Ironstone and Granite Chapter One

Two quotes to begin with…

In the cold light of dawn as the blue and white sea of saltires ebbed away, the political geography of modern Scotland was revealed on 19 September 2014. Charting the spread of Yes and No votes, the influence of history was also exposed. Not the passionate and romantic history of nationalism, of Bravehearts and Jacobites, but rather a more recent history shaped by the dismal science of political economy.

The experts invited to formulate their diagnosis for ‘The Crisis of Democracy ’noted that rulers had become incapable of governing as a result of the excessive involvement of the governed in political life. The experts lamented the excess of democracy that had emerged since the 1960s-that is the rise of egalitarian demands and the desire for active political participation by the poorest and most marginalized classes.

‘Fields, Factories and Wind farms’ [still available here] was a collection of articles and talks produced for Radical e Dumfries and Galloway in the long run up to the Scottish independence referendum. ‘Ironstone and Granite’ will be a similar book but with a more focused theme- a comparative history of the industrial and rural Scottish Lowlands. In 1800 Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Galloway and Dumfriesshire were all at a similar stage of Scottish Enlightenment inspired development. By 1900, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire had become industrialised and urbanised while Galloway and Dumfriesshire had not.

Although 1914 marked the peak of the region’s industrial economy, the slow decline and eventual loss of the iron, steel, coal, engineering and shipbuilding industries north of the Southern Uplands Fault, which divides Lowland Scotland, has not seen a re-convergence of the region’s economies. Most recently the historic urban/rural, industrial/agricultural divergence was highlighted by the marked division between No and Yes voting areas of the western Lowlands. Despite the No vote on 18 September 2014, the Radical Independence Campaign will continue. But if the now long term ain of achieving radical independence is to be achieved, a greater level of historical consciousness will be required. This and future posts are intended as a contribution to the process.

Ironstone and Granite by Alistair Livingston: Chapter One -Introduction

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
[Ozymandias P. Shelley 1818]

neilson  tongland

Neilson family mausoleum, Tongland

In the cold light of dawn as the blue and white sea of saltires ebbed away, the political geography of modern Scotland was revealed on 19 September 2014. Charting the spread of Yes and No votes, the influence of history was also exposed. Not the passionate and romantic history of nationalism, of Bravehearts and Jacobites, but rather a more recent history shaped by the dismal science of political economy. While both nationalist heartlands of the rural north-east and the unionist heartlands of the rural south were united in their cries of ‘No’, the spectre which haunted the Yes campaign was the Victorian age of Industry and Empire. The sun may have set on the industries and the empire which supported them, but they have left Scotland with a pernicious legacy. The wealth which flowed out from the jute mills of Dundee, the shipyards of the Clyde, the great engineering works, the coal mines and iron furnaces of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire has gone, leaving enduring poverty in its wake.

Seventy years after Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias’, Walter Montgomerie Neilson had a monument erected to celebrate a revolutionary discovery made by his father James Beaumont Neilson in 1828. James Neilson’s discovery was that heating the air blown into iron smelting furnaces dramatically improved their efficiency. Before this discovery, Scotland produced 36 000 tons of pig iron per year. By the time Neilson’s ‘Hot Blast’ monument was erected, this had risen to over 1 million tons per year. However, while there was no shortage of Scottish coal to feed the iron furnaces in 1888, Scottish iron ore was a more limited resource. From 1854 to 1881, annual production was two million tons but by 1890 it fallen to 1 million tons and by 1913 Scotland produced only 592 000 tons of iron ore. So even as Walter Neilson’s monument to his father was being built, the once fierce fires of the mighty iron works were already being damped down, although it would be another hundred years before the closure of the Ravenscraig steel and iron works in 1992 marked the final end of the revolution James Neilson had begun.

A fitting spot for the Neilson monument might have been close to Coatbridge parish church in North Lanarkshire. In 1869 a visitor described the scene.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress…There is something grand in even a distant view of the furnaces but the effect is much enhanced when they are approached to within a hundred yards or so. The flames then have a positively fascinating effect. No production of the pyrotechnist can match their wild gyrations. Their form is ever changing, and the variety of their movements is endless.

Now they shoot far upward, and breaking short off, 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.

However, Neilson’s monument was built 90 miles away on a hill above the village of Ringford in Galloway. To the east and south green fields stretch across the landscape while to the north and west the brown and grey mass of the Galloway Highlands rise up towards Merrick, the highest peak in the Southern Uplands. Like the artists known as the ‘Glasgow Boys’ who followed him, the tranquil rural landscape of Galloway offered Glasgow born James Neilson a very different environment from the sprawling city he knew and the clangour of the industries he helped to create. Quite why Neilson chose Queenshill estate in Galloway to retire to in 1848 is uncertain, but the decision was probably influenced by the belief that he was a descendent of John Neilson of Corsock in Galloway who had been executed as a Covenanter rebel in 1666.

