10.5.1 Metalworking


As noted in Chapter 9.5.1, there is good evidence of iron smelting and smithing in the medieval period. Smelting required good supplies of charcoal and bog iron, available in many areas of the Highlands. A bloomery site excavated at Craggie, Sutherland (MHG62067) provides evidence of late 15th to early 17th century smelting, with over 58 kg of furnace linings, waste and tap slag. Charcoal analysis showed birch as the main fuel, with limited amounts of alder; this is unusual for bloomery sites where oak and alder usually predominate, and probably represents what was easiest to source locally. The furnace is notably larger than other known examples. It had no stone in its construction, being made entirely of clay. It may have been in use for a relatively short period of time (Atkinson and Wombell 2015).

In the 16th-century blast furnace technology came to the UK, and the earliest known examples from Scotland, dating to the early 17th century, were located in Wester Ross along Loch Maree at the Red Smiddy (MHG7711; Case Study Red Smiddy Blast Furnace), Letterewe (MHG7940) and Fasaigh (MHG7921). These are linked to the enterprise of the Fife landowner, Sir George Hay, who used them to produce ordnance. This area provided good woodland for fuel, and the transport links needed to import the clayband ores and export the finished products (Lewis 1984; MacCoinnich 2006).

Former blast furnace, Red Smiddy, Poolewe, Ross and Cromarty. ©HES

Later initiatives in the Highlands by the York Buildings Company, an English firm, established blast furnaces during the 18th century at Invergarry, Lochaber (MHG5520) and Coulnakyle in Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG4599; Murray 1883 57ff); both were not successful, encountering fierce local resistance. Limited excavation was undertaken in the 1980s at the Red Smiddy, where remains of the furnace can still be seen (Lewis 1984) and in the 1990s at Fasaigh by the Scottish Bloomeries Project.

The presence of smithies (smiddies) on the Ordnance Survey maps shows that a local blacksmith was a common occurrence from at least the 19th century, and some museums such as Dingwall, Timespan, Historylinks and the Highland Folk Museum preserve tools and equipment from Highland smiddies. How far back this proliferation of blacksmiths operated is not clear, especially since there has been little detailed attention towards the study of townships. In the early part of the post-medieval period smiths were required and supported by clan chiefs for the production of arms and edged implements; some may have been specialised armourers and many were hereditary. Highland Travellers also provided essentially a mobile blacksmith and farrier service, but there is little trace of such activity surviving (Eric Grant pers comm). There were probably more blacksmiths in the 19th century with the development of roads, requiring shoeing of horses and wheeled transport. Further research and excavation might shed some light on the development of blacksmithing premises throughout the Highlands.  

Smithing on an industrial scale occurred at some Highland sites, for example at AI Welders at the Rose Street Foundry in Inverness (MHG20159) which was operational from the late 19th century until 1988, and was the subject of recent research by Eileen MacAskill of the Inverness Field Club, using extensive archive material at Highland Archive Centre. The expansion of the Highland railway provided demand for its products, but the Foundry also produced more domestic works such as the gates leading to Strathpeffer station (MHG55620). Lochgorm Works (MHG17985), built around 1855, is one of the best surviving examples of railway engineering works (Hume 1977, 206–7); other works were also established at Brora for the Duke of Sutherland’s railway (MHG9763), though it was later converted into a woollen mill (Hume 1977, 311). The Admiralty also had large scale foundries during World War I at Invergordon (MHG57042) and Inverness (MHG3121). Many small towns such as Thurso and Tain had foundries in the 19th century, some capable of producing machinery and agricultural implements. Engineering companies such as Reids of Dingwall (MHG32243) were in a sense continuing in that tradition. Other foundries are known only from maps (MHG32318) or name, and further work is needed to pull together this evidence.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness. ©Katrina Gallacher

Other Metalworking

From the end of the 19th century, the British Aluminium Company founded large scale aluminium industrial works at Foyers on Loch Ness (MHG2698), Fort William (MHG4371) and Kinlochleven (MHG89) in Lochaber, taking advantage of hydro power. A much later development from the 1970s was established at Invergordon, Easter Ross (MHG8334), designed to be powered by nuclear powered electricity (Ash 1991, 254ff; Christie nd). All of the works had profound effects on the local populations; the Invergordon smelter led to the construction of the Cromarty Bridge which in turn had a major impact on communications in the area (Ash 1991, 258–259). All works have now closed, and while the remains of the first three smelters still survive, only the pier for the Invergordon smelter remains.


Case Study: Red Smiddy Blast Furnace

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