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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Scottish Clearances Part Six -Industrial Growth, Rural Decline

Airdrie, Lanarkshire 1780

Helmsdale, Sutherland, 1830

Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbrightshire, 1797

By 1830, the Lowland Clearances were over. The countryside had been transformed. Apart from the spread of dairy farming in the south west which followed the growth of the railway network, the  farmed landscape has changed very little since then. In the Southern Uplands, especially in Galloway, since the 1960s forestry has replaced sheep farming which is a striking change of land use and appearance.

In the Highlands, the clearances continued into the 1850s.

In both the rural south and rural north, despite the clearances, it was only after 1851 that the overall population began to decline. This seems puzzling. The explanation is that in the Highlands, many of the people cleared were re-settled around the coast while in the Lowlands they were re-settled in new towns and villages. The new coastal settlements in the Highlands were supposed to prosper through fishing, but most failed to do so. The new towns and villages in the Lowlands were more successful to begin with, but then lost out as growth became more concentrated in industrial areas.

Today, Helmsdale in Sutherland, Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway and Airdrie in Lanarkshire have populations of 640, 990 and 42 000 respectively.

Helmsdale was developed from 1812 onwards to provide housing and employment for people cleared from the land. Gatehouse was likewise developed as a planned town from 1766 onwards. About the same time, the existing village of Airdrie was developed as a centre for the linen weaving industry, becoming a Burgh in 1821. Gatehouse had become a Burgh in 1795. Helmsdale did not become a Burgh.

Helmsdale’s main industry was herring fishing, but in 1790 a cotton spinning mill was built at Spinningdale about 30 miles away. This burnt down in 1808 and was nor rebuilt. Closer to Helmsdale, at Brora 11 miles away, there was a coal mine. Coal had been mined there on a small scale since the late sixteenth century and used for salt making. Between  1812 and 1820, in an attempt to provide employment for people cleared from his lands, the 2nd Duke of Sutherland spent £31 000 in an attempt to revive the mine. The attempt failed in 1825, but another was made in 1872 after the railway reached Sutherland. This was more successful and the mine survived for 100 years until it closed in 1974.

In 1724,  the dykes of Alexander Murray’s cattle park at Cally in Kirkcudbrightshire were thrown down by the Galloway Levellers. Forty years later, when his son James was busy improving Cally estate, he made sure that history would not repeat itself by planning a new town called Gatehouse of Fleet. Within 30 years, as well as two cotton mills, the new town had a tannery, a brewery, a brickworks and a brass  foundry. From zero the population had grown to 1150 and reached 1370 by 1841.

By 1850 however, the water-powered cotton mills had closed, unable to compete with their steam-powered rivals. Then, despite the best efforts of local landowners, the railway from Castle Douglas to Stranraer by-passed the town when it was opened in 1861. ‘Gatehouse station’ on the line was 6 miles from the town it claimed to serve.

For the next 100 years, from being the very model of a modern minor general commercial community at the heart of an improved (and cleared) agricultural landscape, Gatehouse slowly fossilised. By 1974, the Open University were able to use this once thriving town for an educational  film ‘Gatehouse of Fleet - a study in industrial archaeology’.

If Lanarkshire had followed the pattern of Sutherland and Galloway, then Airdrie’s growth would have petered-out in the 1840s once the mechanisation of weaving had been perfected. That Airdrie continued to grow through the nineteenth century was in part due to an accident of geology. As well as coal, beneath the fields around the town there was also ironstone.

In 1769, ownership of Airdrie and the lands around it passed from the Hamilton family, who had begun the towns development, to John Aitchison. After his death, his daughters continued to live at Airdrie House and encourage the development of the town into a Burgh, which it became in 1821.

In 1816, Alexander Baird, a tenant farmer who had prospered as the crops on his improved land fetched record prices during the Napoleonic wars, decided to diversify into the coal industry. He persuaded the Miss Atchison’s to lease the Rosolloch coal field near Airdrie to his son William. His son John continued as a farmer, but another son, Alexander was sent to Glasgow to sell the coal from Rosolloch. Later Alexander’s fourth son James was put in charge of another mine at Merrystown.

