Kenny Phillips: The Beginnings


Kenny Phillips is a well kent face in Scottish athletics – nowadays he is mainly seen with camera in hand taking his excellent photographs at athletics meetings all across the country in all weathers in every season of the year.   The photographs are posted in picasa web and he encourages clubs and individuals to download them first of all for the individuals concerned and also for club purposes.   The motivational power of  photographs for athletes is considerable.   There is however much more to Kenny than that.

Kenny started out 70 years ago as a club runner for his local club, Beith Harriers and ran in no fewer than 50 consecutive national cross country  championships – a quite remarkable record.   He also ran in the prestigious Edinburgh to Glasgow relay race with the first run in 1954 when he turned out on the first stage.   The ‘News of the World’ as it was often called because of the sponsorship was a hard race to run.   The top 20 teams in the country, entry by invitation only and supported by eight buses, one for each stage, and a fleet of Rolls Royces for the officials and a slap-up meal in the Ca d’Oro in Glasgow for the prize giving.   Kenny’s best run in the race was probably in 1958 when he ran the third leg: Ian Harris (an SAAA marathon champion), despite an accident on his new motor scooter just before the race, had run in to ninth, place on the first stage, Tommy Cochrane (another cross-country international runner) moved Beith Harriers up to seventh and then Kenny, with fifth fastest time of the day, took them up to sixth.   Unfortunately the team could not maintain this high position but Kenny had had a terrific run. 

The question asked of every runner is about how they got involved in the sport in the first place and the response is usually has usually to do with friends or family taking them along.    Ian McCafferty was taken along by Alex Brown to make up a team, another went because the club had a shower and the family home didn’t.   Kenny’s story is a bit more complicated than that and is well worth reading as part of Kenny’s story and also for a view of society and the sport that most in the 21st century have little or no knowledge of.   Kenny writes:

“When I was in the primary school, I used to get into fights nearly every day, especially when the Den School closed and their pupils were transferred to Dalry and after the Clydebank blitz when the Glasgow evacuees arrived. I was often sent up to the Headmaster at the secondary school to get 3 of the belt.   My father was usually unemployed for the first 10 years of my life during the Depression and the headmaster used to supply me at the beginning of each winter with a pair of tacketty boots – so he knew me well. There were 50 pupils in my class when we started school and the class was split into two at the beginning of each year and moved to higher classes.   The result was that some of the slower pupils reached the end of the primary school and left school at the age of 14 without ever getting to the secondary school.   I arrived in the third top class at the age of 10 and, when we got an Intelligence Test and adjusted it for my age, I got an IQ of 129. I never got into the Preparatory Class as the headmaster sent me straight up to the secondary school at the age of 11 along with one other boy from the Den. I am not sure whether it was because of my fighting and he wanted to keep an eye on me or whether it was an educational experiment or whether he was far sighted and wanted to advance my opportunity to sit the Highers at the age of 15. In any case, I soon learned to stop fighting the bigger boys and the Headmaster insisted on me taking Latin instead of Woodwork.

I lived in a tenement in Smith Street and a neighbour, James Walker, about 5 years older, used to take me on long walks up the glens in Dalry. We had a gang in Smith Street and all the boys in the summer used to hike 7 miles over the Fairlie Moor to Portencross to spend the day at the seaside, playing among the rocks and gathering “wulks”. I joined them at the age of 5.

One day at the age of 10, some of us went for an adventure up the Hindog Glen and arrived at the Gowanlea Farm, where the farmer’s daughter, Jenny Longwill, allowed us to stroke and sit on the two ponies.   Two of us often returned and soon Jenny had us feeding the hens and calves and doing odd jobs. We returned every weekend, in the summer making hay and in winter exercising the ponies and Clydesdale horses.   During the War with the shortage of petrol, I harnessed the pony and trap on Saturday mornings and accompanied Jenny to her shopping in town.   We became very fit, expert cow milkers and bareback horse riders, tanned almost black working in the fields and familiar with the surrounding hills. I continued to work at other farms until I left school and would consume up to 16 pints of milk a day, becoming very strong.

