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Issue 52 - Industrial might

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


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Industrial might

John Hannavy looks at Scotland's industrial heritage.

By the shores of Loch Etive in Argyll stands a reminder that Scotland’s industry was not just centred on the great cities and major rivers. The Bonawe Iron Furnace, now a protected historic monument in the care of Historic Scotland, dates from the middle of the 18th century, and for more than a century produced hundreds of tons of iron each year.

Now, you may say, surely they don’t have iron ore around Loch Etive – and you’d be right, but what they did have was an abundant supply of timber which could be coppiced and turned into charcoal. Due to its massive bulk and light weight, shipping the charcoal to the ore would have been a hugely expensive operation, so they did the logical thing – they brought the iron ore from Cumbria up to the ready supply of charcoal! But the iron ore was not destined for Scottish manufacturers – it was shipped back south to drive the heavy industries of Barrow-in-Furness.

Scotland’s heavy manufacturing industries would develop throughout the 19th century.

Opened in 1753, Bonawe furnace is one of very few industrial monuments to survive in Scotland from the period of the industrial revolution. By the second half of the 19th century, with coke proving to be a much more efficient way of smelting iron ore, Bonawe’s commercial viability had gone and the site was abandoned. With no pressure to redevelop the site, it was simply shut down and abandoned.

But for centuries before this, Scotland’s coal mining industry had been in the ascendancy, and by the early years of the 20th century it employed tens of thousands of men, and exported millions of tons each year. Ports such as Methil in Fife owed their existence to the coal trade, so it is not surprising that their demise mirrored the death of Scotland’s coal mines. Today Methil Docks stand virtually idle, with the largest coal dock already partly filled in – and earmarked for possible future housing development.

And the coal industry itself is hardly remembered at all in Scotland, despite its one-time importance. Perhaps understandably, fewer people are interested in Victorian colliery headgear than mediaeval abbeys! The head frame of the Mary Pit at Ballingry in Fife, a listed concrete structure from 1902, now stands isolated in Lochore Meadows Country Park developed from the former colliery yard. When the shaft was being sunk, the Dunfermline Journal noted that “The pit is expected to be 28 feet by 11 feet, and it is expected that it will reach a depth of 300 fathoms before Aitken navigation Splint coal is struck.” A rusting steam locomotive stands on a few yards of track by its side, a reminder of the importance of the railways in the movement of coal.

It is also a reminder of the importance of the industrial locomotive, and of Andrew Barclay & Co of Kilmarnock where the 0-4- 0ST tank engine was built, with Works No.2259, in 1949.

A few miles south of Edinburgh, the former Lady Victoria Colliery at Newtongrange near Dalkeith is another of Barclay’s engines – one of many now in preservation. NCB No.21 was built just a few weeks later in 1949 as Works No.2284 for use in the Ayrshire coalfields.

Lady Victoria Colliery is a complete and strikingly successful survival. Mothballed after the miners’ strike – and of course never brought back into use – it has now been developed as the Scottish Mining Museum, and offers a rare chance to explore the bestpreserved group of Victorian mining buildings in Europe.

But ask most people about Scotland’s industrial heritage, and they would probably mention the country’s amazing history as a ship-building nation. The great yards of the Clyde have all gone, but their legacy can still be seen in a few choice vessels. While the most famous of the surviving Clyde-built ships are no longer in Scotland – Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, and the QE2 in Dubai – the paddle steamer Waverley still takes passengers on nostalgic trips every summer. Promoted as the ‘last ocean-going paddle steamer in the world’ Waverley’s home base is the quayside next to Glasgow’s dramatic new Science Centre.

And just across the river – and due to move a few hundred yards to a new berth along the opposite shore next to Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum in 2011 – the Glenlee is a wonderfully preserved example of the hundreds of sailing ships launched into the river. Built in Port Glasgow in 1896, Glenlee has had a varied career – working as a cargo ship until 1922 when she was bought by the Spanish Navy as a training ship, eventually being virtually abandoned in Seville. Her restoration in Glasgow has turned her into one of the city’s most visited attractions.

Visible from both ships is Glasgow iconic Finnieston crane, completed in 1932, and children of my age remember it well as the ultimate construction which graced the lid of many a Meccano set box – but of course nobody ever had enough bits to actually build it! The massive crane could lift one hundred and seventy five tons at a time, having been built especially to load steam locomotives for export from Glasgow’s Springburn locomotive works.

On the other side of the country, another iconic ship is preserved in a drydock in Dundee. RRS Discovery, the vessel which took Captain Scott to the Antarctic, has been returned to the port in which she was built in 1901, and restored much as Captain Scott might have known her.

One of the most impressive preserved industrial sites is to be found at New Lanark, where Robert Owen’s huge mill complex by the banks of the Clyde – now designated a World Heritage Site – attracts huge numbers of visitors, and offers a unique step back in time to the working and living conditions of mill workers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

New Lanark is by far the most recent of Scotland’s four World Heritage Sites – the others are Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, Neolithic Orkney, and the island of St. Kilda – and also the smallest, the most focused, and the only industrial location in the country to have been granted such status.

The success of these projects – and of heritage steam railways – clearly demonstrates that there is a huge public interest in more recent history, so perhaps even in these straitened times, funding could and should be found to ensure the preservation of other important industrial sites and artifacts. If we don’t, we run the very serious risk of leaving a huge gap in the preserved history of our nation.


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