In 1826, the Baird family leased the coal fields of Gartsherrie estate to the west of Airdrie. In 1828 they leased an ironstone mine nearby. Their next step was to build an iron furnace at Gartsherrie which was completed in May 1830. This was built using a new system which replaced the ‘cold blast’ of traditional iron furnaces with superheated air. Under the old system it had taken 8 tons of coal to produce  1 ton of iron. Under the new system it took only 3 tons of coal. This cut the cost of the iron produced. By 1839, the Bairds had 8 furnaces in blast. By 1843 there were 16 and Gartsherrie was the largest iron works in the world.

To keep the furnaces blazing required a constant flow of coal from the Bairds coal mines. To keep their profits up, the Bairds also had to keep  the cost of coal down. In April 1837 there was a downturn in the Lanarkshire coal trade. Since their wages were based on the price of coal, the miners in Lanarkshire started working a three-day week to reduce coal supplies so the price and their wages would rise. The Bairds responded by sacking all their miners and evicting them from their company houses. The strike last 15 weeks, during which the Bairds sent surface workers down the mines to keep the iron furnaces going.  This is James Baird’s version of the events.

In April 1837 the colliers were receiving five shillings a day, but as trade was looking rather unfavourable, they took it into their heads that they would be able to keep up their wages by working only three days in the week, and they continued to do this for some time. The other coal masters took no steps to resist it ; but we resolved that we would not, if we could help it, have our output limited in this way, and we accordingly gave every man notice to quit in fourteen days…This strike taught the poor men a lesson which they did not soon forget. It was as determined and prolonged a strike as any we have ever had at Gartsherrie. Many of the wives and children suffered greatly during the fifteen weeks of their foolish idleness. When they returned their condition was sadly changed. The best their furniture was gone. Most of the people who returned were in squalid wretchedness, and some of those who had left us had succumbed to their sufferings, and were in their graves. All the time I remained about Gartsherrie—down to 1851 or 1852—I never again saw the colliers up to the same mark of health and comfort as that in which they were before this strike. [From 'The Bairds of Gartsherrie’ 1879, pp 67-69.]

Of the miners forced to return to work by hunger, only some were re-hired since the Bairds had already filled most of the miners’ former houses with new workers. What James Baird does not mention is that it was only after troops were brought in, stationed in Airdrie, that order was restored and the strike physically broken.

Altogether, between 1816 and 1874 there were 23 strikes in the Lanarkshire coal field. most of which affected the iron industry as well. As these realted industries grew, so did employment and output. By 1913 Scotland produced 43.2 million tonnes of coal and 140 000 people or 10% of the Scottish population were employed in the industry. In the same year, Scotland produced 1.3 million tons of pig iron and 1.4 million tons of steel. On the Clyde, 756 973 tons of shipping were launched equal to 1/3 of UK production and 18% of world wide production.

But along with locomotive building for export, another Scottish speciality, this industrial growth was frequently interrupted by periods when trade was ‘depressed’. This led to lay-offs and wage cuts. While one response to this roller-coast ride of good times and bad times was the growth of trade unions and then a Labour party, another was emigration. Over the course of the nineteenth century, 1. 9 million Scots left the country. This figure includes those directly forced from the land by the Highland Clearances, but most came from the Lowlands.

Of the Lowland emigrants, some left directly as a result of the Lowland Clearances in the early part of the century. But most of those who left later were a generation or more removed from the land. Even as late as the period 1951-1960 which was an ‘interlude of comparative prosperity’ for the west of Scotland, 127 000 people emigrated from the region. As  Anthony Slaven put it ‘The region failed to generate enough jobs to offer the economically-active age groups.’ [The Development of the West of Scotland 1750-1960’ (London, 1975)]

While the term ‘the Industrial Clearances’ has been used to describe the loss of Scotland’s  heavy industries in the 1980s and 1990s, this period marked the end rather than the beginning of the Scottish Clearances.


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