This faint trace of an older past is a reminder that the geological boundary marked by the Southern Uplands Fault, which divided the coal and ironstone possessing districts of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and upper Nithsdale from Galloway and the rest of Dumfriesshire, was for centuries invisible. The religious culture of seventeenth century Covenanters and the rational culture of eighteenth century Improvers were shared across this region. While tracing James Neilson’s legacy as the ‘father’ of modern Scotland through the revolutionising impact of the iron industry’s explosive growth, this book will also show that what was to become the rural south was no less developed than what was to become the industrial north at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Looking beyond Scotland, the influence of economic migrants from Galloway and Dumfriesshire on the industrial revolution in north-west England will also be revealed. Before the age of iron acted as a magnet to draw the economically dispossessed from Ireland, the Highlands and the rural south to west central Scotland, the cotton industry drew an earlier generation to Liverpool and Manchester. In Liverpool, William Ewart from Troqueer (Dumfries) and John Gladstone from Biggar became leading merchants and their sons became politicians. Two of William Ewart’s sons became Members of Parliament and his godson, John Gladstone’s son William Ewart Gladstone, became a prime minister. In Manchester, John Kennedy, James McConnell, Adam and George Murray, all from Galloway, became leading cotton manufacturers.

Both directly and through marriages these exiled Scots also influenced the economic and political development of Scotland and England. James McConnell’s married Margaret Houldsworth. Her brother Henry built the first steam powered cotton mill in Scotland in Glasgow in 1803 and then diversified into the iron industry at Coltness in Lanarkshire in 1836 and Dalmellington in Ayrshire in 1846. John Kennedy and William Ewart’s brother Peter, who had been Boulton and Watt’s agent in Manchester, promoted the Liverpool and Manchester railway. John Kennedy was one of the three judges at the Rainhill Locomotive trial in 1829 which was won by George and Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’. Peter Ewrat’s nephew Joseph became a leading member of the ‘Liverpool Party’ which drove the development of railway forward by investing in (amongst others) the Caledonian railway which linked west central Scotland with north west England. James McConnell’s son Henry became a leading member of the Anti-Corn Law League while John Kennedy’s daughter Rachel married leading Victorian ‘reformer’ Edwin Chadwick.

Friedrich Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the Working lass in England’ in 1844 after spending two years in Manchester. The extreme and widening gulf between the workers in Manchester and the factory owners led Engels to believe that a revolution even more profound than the French Revolution was imminent in England. The condition of the working class in Scotland’s new iron economy was harsher yet. By 1842 when Engels arrived in Manchester, the cotton industry had been growing and expanding for over 60 years. By 1842 in Scotland, the impact of Neilson’s hot-blast was still confined to north Lanarkshire and was still to be felt in Ayrshire.

Most of the new iron works were constructed on green field sites and the towns which grew up around them- Coatbridge, Airdrie, Wishaw- were company towns. The existing small scale coal mines were unable to meet the huge demand for fuel of the iron furnaces, which also had to be supplied with ironstone and limestone. These new mines and quarries were scattered over the countryside and the iron companies had to build shelters for the miners. These ‘raws’ (rows) were built as quickly and as cheaply as possible. As well as shelter for their workers, the iron companies also had to supply food and basic necessities which they did through company owned stores- which the workers were compelled to use. In what had been rural districts, there was no police force to maintain order, so the iron masters had to create new police districts and meet the costs of doing so.

Taken altogether, the iron companies control over the lives of the workers and their families amounted to a form of ‘industrial feudalism’. When ever the workers went on strike, they were immediately evicted from their company owned homes, denied credit at the company owned stores and had their meetings disrupted by company paid for policemen. In addition, the rising tide of Irish emigration provided the iron companies with an alternative source of labour, sowing the seeds of bitter religious conflict between the workers.

What drove the explosive growth of the Scottish iron industry was the reduction in costs brought about by Neilson’s hot-blast. Before 1830, south Wales was the leading producer of pig iron in the UK. Welsh iron was of good quality but sold at around £6 per ton. By allowing raw coal rather than coke to be used and reducing the quantity of coal required from 8 to 3 tons per ton of iron, the cost of Scottish pig iron fell to £3/ton. At the same time, the total control exercised by the Scottish iron masters over their workers allowed them to ’manage’ the cost of labour. For about 20 years, until the even more efficient Cleveland/ north east England iron industry was developed, the cost advantage of Scottish pig iron generated super profits for the iron companies.

Since iron (later steel) shipbuilding and other internal markets for Scottish pig iron were not yet developed, most of the Scottish iron was exported to other parts of the UK and abroad, for example to the USA . However, the focus on producing cheap pig iron was to become a structural weakness as demand for wrought iron and then steel increased. These problems were exacerbated by the exhaustion of Scottish sources of ironstone. Beyond the production of iron, the reliance of Scotland’s shipbuilding, locomotive building, ‘heavy engineering’ and coal mining industries on export markets through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was another structural weakness.

