Through an exhibition, research and presentation at the Dick Institute the role of Shoe Making in Kilmarnock was explored
The closure of the Saxone factory in the 1980s make the end of Kilmarnock’s long history with shoemaking and leather work extends back to the 1700s, with Saxone’s own history beginning in the Early 1800s. As well as being a well known UK high street brand, throughout its history Saxone also made extraordinary high fashion shoes for foreign markets.
As part of the research for the Shanks’ Pony sculpture we invited anyone with an interest, experience or expertise in the Ayrshire shoe industry to join an informal presentation and discussion about shoemaking. We’re still keen for anyone who worked in the shoe industry and anyone who had, or still owns Saxone shoes to make contact through this site (use the comment section below or on any of the pages). We’re also interested to hear from anyone who has a special interest in shoes, or perhaps just a pair of shoes that are special to you or which took you on an important journey – whether thats up the north face of the Eiger, or just up the aisle.
Included in the exhibition were the Dandy Horse made with Killie Can Cycle, horse collages made using shoes and shoe paraphernalia, early adverts for Saxone Shoes and a display of the Museum’s own collection of Saxone footwear.
A recurring subject in the early Saxone adverts was the shoe’s water-tightness which links to another pieces of Kilmarnock’s history – prior to the invention of vulcanised rubbers, leather soled shoes were cold and damp and leaky. The Dick Institute was built with funding from the Dick Brothers who amongst other things, were responsible for the development and marketing of Gutta Percha – a natural rubber when when they ‘vulcanised’ it formed a tough and resilient material which they marketed as a waterproof alternative to leather for soles for shoes.
In gathering material for the exhibition it became apparent that a great many pairs of Kilmarnock-made Saxone shoes are still being used, worn and traded, despite the factory having closed in the 1980s. This is a testament both to the quality and high design values of the shoes.
Typical amongst the shoes still being bought and sold are high-fashion, rarely worn special occasion shoes for women and tough, well worn and much repaired Brogues for men. Saxone made many variants of the Brogue in their ‘Clansman’ range, with a different design for each Scottish clan.
The phrase ‘Shanks Pony’ – or Shanks Mare, or Shanks Nag or Shanks Galloway etc, spread around the world quite rapidly after first being coined in Scotland. It has been commonly used in the US and Australia since the 1800s.
Strictly speaking its “shanks’ pony” meaning “legs’ horse” as in using your legs as a horse. But at times it has also been capitalised and punctuated differently – “Shank’s pony” or the pony belonging to Mr Shank.
For a time “Shank’s pony” was used in relation to the Lawmowers made by Shanks and Co (later Armitage Shanks). They made mowers that were drawn by horses but the operator had to walk behind the mower. The term seemed to evolve to describe for mowers you had to walk behind and push rather than ride on.
Part of the development of the sculpture is determining a character for the pony. Where ‘Shanks’ pony’ is used in speech it ofter used as a means of transport you’ve settled for rather than preferred “I missed the last bus so I had to take Shanks’ pony”.
In designing the sculpture I’ll be considering the character and stature of a horse thats humble, reliable, ever-ready and utilitarian in contrast to the more heroic depictions of horses normally seen in sculpture.
So part of the research for the project is wondering who Mr Shank is, and why we can borrow his pony, and who his horse is – does it even have a name?
The first of our workshops looking into the ideas behind the Shanks Pony sculpture was held at Killie Can Cycle.
There are many verbal metaphors that reference horses in describing travel by foot -‘on the hoof’, ‘trot off to’ etc. The purpose of the workshop was to look at visual metaphors
We started an investigation into the metaphorical ‘Shanks Pony’ by building another metaphorical horse – the Dandy Horse, or Velocipede, the forerunner to the bicycle. ‘Shank’s Pony’ was cited in an early, withering critique of a demonstration of the velocipede was made in The Dubuque Daily Herald in May 1869:
“A public exhibition of the velocipede was given on the streets last evening by Mr. Clark, who managed the vehicle with considerable skill… They are a toy, and will never come into general use in competition with Shank’s mare.”
Taking an unusual old bike from Killie Can Cycle’s stock as a starting point we made a working model of a dandy horse referencing some of the equestrian influences in the original designs – often decorated as horses the original dandy-horses were hindered by taking their engineering cues from carriage design. The front wheel would be articulated as if it would be dragged from in front like a cart pulled by a horse, rather than steered from behind like a contemporary bicycle. With back-to-front steering geometry and handlebars that acted like reins velocipedes were clumsy and chaotic to ride. Never the less the horse symbolism associated with the velocipede persisted into the development of the bicycle with early bikes such as that built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan featuring carved wooden figureheads of horses.
As well as devising a working replica dandy horse we explored how readily visual metaphors between walking and horses could be created. A portrait of a horse was made using a boot to create the horses head, different styles of segs to detail eyes, nostrils and teeth and shoe trees as ears. This horse portrait became the figurehead for our velocipede.