithers be for a' that."
But, it is not just in the realm of national and international strife alone that "MAN'S INHUMANITY TO MAN" is revealed.
In certain aspects of industry today there are factors which increase social insecurity and, therefore, human unhappiness.
In our efforts to increase production, reduce costs, and simplify management, much of the industrial production in this, and other, countries is located in huge factories and production units where it is nearly impossible to modify conditions to suit the infinite variables in human nature, and provide real job satisfaction.
What would Burns, that eloquent champion of freedom and craft skills, have to say of a generation that has become enslaved in large scale productive and administrative machinery of its own creation?
There is abundant evidence of unrest and frustration throughout the advanced countries of the world and I believe the citizens of every country, (both young and old alike,) are, consciously or unconsciously, in rebellion today against the ever-increasing complications and frustrations of living in this scientific and sophisticated age.
Humanity is not yet sufficiently matured - spiritually, morally, or politically - to control and properly direct the forces of science and technology which we have generated.
Science has left humanity floundering behind it.
Human nature is the same now, basically, as it was when Burns identified and emphasised both its strengths and its weaknesses. That is why what he wrote then is still appropriate today; why it still inspires us; still points the way for us in 1971.
Robert Burns was an individualist and a rebel - not a political rebel but certainly a rebel against church doctrine and cant in any form. He laughed at superstition and hypocrisy.
Today our marvels of science and technology, the scale and organisation of our industrial complexes, tend to destroy individuality. Some may say our young folk today show a little too much individuality. But I am thinking more of independence of mind than of dress. Our communications have improved technically. Television may make life better for the old, the lame and the lonely but it does endanger family life and, as someone said recently, “makes politics inescapable”. It also tends to condition minds, to accelerate our decline towards mindlessness. We are being forced into a grey uniformity. Not to conform, seems to too many of us to be dangerous. It may endanger our security, ruin our chances of success - even worse, our STATUS. And this tendency to mindless uniformity is made worse by the shelter and protection of our comfortable and convenient economic and social environment.
This is bad for our nation. Perhaps we need a Burns alive today to shake us loose from the stranglehold of mass opinion - or at least, to remind us of the value of individuality; to expose the insidious forces which threaten our individual minds and spirits.
If fear, frustration and neurosis, together with a deterioration in moral values and family relationships, is the price this generation must pay for questionable material advantages (and these still continue to elude the great mass of human society) then the sooner mankind controls its technical development, and directs it towards, the right ends, the better and safer it will be for all of us. I can almost hear a 1971 Burns saying that - but he would say it so that it would be unforgettable.
Robert Burns died in Dumfries in 1796 and from about that time, the British people (whose example was quickly followed by other races) have struggled and schemed to acquire wealth, material comfort, speed of travel and communication, and all the other sophistications of modern society.
Much that had been laboriously built up was destroyed in this country by two wars. A terrible price was paid in human misery and loss of real culture, to secure and retain material possessions and our way of life in the vain hope that these, in themselves, would secure for us and ours, harmony and happiness.
Are we now, at long last, just beginning to realise the truth in what Burns wrote in his Epistle to Davie?
“It’s no in letters or in rank
It's no in wealth like Lon’on bank,
To purchase peace and rest,
It's no in makin' muckle, mair,
It's no in books, it's no in lear,
To mak' us truly blest.
If happiness has not her seat
And centre in the breast
We may be wise or rich or great
But never can be blest.
Nae treasures nor pleasures
Can mak' us happy lang
The heart aye's the part aye
That maks us richt or wrang."
And it was also Burns who said:
"O, Frugality, thou mother of ten thousand blessings."
Yes, we can well imagine that if Burns were to awake from a Rip Van Winkle sleep lasting 175 years, and today come back among his countrymen, he would find much to commend but probably more to condemn. He would find less poverty in material things, but he would find appalling poverty in spiritual values, human understanding and real Statesmanship.
Knowing him as we do, we would expect him to approve of much of the social legislation unknown in his day. We can be certain that the greatly improved and free educational facilities would have a special appeal to one who was to a great extent self-taught and who had very limited resources on which to draw for his education in comparison with what is available to the youth of today. Would he, (I wonder,) have produced much better results?
Would he, (I wonder), be much impressed by some of the products of our expensive and elaborate educational system? Would he find more people, because they were better equipped, more willing to apply their skill and knowledge towards the solution of their own and humanity's problems?
