Glenbuck may have produced a single outstanding quoits champion, but there is surely no other community in Great Britain that can rival Glenbuck for its production of football players. The village had its own football pitch, where first Glenbuck Athletic and later the Glenbuck Cherrypickers played. But no less than 50 men from the village went on to become professional players in the Scottish or English football leagues. Of those 50 seven became full Scottish international players.
Two players, Alex Brown and Alex Tait, gained English Cup Winners medals with Tottenham Hotspur. They were allowed to take the cup back to Glenbuck, said to be the first occasion when the English FA Cup went out of England, the second occasion being when the cup was won by Cardiff City in 1927.
In the Shankly family all five sons became professional footballers, and two of them, Robert and Willy (pronounce it “Wully”), played for Scotland. Willy, later more generally known as Bill, subsequently enjoyed a highly celebrated career as club manager of Liverpool FC. He died in 1981, but people still visit Glenbuck to see the place where he was born and brought up.
The first chapter of Bill Shankly’s autobiography gives a vivid picture of life in Glenbuck during the decade or so after World War I. A couple of pages report the misdemeanours Bill engaged in as a boy. With his friends he would steal potatoes, turnips, and cabbages from local farms. The village policeman “had an awful job”, and as much of the pilfering was done as night was falling it would be difficult for the farmers to see or identify them. Tasty items were taken from the wagon of the baker from Strathaven, while a fruiterer from Clydeside found a huge bunch of bananas missing, a bunch that required four or five boys to carry it away and took a few weeks to consume. They would help themselves to coal at the pitheads.
Not surprisingly Willy Shankly also found himself in trouble at school. The headmaster, Mr Rodger, was a tall man with a particularly menacing way of saying “Woe betide you”. Punishment delivered by Mr Rodger entailed being lashed six times on your hands, but this would be doubled if Mr Rodger detected any hint of sarcasm in your voice. On one occasion Mr Rodger had to be called in when Willy climbed a ladder to advance the classroom clock by half an hour. For punishment he was made to remain at the top of the ladder for another hour, an experience that hurt him more than a dozen lashes.
On the whole schooling at Glenbuck must have been an unrewarding experience both for staff and for pupils. There were frequent absences, especially during bad weather or periods of poverty. In the early years of the school, opened in March 1876, parents sometimes kept their children away from school as they could not afford the text book. During the miners’ strike of 1921 pupils were recorded as absent for such reasons as “no boots” or “no clothes”.
Academic achievements were low to modest. Very few children went on to secondary education in Muirkirk. If nothing else, though, pupils would have left Glenbuck School with several of the more popular poems of Robert Burns permanently imprinted on their memory.
In common with most of the boys Bill Shankly left school at 14 and started work at one of the mines. At first he worked at the pit head, emptying the coal from trucks as they came to the surface, and separating coal from stone as it moved along a conveyor belt. After six months he was sent underground, where he was immediately impressed by the bright lighting. At that time, 1927, electricity was being generated at the mines, but was not supplied to the houses in the village. Another observation was that neither the rats nor the men appeared to be particularly fearful of each other; rats would sometimes sit on the men’s laps and take food from them. Shankly also refers to the use of ponies, the poor ventilation in some parts of the mine, the use of explosives, arrangements for taking a meal break, and the dirt.
After two years the pits were starting to wind down, and Bill Shankly was made redundant. He remained out of work for a few months, but was then signed up by Carlisle United.