I WAS probably not long out of short trousers when I realised that Lochgelly was actually a place and not a thick, rigid, leather implement used to beat kids’ palms. My acquaintance with the product was fairly regular, I often carried the red marks of the thongs on my wrists, and once I achieved something of a record, receiving 13 smites from a sadistic woman teacher with the arm of a blacksmith and the bulk of a sumo wrestler.

Unsurprisingly I was never keen to visit the town. Last week I braved it. The day was as raw as the aftermath of a sound belting. The town of around 7,00 sits between the lochs Gelly and Ore, separated from Cowdenbeath by the dismal length of Lumphinnans. Its name in Gaelic means bright water and there was certainly torrents pouring from the sky, but of brightness there was no sign. There were boarded-up shops and buildings aplenty, a few hardy locals bent against the horizontal rain. Lochgelly is at the top of most lists you’d want to be bottom of – almost 30 per cent of children in poverty, getting on for 40 per cent of households in fuel poverty together with an increasing reliance on foodbanks. In 2007 it was, officially, Britain’s cheapest town in which to buy property and if that has improved, then it’s not by much.

But if it's tough on the people, the animals seem to be doing better, with Sunny Harbour cat rescue centre and shop thriving and at Perfect Pooches they were doing brisk business clipping and primping.

Lochgelly was a mining town, booming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with four working deep pits, three of which merged in the 1960s into the Longannet mine, which provided fuel for the nearby power station. In March 2002, millions of gallons of water flooded into the underground workings. Shortly after the mine owners put the company into receivership and all the pumps were switched off, allowing further flooding and sealing its fate. It was the last deep mine of any significance in Scotland and its closure ended underground coal mining in Scotland.

The Fife coalfields disappeared under Thatcher and Lochgelly has never recovered. Recession seems to be graven into the sandstone of the buildings. From 1935 to 1950 Fife returned Britain’s only Communist MP, Willie Gallacher, but the council is now run in a rather rum coalition in a power-sharing deal between the SNP (29 seats) and Labour (24), with the current Provost the Lochgelly legend, former player, football manager and poet Jim Leishman.

The past seems ever-present in the town. As if to underline that, Lochgelly Centre, the purpose-built arts venue, is booked out with tribute bands. There’s the Acoustic Eagles, Wrong Jovi, the Acoustic Beatles, and if you hurry you can still get your tickets for the Lionel Richie Tribute on April 24.

But still, it all comes back to Lochgelly and the tawse (derived from a method of leather curing known as tawing). It was vigorously in use until 1987 in primaries and comprehensive schools – and for a decade later in fee-paying. In the 1960s and 1970s, 84 per cent of boys and 57 per cent of girls at secondary school claimed to have been belted, with over a third of boys saying it happened regularly (I am that statistic).

In 1976 Grace Campbell, who had a six-year-old at St Matthew’s in Bishopbriggs, and Jane Cosons, who son attended Beath High School in Cowdenbeath, decided enough was enough and raised an action in the European Court of Human Rights, objecting to corporal punishment without parental consent. In 1982 they won and local authorities, probably overwhelmed by the bureaucratic complexities of gaining all those parental permissions, began phasing out the belt. In 1998 fee-paying schools finally gave in.

“I wondered when you’re get round to that,” Margaret Dick, inheritor of the brand from her father John, responds after a few minutes' preliminaries. The Dicks, grandfather and father, took over the company from the original manufacturer, Robert Philp, in 1948. But, as Margaret stresses, while the Lochgelly was used by 70 per cent of Scottish teachers it was never the mainstay of the business then, or now.

She joined her dad in 1991, having been made redundant as an engineer by Ferranti, picking up leather and saddlery techniques and, as well as the tawse, made handbags and briefcases and other leather works. Sixteen years ago she built the house and workshop on ground, just outside Lochgelly, where she used to keep her pony. She lives on the top floor, below is the workshop and she works alone, except for two dogs. She had two assistants but now is happy just to be without the bureaucracy that comes with it and with the freedom to work when she wants.

The Lochgelly comes in four sizes, or thicknesses – from light to extra heavy – and with two or three tails. The heavies, the favourites, cost from £160 to £175. In the 1970s you could get one for under a fiver and still have change.

Today the orders come in from particularly Scottish parts of the old empire, like Malawi and New Zealand. Some, she says, from old teachers who want to display them on their walls, the memory of beatings past.

But surely, really, the Lochgelly has migrated from the classroom to the bedrooms, the essential tool of S&M enthusiasts? She smiles: "Whatever floats your boat," she responds. "I don't inquire too deeply. Just as long as they're not used on children."

It seems incredible now that adults in Scotland were licensed to beat kids with a blunt instrument for more than a century. Did it keep the classroom peace? Did it instil respect? Did it beat grammar and maths into the recipients? Or did it do lasting psychological damage on those for whom the belt told?