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Caithness Field Club 

Caithness Field Club Bulletin 1988


John Porter

If archaeology to the man in the street means Tutenkamen's Tomb or the Elgin Marbles then his understanding of industrial archaeology will perhaps be more erroneously defined.

Industrial Archaeology is THE STUDY OF INDUSTRIAL MACHINES, WORK ETC OF THE PAST and Industry itself is defined as MANUFACTURING PROCESSES. So therefore industrial archaeology need not be confined to large industries in large cities - it is a study eminently suitable for a field club for it is a line of study concerned with investigating, surveying, recording and in some cases preserving industrial monuments. It is still an enthusiasm rather than an academic discipline to which everyone from engineers to manual workers and from historians to housewives can bring expertise and the old as much as the young. Indeed the old are particularly valuable for their experience and memories,

Two hundred years of industrialisation have made Britain one of the richest areas for industrial archaeology and the processes of modernisation, rebuilding and new road construction have lent a special urgency to the study.

Although industrial archaeology as a separate study was christened as recently as 1955, the recording and preservation of industrial remains has for many years been carried out by museums, societies and interested amateurs. Such research however has restricted itself almost exclusively to the period of the industrial revolution omitting a wealth of material from the neolithic flint axe to the earliest computers.

The industrial history of Britain is the real story of the British people. It is about how our ancestors made their food, clothing and shelter - the essentials of life. Industry began long before the Industrial Revolution. Since neolithic times man has exploited the natural resources of Britain. Stone axes exported around 6000 BC have been found in Poland. In medieval times the wool industry flourished, and corn-milling and other processes have always gone on. Until the eighteenth century change was gradual. But then, within a century, came a transformation. People moved from the countryside to work in factories in the new mill towns. The cotton industry first felt the change, as technological advances meant that spinning and weaving was more profitably done in factories than by cottage workers. Existing transport was inadequate and the canals and railways developed. This industrial activity has left many remains, some still in use. Machinery, tools and even entire buildings have been collected into museums, but most industrial monuments are on their original sites. Industrial archaeology is concerned with the identification, surveying and recording of such monuments, perhaps leading to the preservation of the best examples.

In the golden days just after the Second World War, when Britain was full of optimism, money and an eagerness to experiment in all directions, a young historian called Michael Rix was appointed by the University of Birmingham to carry out adult education work in the Black Country, the iron-working and engineering region running between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. At the time the Black Country was not exactly an area of outstanding natural beauty, although it has been considerably improved since 1945, but for those with eyes and imagination it was one of the most exciting regions to be found anywhere In the country. It was smoky, sooty, dotted with two centuries' slag-heaps and mining waste and with more than its fair share of derelict factory buildings, dirty stagnant pools and dreary streets of little terrace houses, many of them beyond redemption. Like industrial Lancashire, the Black Country symbolised the bad old days of low wages, long hours and unemployment which most people were anxious to forget.

Yet it was strange, it was also the region most deserving of pride and gratitude since it was here that modern Britain can reasonably be said to have begun. The West Midlands, between the Severn and Birmingham, cradled the Industrial Revolution. This is where Abraham Darby, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and other great pioneers were active at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, where canals and railways were recognised as essential equipment for a modern state, and where craftsmen learned the trades that made them a highly paid and much sought-after elite, In America as well as throughout Europe. Knowing this, Michael Rix was saddened and infuriated to see how many of the monuments of this great period, the steam engines, factories, bridges, canal installations railway stations and workers' houses, were being demolished, scrapped or merely left to decay. He began a campaign to record them, study them and, wherever possible, preserve them, and he soon found that he had a curiously assorted body of allies and helpers - engineers, architects, teachers, photographers, railway and canal enthusiasts, folklorists and local historians.

The movement soon spread outside the Black Country, and during the 1950s the pioneers devoted a great deal of time and energy to stirring up the public conscience about the destruction, in the name of progress, of structures and machinery associated with the great nineteenth-century British achievements in technology and industry. In books, articles, lectures, broadcasts and letters in the press, these crusaders worked hard, against accusations that they were sentimental fanatics, to convince bureaucrats, industrialists and academics that cotton mills, steam engines, tunnel and canal locks are of as much historical and cultural importance as castles, cathedrals and eighteenth-century furniture. They are equally part of the national heritage and, properly presented and interpreted, they all have a role to play in bringing the past alive.

The Journal of Industrial Archaeology was first published in 1963 and

The Scottish Society for Industrial Archaeology was established in 1974.

The early pioneers in Scotland ware three.

Ian Donnachie, a Lecturer in Edinburgh University;

John Hume, a Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde;

and Michael Moss, an Archivist at Glasgow University;

Between them they have written many well illustrated books on the subject, including "The Industrial Archaeology of Scotland" in two volumes.

The mecca for industrial archaeologists is the Ironbridge, Blists Hill and Coalbrookdale complex in Shropshire where a Quaker by the name of Abraham Darby began smelting iron with coke in 1777. There had been a charcoal furnace on the site since 1638 and it has been recorded that the first cast cannon was made at Buxted in Sussex in 1543 but coke-smelted iron was immensely superior and Darby's innovation paved the way for the industrial revolution. The great ironbridge itself was constructed in 1779 and is still in use today even although the joints in the iron members are dovetailed and pinned as if it had been made of wood. This area also has reconstructed blast furnaces, warehouses, mines, beam engines, a Telford toll-house and the original Coalport china works.

There is also a large and comprehensive museum at Beamish in County Durham which is well worth a visit, but allow a day to see it all. In England the "Great Britain" is restored in its original dock at Bristol and at Bucklers Hand a more ancient shipyard is preserved but sad to relate there are no shipyards in Scotland yet in the category.

The National Trust for Scotland have restored Preston Mill, the Weavers Cottage in Kilbarchan and the Kirkwynd Cottages at Glamis while the Ministry of Works have done a lot of work on the old Bonawe iron furnace at Taynuilt. The New Lanark complex, Biggar Gas Works and the very latest addition the Monkland Museum at Coatbridge should not be missed.

Indeed due to the effort of the Wick Society we have an exhibition of national importance within our county and if the plans of the Castletown Heritage Society come to fruition we should have a complex at Castlehill telling the tale of James Traill and the world famous Caithness Flagstone Industry and perhaps at a later date there might be more work done on James Bremner, Alexander Bain and Thomas Telford.

There are plenty relics in Caithness waiting for the attention of industrial archaeologists - old distilleries, corn mills, a wool mill, grain drying kilns, old farm machinery and railway remains. Perhaps someone will solve the puzzle as to why in the north here horse gins are open to the elements and water wheels are in roofed extensions to the side of the mill whereas further south the horse gins are enclosed in conical houses while the water wheels are exposed.

Cairns, standing stones, graves, castles, churches and other ruins must be examined, understood and preserved and to this end the Caithness Field Club have done magnificent work over the years but PLEASE ALSO BE AWARE OF OUR INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE.