ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 39, November 1998


All was change, and then change again

Early maps record the multiple transformations of central Scotland in 200 years. Steve Boyle reports

The view from the road that climbs over the shoulder of Black Hill in North Lanarkshire presents a startling picture of abandonment. Heaps of coal waste brood over the landscape, linked together by the grassed-over trackbeds of 19th century mineral railways that carve their way across fields of medieval ridge-and-furrow cultivation, long given over to sheep and cattle.

The scale of industrial abandonment in this part of central Scotland proclaims the remarkable social and economic history of the region over the past two centuries. It is a story of boom and bust on the grand scale, as heavy industries quickly spread over a rural landscape and just as rapidly disappeared again a hundred or so years later.

Recently, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland has begun to piece together something of this story in an assessment of parts of the area between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where much of Scottish heavy industry used to be concentrated. By a combination of fieldwork and early Ordnance Survey maps, over 5,000 monuments have been recorded which graphically illustrate the process of development, change and decay.

The transformation of central Scotland from a rural economy to a predominantly industrial one was largely a phenomenon of the middle and later decades of the 19th century, although the process began earlier, in the later 18th century. There were many causes - technological advances, population growth, improved transport and expanding markets, but underpinning the entire process was the presence of large quantities of minerals - coal, ironstone, limestone, oil-shale and fireclay.

The expanding Glasgow and Edinburgh markets provided much of the early impetus for the development of the central belt coalfields, but it was the iron industry that eventually became the collieries' most important customer. The Scottish iron industry was uncompetitive in the early 19th century, hampered by transport difficulties and a shortage of good coking coal for the furnaces, but it was turned around by the development of the hot blast process in 1828, which allowed the locally abundant blackband ironstone to be smelted with uncoked coal. From about 1830 there was a massive expansion, concentrated in North Lanarkshire, especially around Coatbridge.

This expansion benefitted the limestone extraction industry, as lime was used as a flux in the furnaces. Lime was also essential in agriculture as a fertiliser and in the building industry for the manufacture of mortar. Oil was first distilled from shale at Bathgate in the 1850s by James `Paraffin' Young, and West Lothian quickly became Britain's major source of mineral oil, competing successfully with imported oils until after the First World War. Finally, clays were exploited for the manufacture of drain tiles for agriculture, bricks for the building industry and refractory bricks for industrial furnaces, as well as for sanitary ware for markets at home and abroad.

The success of these industries depended heavily on the development of railway transport. The early railways in central Scotland were conceived as feeders for the canal system, but by the 1830s they had outgrown this role and were operating independently. A railway building boom quickly followed, fuelled by the ever-extending search for coal and ironstone.

Early editions of Ordnance Survey maps, from the 1850s through to the First World War, illustrate in striking fashion the industrial expansion of that period. Successive editions show an increasingly complex mesh of railways spreading out across the central belt, linking mines, factories and settlements. Equally striking, though, is the record the maps provide of the detritus left in the wake of this development, as exhausted mines and the railways that serviced them closed down. Whereas we tend to think of industrial dereliction as a phenomenon of the late 20th century, it was clearly very much a part of the evolving landscape a hundred years ago. In the area studied by the Royal Commission, just over 50 per cent of the 1,005 mines depicted on Ordnance Survey maps in the late 1850s were already disused; by the eve of the First World War 1,107 out of the 1,422 mines shown were abandoned. This increase does not imply that the industry was in decline, for coal production continued to increase until 1913, but it became concentrated in fewer, deeper and more efficient mines, leaving the rest to decay in the landscape of waste-heaps, or bings, and trackbeds familiar today.

The dereliction has accumulated further since the First War, of course, and the great Victorian industries have now vanished. In the late 20th century there has been an increasing drive to `tidy up' their ruins. Some have simply been removed or landscaped, while others are under threat from opencast mining and the recycling of waste tips. Amongst those which do survive, however, there are some striking monuments. The West Lothian countryside is dominated by colossal red heaps of spent shale from the oil industry, while some of the coal bings in Lanarkshire make prominent local landmarks. Amongst these there is the `Mexican's Hat', a complex bing in North Lanarkshire, so-called because of its curious profile. Limekilns are common sights, especially in the Lothians, but there is little to see of the tile and fireclay industries. The iron industry too has all but vanished. At Wilsontown, a pioneering works founded in 1779 and closed in 1842, much of the ground plan can be traced in grass-grown foundations. Elsewhere, later development has destroyed most of the early works, though excavation has revealed the furnace bases at Summerlee in Coatbridge and there are other fragments surviving at Shotts.

While maps, statistics and grass-covered rubble can take us some way to forming a picture of these industries in the 19th century, more dramatic images come from contemporary accounts. In 1869, David Bremner described Coatbridge for The Scotsman:

Though Coatbridge is a most interesting seat of industry, it is anything but beautiful. Dense clouds of smoke roll over it incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything, and in a few hours the visitor finds his complexion considerably deteriorated by the flakes of soot which fill the air, and settle on his face.

To experience Coatbridge it must be visited at night when it presents a most extraordinary spectacle . . . From the steeple of the parish church the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen . . .

The flames have a positively fascinating effect. Now they shoot far upward, and breaking off short, expire among the smoke; again spreading outward, they curl over the lips of the furnace, and dart through the doorways, as if determined to annihilate the bounds within which they are confined; then they sink low into the crater, and come forth with renewed strength in the shape of great tongues of fire, which sway backward and forward, as if seeking with a fierce eagerness something to devour.

Industrial development on such a massive scale required an enormous workforce, who needed to be housed. Industrial towns such as Airdrie, Motherwell, Bathgate and Falkirk expanded at an astonishing rate. Most dramatically Coatbridge grew from a village of 741 people in 1831, the year before the discovery of the hot blast process, to a burgh of 36,981 70 years later.

Away from the larger centres, numerous smaller settlements appeared, often no more than one or two rows of terraced houses built in rural areas by individual employers to service one particular business. Some of these have survived and have attracted secondary development that has maintained them beyond the demise of the industry from which they grew, but many others have failed to flourish or have disappeared altogether. In the early 1800s Wilsontown, now a quiet hamlet, was an ironworks village of almost 2,000 people, while the colliery village of Arden in North Lanarkshire is now reduced to its foundations.

Perhaps the most striking example of abandonment is Haywood on remote moorland in South Lanarkshire. Founded in the 1860s to house the workers of the nearby collieries, it developed by the 1890s into a village of over 1,200 inhabitants, with a Post Office, a Police Station, a village hall, a railway station - all the services one would expect of any thriving rural community. Then, as the mines around closed, it declined as rapidly as it had developed, and by 1951 there were only 15 households recorded in the district. Today the only intact structure is the war memorial; around it the terraces have gone, their bricks removed for use elsewhere, leaving only robber trenches to indicate their layout.

The most substantial ruin on the site, once the licensed hotel, is a former farmhouse which predated the village. On a windowsill it bears a carved lament to the desolation, addressed to a former licensee:

O Annie wert thou here tae see, A waefu [woeful] wumin thou wad be.

Fact file

Steve Boyle is a Field Investigator with the Scottish Royal Commission, and author of Forts, Farms and Furnaces: Archaeology in the Central Scotland Forest (RCAHMS, £7.50). Copies can be ordered by calling 0131 662 1456.

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