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Friday December 10 2021

Looking Back: Cala Sona

A 1967 feature on a community of East European refugees living in Wishaw, Lanarkshire; and the extraordinary woman who brought them to Scotland.

Rae Gourlay

IF YOU PASS the fish-and-chip shop at Netherton Cross near Wishaw any night, you’ll see a good number of the locals queuing up. Some have just come from the “dogs”; others have dropped in after a shift at the steel works. To Miss Muriel Gofton, the proprietress, it isn’t the money that matters most (although that is important). It’s the impact of the shop on the local community.

“You see,” she explained, “We regard it as a major breakthrough in our work.”

The “we” stands for Miss Gofton, an Englishwoman, and the 27 ex-refugees from Eastern Europe who form the unique Cala Sona community. (And in case you think that’s a foreign language, it’s Gaelic for “Happy Haven”). Cala Sona is now eight years old.

Muriel Gofton went to Germany with the Red Cross in 1945 and witnessed the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp a few days after its liberation. In the years that followed she was particularly concerned about the Displaced Persons – and particularly the so-called “hopeless cases” who suffered from T.B. or were otherwise unfit for work. Their families stood by them, refusing to be split up.

Her struggle with the Government to have some of these families admitted to Britain was finally won in 1958. The first family arrived in Scotland the following year.

The home Muriel Gofton found was a large white house overlooking the Clyde at Netherton. There was plenty of space within the grounds to build individual homes, as funds became available.

So they came to Cala Sona – families from Poland, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Russia, Hungary and Latvia; free in body, but after years of hopelessness and degradation, still heavily chained in mind and spirit. Muriel Gofton realised how very true this was.

The idea at Cala Sona is to help the families stand on their own feet. To this end a number of projects have been started in which even the old and disabled can lend a hand.

One man, for example, began a market garden in the grounds at Cala Sona and has earned a good reputation in the district for bedding plants and flowers.

Another, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, taught himself to paint when increasing disability forced him to give up shoe-repairing. Now he turns out attractive hand-painted cards and dinner mats.

The stamp-sorting enterprise is run by a man with disseminated sclerosis, former inmate of a Russian slave labour camp. Business is expanding at such a rate that he now has five part-time helpers.

It was the families themselves who suggested the fish-and-chip shop.

“We thought it would be a good enterprise for the women to run – you don’t need to speak much English in order to fry fish and chips!” says Muriel Gofton.

“It helped change the attitude of local people. I think some thought I was a kind of lady of the manor and all these people were waiting on me hand and foot!

“When they saw us working in the shop – I served fish and chips myself for the first six months – they began to realise what we were here for. They have given us wonderful support.”

Despite the money earned by these and other projects, it still costs £6000 a year to run the community. Cala Sona, which operated at first under “Christian Action”, is now a Scottish charity in its own right.

The Rev. W. Cameron Wallace, Church of Scotland industrial chaplain at Greenock, and formerly minister in Wishaw, is chairman of the Management Committee.

A Methodist herself, Muriel Gofton encourages religious activities. Among the families are R.C.’s, Pentecostalists, Baptists, and members of both the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Some interesting ecumenical services therefore take place – and Easter and Christmas are celebrated twice as a result of following two calendars!

Ask Muriel Gofton what is the highlight of these eight years at Cala Sona (apart from the fish and chips) and she will reply without hesitation, “the children”.

She is proud of the record of the community’s young folk. One has already graduated, and three more are at University. Four are working, and four are still at school. One young Hungarian has married a local girl and taken a Scottish name (to help him on the housing list!).

The children, of course, have found it much easier than their parents to adapt to Scottish ways. Their more unpleasant memories are fast disappearing.

For the older folk, comfortably housed now in Colt timber cottages at Cala Sona, the past can never be completely eradicated. But they are not looking for our sympathy - only for friendship and understanding as they live out their days at Lanarkshire’s aptly-named “Happy Haven”.

The Cala Sona site was sold to Margaret Blackwood Housing Association in 1972, who turned it into a sheltered housing complex for disabled people - although all the original inhabitants were granted a home there for the rest of their lives. The original mansion was demolished as part of a redevelopment of the site - now called Cala Sona Court - in 2006. A history of the site, including testimony from some of the Cala Sona refugees and their children, can be downloaded here.

Muriel Gofton had given up a university education to care for her father, before serving in the Red Cross during the Second World War. She lived in the Cala Sona community until ill health forced her into a nursing home in the late 1980s. She died, aged 84, in 1996. Herald obituary.

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