Back at school, I was the smallest in the class and was outclassed in the sprints, high jump, long jump and shot putt.   In the 2nd year, everyone was unsure about completing the mile and hung back in a bunch allowing me to open up a large gap which they never closed.   I started training for the mile at dinner time along with a small boy, Andrew Sampson from Longbar in the 1st year, and, using the same tactics, won the mile every year afterwards.

At the end of World War 2 in 1945, , the Co-operative Youth Club was formed and the returning troops started to teach us.  Sanny Tait became the trainer of the Dalry Thistle Football Club and taught us the football rules, Dougie Kell got us interested in Music, Dr Watt gave medical advice and Jimmy Scott taught us Gaelic.  

A Sports Meeting was held at Merksworth Park and I saw a competitor limbering up, whom I thought had a good athletic build.   I was right as it turned out to be Frank Sinclair of Greenock who won the 1 mile race.   One of my neighbours, “Panny” Goldie played at left back for the Thistle football team and he asked me to join his team for the relay race.   I ran the first lap and came in last.   I was dejected and disappeared into the crowd not waiting to see the finish. “Panny” eventually found me and told me that his team had won and he presented me with my first athletics prize – a plastic cheese dish.

At the Co-operative Youth Club I was in the football team at outside left position and purchased a new pair of football boots with hard toe caps and took great care to dubbin and polish them up.   I was disillusioned however at the next match when one of the captain’s pals was picked to play in my position and who then asked to borrow my new boots.   I had started to work in Beith by that time and decided to join Beith Harriers. The football boots came in handy when running over ploughed fields.”

Kenny’s story took place at about the same time as Emmet Farrell’s as described in ‘The Universe Is Mine’ (elsewhere on this site) and between them they tell an interesting tale: sport from a historical perspective.   Emmet’s early days in the sport were based on Maryhill Baths in the middle of industrial Glasgow.   Kenny’s was in rural Ayrshire where the trails are renowned for their ‘traditional’ nature and where the phrase about ‘long Scots miles’ originated.       He now turns to his early days at Beith Harriers.

Kenny four

Beith Harriers Clubhouse had been requisitioned during World War 2 and in 1946, when Kenny first visited it, it had just been handed back to Beith Harriers.  It was surprisingly roomy and equipped with the main hall containing a mat, horse, parallel bars, rope rings, weight lifting equipment,  boxing gloves, batons and massage benches.   One end was divided off with concrete floor, shower and two large baths with hot and cold water.   A further small extension contained the coal-fired boiler for the hot water.  It was one of the few harrier clubs with such facilities and was often selected for inter-club, Ayrshire and South West cross country events.

The club trainer was John Gibson who had retained that position since the 1920s. The President , AF (Sanny) Neilson, was a founder member of  both Beith Harriers and the Ayrshire Harrier Clubs’ Association and a future President of the Scottish Cross Country Union, Tom McAllister, a former Empire Games 400 yards athlete, attended with Mattha Barr, a pre-war cross country runner, to give the runners a rub-down with talcum powder or olive oil after the road run.  Secretary, Mattha, during the rub-down, used to regale the runners with his tall tales about former races.  In arguments with his former colleagues, George Murdoch, Jock Calder, Bob Burniston and George Morrison, who visited often, he used to produce his “Bible” containing cuttings, photos and results to prove who was right.   Jack Millar, the 1929 National Novice Cross Country Champion, took the track and field training in the summer.   John McRobbie led a group of weight lifters, organised the annual Christmas Draw and became the British Weight Lifting All-Round Champion for two years in succession. One of the weight lifters (Morrison) competed with distinction at the Empire Games in New Zealand and was awarded a plaque by the British Weight Lifting Association.   Albert Barrett continued to run on the road on his own but conscientiously lighted and stoked the boiler for the hot water. Leslie Martin was Treasurer with a bank balance of £10-16/9d.   George Lightbody was Club Captain and went round chapping doors to get more members.  George Lightbody, Jimmy Davidson and Frankie Thomson were the only members who did cross country running and when Kenny joined he was automatically selected for the relay teams.

