Dalbeattie pub owner Rhona Wixon looks back on her life in Galloway People

It’s hard to pin down Rhona Wixon’s accent.

And to the listener at least, it’s a subtle cocktail of undernotes from several different countries.

Scotland’s in there somewhere, England more noticeably but there’s a dash of something else – which turns out to be Australia.

These days Rhona is the proud owner of the King’s Arms Hotel at The Cross in Dalbeattie, a business to which she’s devoted the last 23 years of her life.

The vivacious 60-year-old is Dalbeattie through and through – but, she tells me, she was only three years old when parents Jock and Agnes Hutchison upped sticks and left their home town for a new life in England.

From there it was off to Australia for a few years in a boomerang childhood full of travel, new places and adventure before a surprise return to Dalbeattie when Rhona was 15.

“My dad Jock was a saw doctor in Dalbeattie who looked after the big saws in local mills,” Rhona tells me.

“He was a joiner as well and moved down to Northampton to work with my mum, my brothers and me in 1965.

“I was only little and just got on with things. We were there for eight years and I got on fine.”

Next destination for the Hutchisons was a bit further away – 11,000 miles to be precise.

“We moved to Australia when I was 11,” Rhona recalls. “My dad thought it would be a good opportunity for us.

“We went to New South Wales and stayed for a while in the Blue Mountains then a place called Kangaroo Valley.

“It was very cold the first year we went and our first winter in New South Wales was the worst on record. I think that was in 1973.

“It was a nice wee village and a nice community.

“There were only a few hundred people lived there and it had a pub called The Friendly Inn.

“A big burn ran through the village and when we finished school that’s where me and my friends went. We had a lot of freedom there.

“I still get an odd email from my childhood friends in Australia.

Rhona took to life Down Under like a duck to water as she entered her teenage years.

But after four years her mum Joyce brought life Down Under to an abrupt halt through a classic piece of subterfuge.

“Kangaroo Valley was a lovely place with beautiful people,” Rhona says. “But my mum did not like it in Australia.

“Then my nana died and my mum went back to Scotland for the funeral.

Rhona, right, with a friend on the veranda of her home in Kangaroo Valley in the early 1970s

“When she came back to Australia she could not settle and not long after we went back to Dalbeattie for a holiday.

“My mum said we were only coming home for Christmas to see my granddad. But then she refused point blank to go back.

“My dad had to return on his own to Australia and sort everything out.

“I missed Australia – I was 15 and a half and did not want to come back.

“But once we got here that was that. I was pretty gutted – but it’s your parents after all.

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“My mom thought she was doing the best for us. You don’t know how your life would have been.”

Rhona doesn’t remember switching schools 11,000 miles apart causing her any great difficulty.

And after her brief time at Dalbeattie High School she entered the world of work.

“School was okay and I was never particularly academic,” she tells me.

“I got on fine when I came back – kids just adapt to whatever life chucks at them.

“After I left school I got a job in a hairdresser’s.

“To begin with it was only a Saturday but then it was full time.

“Then in 1987 I did a two-year catering management course at Dumfries College.

“The kids were still small and I got a job in the Mariner at Kippford and quite enjoyed it.

“Then after that I worked for the National Trust for Scotland at Threave.

“I was there for 10 years as chef and then catering manager, serving coach parties and doing functions.”

Rhona took on a new challenge in 1999 in the form of the King’s Arms in Dalbeattie.

She could scarcely have chosen a worse time – Dalbeattie’s two biggest employers, the Lybro clothing factory and the Stelrad radiator plant, were soon to close down.

Rhona revisits the veranda of the former home she had not seen for 40 years
Rhona revisits the veranda of the former home she had not seen for 40 years

“I had been looking at buying a wee pub and I could see the King’s had potential straight away,” she recalls.

“My mum and dad said ‘what are you doing?’ But the town was in full swing when I took it over.

“Stelrads had three shifts and when the back shift finished at 10pm the men would come in for an hour.

“They would be chucking the drink down their throats and the public bar would be packed.

“But within a year the two factories closed and everything changed.

“It was doom and gloom in the town for a wee while – people did not have the same money.

“A lot of men worked at Stelrads and the wives would be working at the Lybro. When they both shut that year that was all their income gone.”

Rhona admits the loss of trade was a blow – but in typical Dalbeattie fashion was already looking to the future.

“I didn’t expect that and didn’t see it coming,” she says.

“But I had a clear plan about what I wanted to do with the pub.

“I was never going to chuck in the towel and was always going to keep on the King’s.

“You want it to be a success and don’t want to fall at unexpected hurdles in your way.

“I never thought for a minute it was going to fail. You just work hard and try to build your business up.”

Major upgrades followed, including a new kitchen, extended lounge and new guest accommodation – all an investment in the future.

“Of course there were days when you think what am I doing,” she says. “But then you get up and get on with it.

