Case Study: Mobile material practices

Mobile material practices

The development of modern Scotland entailed the meshing of particular lives with wider developments.  Material histories of this process can explain the ways in which global and seemingly abstract trends interacted with and emerged through the practices of daily life in particular places.  The connections between different localities took many forms.  Below are a few examples.

Mobile material

In 1860, a quantity of Tamar iron ore from Ilfracombe, Tasmania was shipped to Scotland; it returned home after processing and production in the form of cast iron railings.  The railings were smelted and cast in Lanarkshire by the Shotts Iron Company and, upon their return to Australia, were erected outside the government building in Launceston, Tasmania.  In 1938, the railings were taken down to help relieve congestion on the busy Launceston pavements of St. John and Paterson Streets.  They were moved to a location beside the Elphin Showground in Eastern Launceston and re-erected with a new plaque proclaiming that ‘at Edinburgh in 1860 this fence was made of the first iron ore mined in Tasmania at Ilfracombe, West Tamar’. This stands as a memorial to the first stage of the process which led to large investments in the Tasmanian iron industry in the 1870s.’For further reading see Cremin and Jack 1994 Australia’s Age of Iron

Mobile practices

Govan Iron Works Lower English Buildings under excavation during the M74 project. More information can be found on the project website: ©Crown Copyright


In the 1830s, the Monklands area of Lanarkshire saw rapid industrialisation in association with the emergence of hot-blast iron smelting technologies, which allowed a ‘Scotch’ pig iron to be produced cheaply by smelting the abundant local Blackband iron ores using ‘raw’ local coal (rather than coke, for which most Scottish coals are not well-suited, see Photos-Jones et al. 2008).  The forge at the Govan Iron Works, an outlier of the Monklands industry, was one of the first forges to use this Scotch pig and, to do so successfully, it was necessary to bring in skilled iron puddlers and other forgemen from elsewhere.  Documentary research has shown that the initial workforce was largely recruited from Wales, Staffordshire (the Black Country) and Shropshire.  The large Welsh contingent may reflect a desire to develop a particular process at the Govan works: a one-stage variant of puddling (‘pig boiling’). This process had been very successful in Wales but did not work well with Scotch pig; after hints of serious problems in the early 1840s, the forge was rebuilt to use a two-stage version of puddling, more common in the West Midlands.  Census returns for 1851-1871 show considerable movement of workers between the Govan works and other works in the Monklands district, and there was some tendency for the English workers to return home, with new workers arriving (perhaps of their own volition rather than being actively recruited) from the Highlands and from Ireland.  The Govan Iron Works and its associated workers’ housing has recently been the subject of archaeological and historical investigation, in association with the M74 Completion motorway extension project.  The excavations have allowed the living conditions and material culture of this very mixed British workforce to be studied.

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