The southernmost outpost of the iron industry was at Dalmellington in Ayrshire. Here the Damellington Iron Works was in operation from 1848 to 1921 as an offshoot of the Coltness Iron Company. Deep coalmining continued until the 1970s and then opencast mining began in the 1990s. Dalmellington is on the edge of the Southern Uplands Fault. In the 1960s and 70s school and family trips to Ayr provided a dramatic contrast between rural south and industrial north. Within sight of Neilson’s monument, the A 713 from Castle Douglas follows the Galloway Dee through dairy farmland to its junction with the river Ken which flows through an ever narrowing valley to Dalry. The road then rises up past a sequence of dams and hydro-electric power stations built in the 1930s towards the tiny village of Carsphairn in the high moors beneath the Rhinns of Kells. After crossing the watershed the road then drops down through a very narrow glen towards Dalmellington. Into the misadventures, steam engines were still at work amongst the mines and the road skirted a huge bing (a waste tip, now gone) opposite the former iron works at Waterside. The road then follows a railway line down the Doon valley to Ayr. In the eighteenth century a network of waggonways carried coal to the harbour where it was exported to Ireland. This export of coal continued into the 1970s supplying power stations in Northern Ireland. Pollution from these power stations then drifted back across the North Channel to fall as acid rain on the Galloway hills.

The population of Galloway and Dumfriesshire peaked in 1851 and then began a gradual decline. The most likely reason for the decline after 1851 was the impact of the railways which reached Dumfries in 1850 and Stranraer in the west in 1861. Before the railways, the region supported many small scale industries-local breweries, local brickworks, grain mills and the like. These local industries were unable to compete with large scale producers distributing their commodities through the rail network. The railway connection also saw the decline in coastal shipping which had linked the region’s agriculture with Whitehaven and Liverpool. However, the speeding up of transport offered by the new railways encouraged a shift in the agricultural economy away from cereal and livestock production to dairy farming. It became possible to send fresh milk from the region north into the growing markets of central Scotland.

While it is interesting to explore the diverging histories of the western lowlands south and north of the Southern Uplands Fault, it is important not to lose sight of other, bigger pictures. One of these bigger pictures is the tendency to focus on the ‘big’ divide between Highland and Lowland Scotland. This tendency can lead to the belief that there are two Scotlands, a rural and traditional north and an urban and industrialised south. This popular perception influences politicians and policy makers and leads to an overlooking or neglect of the rural south (Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders).

At a deeper level of understanding and interpretation of history, the nineteenth century divergence between Galloway and Dumfriesshire and Lanarkshire and Ayrshire could be an example of the difference between what Anthony Wrigley calls ‘organic’ and ‘mineral’ economies. According to Wrigley, organic economies are based on renewable and sustainable sources of energy- water and wind power, human and animal labour. Mineral economies substitute coal and oil for renewable and sustainable energy sources. This substitution allowed Britain to become the first region in the world to break free from the limits to growth which all previous organic economies had been subject to. Significantly, eighteenth century and early nineteenth century political economists based their theories on organic economy models, predicting that economic growth would reach its limits in a ‘stationary state’ of minimal or zero growth.

While the development of Dumfries and Galloway, lacking extensive sources of coal, became ‘stationary’ after 1851, the mineral economies of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire continued to grow. The social cost of that growth are obvious, but the ecological costs are only now becoming apparent as the consequences of climate change begin to bite. Although the science of climate change is solid, the need to ‘de-mineralise’ the global economy and actively work towards a stationary state is being resisted. One of questions this book will explore is if the rural south of Scotland is an example of a stationary state and a low-growth future. But if rural south provides an image of the future, where will that leave communities in the urban north which have been blighted by the industrial clearances of the 1980s and 1990s? If there is a duty and necessity to tackle the environmental costs of the mineral economy, the social costs must also be met. But how?

This question brings us back to the independence referendum and distribution of the Yes vote which revealed ‘the desire for active political participation by the poorest and most marginalized classes.’ The quote is taken from a book I am still reading.

The political programme of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, subsequently replicated by a large number of governments and transmitted by major international organisations like the IMF and World Bank, initially presented itself as a set of responses to a situation deemed ‘unmanageable’. This specifically reactive dimension was transparent in the report of the Trilateral Commission, ‘The Crisis of Democracy’…
The experts invited to formulate their diagnosis in 1975 noted that rulers had become incapable of governing as a result of the excessive involvement of the governed in political life [and] lamented the excess of democracy that had emerged in the 1960s-that is the rise of egalitarian demands and the desire for active political participation by the poorest and most marginalized classes.
In their view political democracy could only function normally with ‘some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups’. Coinciding with the classic themes of the original neo-liberal theoreticians, they concluded that ‘there are …potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy’. [‘The New Way of the World -on Neoliberal Society’ Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Verso 2014 p. 151]

So alongside /cutting across the regional history aspects, the re will also be a global/contemporary/ radical dimension to ‘Ironstone and Granite’.

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