Winter training on Tuesday and Thursdays nights consisted  of 21/2 miles on the road and on Saturday afternoons up to 5 miles cross country. The road run took only 15-20 minutes and the remainder of the evening was filled with gymnastics, weight lifting , boxing etc. Sunday training was frowned on in those days, no girls were allowed and boys had to be at least 17 years of age.

 When Walter Howie, Ayr County Council Youth Organiser, formed the 10 Ayrshire Youth Panels, including athletics, he appointed Jack Millar as Athletics Coach in the 3 towns of Beith, Dalry and Kilbirnie.   This introduced a large number of both Boys and Girls to athletics and there was a demand to start a Ladies Section in Beith Harriers.   Despite some opposition, a Ladies Section was formed under the control of Jack’s wife, Margaret, meeting in the Backburn School, Beith, on Saturday afternoons.   When the boys were running cross country from the Harriers Clubhouse, the girls played badminton in the School.   The boys then joined the girls at badminton in the early evening and then sometimes on to the Cinema in Beith.  There was a good social atmosphere which attracted many others from outside athletics and led to several marriages.

In the summer months, Jack Millar introduced some new methods of training for the track and field.   First of all he had to mark off a 220 yard track on the grass field, which he quickly did with pegs and a 22 yard length of string.  After exercises and a warm up, we all did starts and then fast and slow laps with Jack timing us with a whistle at each half lap to aim for exact pace judgement for the different race distances.  We always finished with a warm down which did away with the need for a massage.

In 1948 George Lightbody managed to procure 3 pairs of spiked shoes suitable for the track runners and suggested that the club should pay for them now while the members paid back at, say, 2/6d per week; also that an application should be made to the Education Authority for coupons, as shoes and clothing were still rationed.

George worked in Glasgow on Saturday mornings and had to make some arrangements to compete in the Ayrshire Cross Country Championships at Benwhat, 3 miles above Dalmellington.   He packed his travelling bag with his strip, tracksuit and spikes and added his badminton racket to enable him to join the Ladies Section in the evening.   He took the train to Irvine where he had arranged to join the Irvine YMCA bus.   On entering the bus, big Tam McNeish asked him what it was sticking out of his bag.  George replied by asking Tam if he did not know that there was 6″ of snow at Benqhat and he was carrying his snowshoes.

After the race George had to avoid Tam and quickly join the Beith Harriers bus back to Beith for the badminton.

Kenny had never run 7 miles before and it turned out to be more like 10 miles on a steep hillside with constant jumps over rashes and ditches.   He arrived back last.

The race was won by the favourite, John Fisher of Ayr, and the winning team was the local Doon Harriers, most of whom had already worked an extra shift underground as miners digging coal to restore the economy.

Benwhat consisted of one row of miners houses and a school.   A collection was taken by the Ayrshire Harrier Clubs’ Association after the race and the can contained more than the total of all the other races in Ayrshire.   Such was the generosity of the miners and their families.

Work parties were continually being arranged to deal with the leaking sloping felt roof, installation of a new boiler and heating system, constructing a weight lifting platform to protect the wooden floor, painting and repair of doors and window, repairing drains, etc.

Beith Harriers made a substantial financial contribution to the formation of the Beith Orr Trust Field and Running Track and were then asked by the District Council to organise an Annual Gala Day and Sports Meeting in the summer of 1956.  At this time Kenny was appointed Secretary of the Club and had to arrange a work party, Presentation of Prizes and Presentation to AF Neilson in appreciation of his long service as President of the Club, two summer Bus Runs, summer activities in Beith and Kilbirnie and the Annual Beith New Year Cross Country Race .  The Ladies Section was organising a Beetle Drive in the Backburn School. The Sports Meeting was held on 23rd June, 1956, with fine weather in the afternoon, short thick grass in the field, a well rolled track and the loudspeaker helped the competitors and spectators to enjoy the varied programme which consisted of men’s, women’s and children’s races, high jump, weight lifting, BB gymnastics and five a side football.  The arrangement for Emil Zatopek to make a guest appearance fell through due to the political disturbances in Hungary.    Ice cream and lemonade were on sale in the field , entrance to the field was free but programmes were on sale at 1/- each and a collection was taken.   At the end of the day, a light tea for officials was served by the Ladies Section in the Town House.   The District Council had guaranteed the sum of £50 to run the sports meeting and agreed that the surplus of £26-14/8d should be put in the bank under the “Beith Orr Trust Park Sports Fund” to start off the next year’s sports.