“I think I was quite fortunate to be given the opportunity when I was younger. I’m not one that lets life grind me down.

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“Meeting different people in different places in the world definitely helps you as well.”

Like everyone whose livelihoods are tied up the hospitality trade, Rhona had a tough time when the pandemic struck.

“The week up to when lockdown was announced on March 23, 2020 was actually worse,” she recalls.

“It was the run up to Easter and everybody was cancelling, I never ate, never slept and just worried the whole time.

“How would I pay my staff? How could I keep the King’s going?

The King's Arms has come through the pandemic
The King’s Arms has come through the pandemic

“I thought that when lockdown was announced that it would be until July then we would be back to normal and that it would be all over.

“But it wasn’t and when we opened up that summer it was quite difficult.

“There were so many restrictions and people were apprehensive about
coming out.

“There were different rules for Scotland and England and we had all these people traveling from Manchester and Birmingham and Glasgow.

“That gets you worried again because even when you are doing your best in the pub if someone is bringing Covid in it’s your pub that gets the bad publicity.

“You could go next door to the supermarket and catch it just as easily.

“But because there was so much emphasis on hospitality we always seemed to be the problem.

“Some of the rules were ridiculous like you could have a drink outside but not inside – but you just have to go with it.”

“We were probably trading at 50 per cent or less and even worse was the not knowing,” Rhona adds.

“But once they announced the furlough scheme that was a big weight off everybody’s mind because people had bills to pay and families to look after.

“Also, we were in a more fortunate position than a lot of people because we owned the property and didn’t pay rent or a mortgage.

“I was definitely one of the lucky ones. My main concern was that the staff were all right. A lot of them have been with us for a long time.

“Two worked with me at Threave and one came with me when I left there then I asked the other to come and join us.”

There’s a big social side to running the pub of which Rhona is proud and carries a value beyond profit and loss.

“I have a lot of lovely people who come in day after day,” she says.

“During lockdown I phoned up a lot of the older guys to see if they were alright.

“Some were living on their own, stuck inside and not seeing anybody.

“People need company and people need stimulation. I know lockdown affected a lot of my customers very badly.

“The King’s Arms always had a darts team too – and we still have one.

“Monday is darts night and we have a quiz on the Monday as well. That just started up about three weeks ago.”

Rhona has seen big social and cultural changes over her time at the King’s Arms – not least the decline of traditional celebrations.

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Rhona back at Kangaroo Valley in 2017
Rhona back at Kangaroo Valley in 2017

“We used to hold Hogmanay parties to bring in the New Year,” she says.

“It was a ticketed event with food, music and a live band. But these days there’s just no demand for it.

“I think that’s because people can have Hogmanay any weekend – there’s music on most weekends somewhere in Dalbeattie.

“But now you are locking up at 10.30pm and the staff are home by midnight.

“But we still get the bird club, sea angling club, fishing club, the Rotary and the Lions.

“I’m really optimistic – once all the restrictions get lifted next month that will definitely be the way forward.

“There will probably be some people who will feel unsafe.

“Two years is a long time for people to live that way. But it’s nice that everybody has started to come back.

“If customers want to come in and still wear masks that’s fine. As long as they’re coming out – that’s the main thing.

“We had the pub spy at the King’s in August 2018 and we got a brilliant review for me and all the staff.

“After all, the hotel is a team effort and I couldn’t do it without them.”

Exactly 40 years after coming back to Dalbeattie from Australia, Rhona resolved that if she didn’t make the trip to her former home in New South Wales, she never would.

“It was a bit like memory lane for me,” she tells me. “We went out in October 2017 and spent two weeks in Kangaroo Valley and Sydney, then went to Singapore for a week.

“I hadn’t seen the place in 40 years and it was the same but not the same, if you know what I mean.

“The buildings hadn’t changed but there were a lot more touristy things.

“The three-storey house we stayed in was still there but was turned into a kayak centre.

“A lot of the locals I knew had moved out and there was a caravan site which wasn’t there before.

“It was strange – the buildings had changed but the Australian government’s planning laws meant the frontages had to be retained.

“My old teacher from school took me to my old home where they had built this big house out the back.

“When I asked why she said you were not allowed to change the frontage of the building.

“Our old wooden veranda with its tin roof was still there and I got my photo taken on it.

“I have a photo of myself sitting on the same veranda when I was 12 or 13.

“I emailed it over to her when I got back home to Dalbeattie.

“I won’t go back again because I have no reason to go back but it was nice to go and I’m glad I did it.”

These days mum-of-two Rhona is sanguine about the path her life has taken.

“I have no regrets,” she says with resolution.

“I have five grandchildren and like having them a few days a week.

“I don’t do as many shifts as I used to and don’t work full time.

“We also have two dogs, both Hungarian Vizslas.

“Maisie is 11 and Max is just seven months – walking them is my exercise!”


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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