I think he would be disconcerted and appalled to discover the number of people, (both young and old,) who, having enjoyed the advantages social legislation has brought, still grudgingly give, or, worse still, withhold completely the co-operation and understanding this country has the right to expect from its citizens in our recurring periods of grave economic crisis.
What would Burns have to say about these sophisticated and often cynical young things in all classes, whose attitude and philosophy is revealed in that all too common phrase: "I JUST COULDN'T CARE LESS"? Or some of the older ones who, having been reared to respect the fundamental truths of honesty, industry and brotherhood proclaimed by Burns, have replaced these with attitudes and actions reflected in the comment: "I'M ALL RIGHT,
JACK". What would Burns think of, and say to, the all too large number of, presumably educated, people in Great Britain who imagine that today one merely legislates for prosperity - there is no longer a need to earn it ?
And what we men must realise is that what our country needs today, more than ever it did, is not just more man-hours in industry but more manhood in our attitude to our own, and our nation's problems.
With a new spirit in the home, and a new attitude towards work, we would not have to go hat in hand to other countries for concessions, and certainly not for charity.
"Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united,
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted."
Before it is too late, and while we have yet time, let us hope that Britain will marshall those spiritual forces and social skills which, in the past, were the envy of the world, and I feel may yet prevent us from degrading our heritage and destroying our liberty by accepting charity or economic concessions from others.
However, while there is much in our life and attitudes today which causes dismay, and encourages criticism, let us not under-estimate the fundamental soundness of the British character.
Burns knew very well what it was to be despondent, but he never remained despondent for very long. He believed that:
"Though losses and crosses be lessons right severe,
There's wit there, ye'll get there,
Ye'll find nae other where."
What would the man, who exalted the home and motherhood, and who too often, and to his dismay, saw a Goddess in every woman, think of some women in this country today who unblushingly decry the role for which nature created them?
If the emancipation of womanhood is going to mean the deterioration of manly qualities in the men of this country, and an increasing number of undisciplined children, then women must, and should, (in their own interests,) recognise anew the sanctity and importance which Burns always attributed to sound home life as the basis of any sound Society.
It would be wrong, and grossly unfair to the British people, to close this review of some of our problems on a note of despair.
All but a small minority of our young people are still sound at heart. The great mass of British workmen and their wives are basically as sound as they were in the days of Burns. Let us make due allowance for the frustrations which must be felt by a people who may have been promised too much by political propaganda - propaganda which failed to take into consideration our weaknesses as human beings, weaknesses unchanged from those which Burns recognised and wrote about in his poems and songs.
But every crisis in the end (especially, it seems, in this country) unites the people and produces a higher level of statesmanship . Let hope and pray that, soon, we shall become a united and proud nation again. And that with more sense and unity among our people, and sound statesmanship in every realm of life – political, social, economic and industrial - this old country of ours, with its fine traditions of liberty, honest workmanship and spiritual faith, could yet again show the world and all mankind a saner, safer and more satisfying way of life.
In social and economic matters we can never put back the hands of the clock! No people or country can arrest the evolutionary advance of civilisation, which has been going on steadily since the beginning of time, and which has progressively increased in momentum during this century.
We are, today, living in times very different from the times of Burns, and we must recognise that “new times demand new methods and new men”. And that while science may add to the conveniences and comforts of living; while new social legislation may improve the lot of "THE COMMON MAN"; while new economic and political theories, (when put into practice,) may ensure the more equitable distribution of wealth; real happiness and all those other spiritual and social satisfactions which alone make life worth living will only be enjoyed when more people practise what Burns preached.
Only when the principles of liberty, justice, human brotherhood, and human understanding, so consistently advocated by Bums in his songs, poems and letters, and exemplified by him all through his life, are better understood, more universally adopted, and conscientiously applied in our industrial, social, national and international relationships, will we ever be able to enjoy the security, success and happiness for which the whole human race will ever continue to strive.
Much must be expected from those who, (like ourselves,) believe in the fundamental truths, and respect the human sentiments so eloquently and fearlessly proclaimed by Burns, and we can honour him best by making a real effort to practise what Burns preached, in our social and business relationships.
Let this then be our solemn resolve as I now ask this Company to be upstanding and drink a Toast to "HIS IMMORTAL MEMORY".
the top table at the 1971 Annual Celebration of Irvine Burns Club, with President R Clement Wilson in the Chair
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