Kenny moved to Sanquhar and James Walker was appointed Secretary in 1957.   Harry Maxwell obtained estimates of £15 for felt to be applied to the whole roof  by the members and a separate estimate of £54 from a contractor to cover the roof with concrete tiles.  The low price of £54 for the tiling was because the contractor had a stock of surplus tiles of different colours from several jobs and he was charging for the labour only.  The members agreed to accept his offer as it would save them much maintenance work in the future.

In 1958 it was noticed that the roof was sagging due to the weight of the tiles on the unusual timber roof structure and it was decided to remove the tiles and return to the felt covering.  Kenny managed to sell the tiles to Sanquhar Town Council for the original £54 price as spares for their different coloured tiled houses.

When in Sanquhar, Kenny met and trained at the Nithsdale Wanderers Football ground with a group of youths from Kirkconnell and Kelloholm under the leadership of Jock Hammond.  Margaret Smith, a girl aged 15, trained with the boys and was as good as them.   Kenny took her to the Cumnock Sports and, when Kenny told the Ardeer Ladies how good she was, they tried to ban her under the newly formed Women;s AAA’s rule that the women competitors had to be members of a club affiliated to the WAAA.   Kenny had to quickly get Margaret enrolled in Beith Harriers.

One of the boys from Kelloholm was Danny McFadzean who was just an average runner but also enrolled in Beith Harriers.   He joined the Navy and  during skiing training in Norway broke a leg.  Six weeks after breaking his leg he took part in the Beith Harriers annual 5 mile road handicap race.   With a good handicap position, he easily won the race.   Danny later became the Navy Marathon Champion.   Danny was in the same era as Ian Harris, Army Marathon Champion, and Tom Cochrane, International Cross Country runner but Beith Harriers never managed get them together in the same team.   Unknown to them, Danny running for the Royal Navy and Ian running for Walton competed in the 19th Chichester to Portsmouth 16 mile race when Ian was second and Danny was tenth.

Another boy training at Sanquhar was the Professional Handicaper’s son from Kirkconnell.  The boy was a good half miler but it was rumoured that the father instructed his son to compete only in 220 yard races and work up his handicap with the intention of making a betting fortune a few years later in the half mile.    It was disappointing for the boy and Kenny never heard later about any fortune being made but it confirmed Kenny’s resolution never to run as a professional.   He had already met Hugh McWhinnie when training at the Beith Clubhouse.  Hugh had been a good miler but had been persuaded to join Mitchell, the Bookie’s stable when his mother owed £10 for the rent.  Hugh became disillusioned when he got instructions not to win any races as the bookie needed to keep him as insurance against any large betting losses.   John Glen, brother-in-law of the Murdoch Brothers of Beith, also kept in touch with the Powderhall sprinters and used to tell of professional runners laughably speeding up a high knee action near the tape to allow others to pass.

The Beith Harriers clubhouse was the cause of many a discussion at committee meetings, and no doubt on training evenings as well but there were, as in all running sagas in clubs up and down the land, some humorous tales too.   One concerns the the nearby List D school.  It was clear that the club house was too small to accommodate all the runners involved in the successful and classic New Year’s Day races and the head at the Church of Scotland’s Geilsland School offered them the use of the large gymnasium and showers at the school.   In return the club offered to provide coaching in athletics for the pupils.   The offer was graciously turned down because, the headmaster said, they’d never be able to catch the absconders!