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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part I.—Records and Traditions of Gairloch
Chapter XVII.—Ancient Gairloch Ironworks


MANY visitors to Gairloch, and not a few of the inhabitants, will learn with astonishment that the manufacture of iron was carried on in the parish from remote times, and that there are still abundant remains to testify to the magnitude and importance of the industry. There are many places in this wild and picturesque High land district where are to be seen to this day large heaps of slag and dross, and remains of blast-furnaces or bloomeries; whilst many acres of arable ground, as well as of uncultivated moorland, are still thickly strewn with fragments of charcoal and of several kinds of iron ore.

The remains of ironworks examined in Gairloch may be roughly divided into two classes, viz :—(i) The ancient ironworks, of which there are no historical records extant; and (2) The historic ironworks of Loch Maree.

The ancient ironworks or bloomeries are the subject of our present chapter. Some of them appear, as we should expect, to belong to a later period than others, but nothing can be said with precision about the date of any of them. They will be described in Part I., chap. xx.

There are some interesting notes on the subject of ancient Highland ironworks in the curious book entitled "Remarks on Dr Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Hebrides, by the Rev. Donald N'Nicol, A.M.," published in 1779, an^ extracted in Appendix G. Mr M'Nicol does not give his authorities, but there is ample ocular demonstration of the truth of his statement, that " the smelting and working of iron was well understood and constantly practised over all the Highlands and Islands for time immemorial." Other writers have expressed the opinion, that iron was made throughout Great Britain long before the Roman invasion.

Perhaps a coin now in my possession, which was found some years ago in a field on the bank of the river Went in Yorkshire, near large quantities of ancient heavy iron slag, may be taken as giving some clue to the date of the older ironworks. It is an ancient British coin of the type of the quarter stater of Philip II. of Macedon. The British coinage is supposed to have been in existence at least as far back as 150 B.C., and this is one of the early types.

The querns frequently found in all parts of the Highlands shew that the ancient inhabitants grew some corn,—that they had some acquaintance with "the staff of life." It seems a reasonable inference, that they used iron implements for tilling their lands and securing their crops. It is certain that some iron weapons, tools, and implements, besides those employed in agriculture, were in use in the Highlands in those old days. An iron axe-head, of the shape of the bronze celt figured among our illustrations, and with the aperture for the handle similarly in a line with its axis instead of at right angles to it, was found in 1885 in the garden at Inveran ; its remains are much eaten by rust, but there is enough to shew that this iron axe is of an old type. It may be objected, that if iron implements for peace or war were extensively used in ancient days there would be more relics of them. The obvious reply to such an objection is, that iron is so liable to oxidation that most of the smaller iron articles of ancient times must have perished from that cause. Many of the small masses of rust-cemented gravel and earth, found everywhere, may have originally had for their nucleus an ancient iron implement,, or a fragment of one. If it be allowed that the Picts or other early inhabitants of the north used iron tools and weapons, the question at once arises,—Where and how did they procure them ? The remains of the ancient class of ironworks supply the answer. Those so-called savages well knew where to procure iron, and how to fabricate from it the articles they required,—another proof that the Picts were by no-means the uncivilised barbarians that some people suppose.

The ancient ironworks of Gairloch were probably not more numerous than those of some other parts of the Highlands and Islands. There is little doubt but that many of the remains, both in Gairloch and elsewhere, have been obliterated by the husbandman, or concealed by overgrowth of heather and other plants. In many places throughout Sutherlandshire, Ross-shire, and Inverness-shire, as well as in other Scottish counties, there are large quantities of iron slag. The Inverness Scientific Society have examined remains of ancient iron-smelting near Alness in Easter Ross. The Rev. Dr Joass, of Golspie, and Mr D. William Kemp, of Trinity, have to a certain extent investigated some Sutherlandshire remains. There are also quantities of slag on the Braemore estate, on the shores of Loch Rosque between Achnasheen and the eastern boundary of Gairloch parish (Part IV., chap, hi.), and in many other parts of Wester Ross, as well as in the island of Soa off the west coast of Skye, and many other places.

At the iron-smelting works near Alness a native hematite iron ore was used, as well as what is termed bog iron. Bog iron is also believed to have been used at a bloomery near Golspie, Sutherlandshire. This bog iron appears to have been commonly employed by the ancient ironworkers ; it was extracted by the action of water from ferruginous rocks and strata, and was accumulated at the bases of peat bogs. In process of time granular masses of oxides of iron were thus formed, sometimes covering a considerable area. Within the parish of Gairloch there are still quantities of bog iron to be seen, apparently formed exactly in the manner described. The localities will be stated in Part L, chap. xix. No bog iron has been found in proximity to any of the remains of ironworks; probably the iron-smelters consumed all that was conveniently near the scenes of their operations. In the neighbourhood of all the remains of ironworks in Gairloch are found ferruginous rocks and shales, or rust-coloured earths. The best samples of these rocks have on analysis yielded but eight per cent, of metallic iron, and the rust-coloured earths are by no means rich in the metal. But there can be no doubt that bog iron was formerly present in the vicinity of these rocks, shales, and •earths; and the analyses of the ancient iron slags prove to demonstra tion that such bog iron was the ore used at the ancient bloomeries.

Mr W. Ivison Macadam, analytical chemist of Edinburgh, is hopeful that the analyses he has undertaken may in course of time throw more light on the methods and productions of the ancient ironworkers. It is not probable that we shall ever know much of their history. According to the Rev. Donald M'Nicol they made iron "in the blomary way, that is by laying it under the hammers in order to make it malleable, with the same heat that melted it in the furnace." In the present day the processes of smelting iron and of producing malleable iron are separate and distinct; these ancient artisans probably combined the two. The slags produced at their furnaces contained a large proportion of metallic iron. Mr Macadam has found fully fifty per cent, of iron in most of the samples of ancient Gairloch slags he has analysed, and at some modern ironworks quantities of ancient slag have actually been found worth resmelting. The wasteful richness of the old slags can be easily accounted for; the ancient methods of smelting were comparatively imperfect, labour was cheap, the iron used cost nothing, and the forests whence was derived the charcoal for smelting it were apparently inexhaustible, whilst the business was no doubt carried on more for the supply of local and immediate wants than as a branch of commerce. If the ironworkers could obtain by their primitive processes enough iron to supply their own requirements, they would naturally be careless of the amount of metal wasted.

The fuel universally used for iron-smelting, until far into the eighteenth century, was wood-charcoal, and even to the middle of the nineteenth century it was still employed at two blast-furnaces in Scotland. Every part of the Highlands, not excepting the parish of Gairloch, was clothed with dense forests of fine timber. Far up the mountain slopes, and down to the rocky shores of the sea, the fir, oak, and birch flourished in wonderful and beautiful profusion. There is no poetic license, no picturesque exaggeration in this statement. Everywhere the relics of trees are to be seen to this day, and much of the timber used by Gairloch crofters in roofing their dwellings and for other purposes consists of branches found underground. The disappearance of the great Caledonian forest has been accounted for in several ways; some have conjectured that a vast conflagration or series of conflagrations destroyed it; others think that its destruction was more gradual, and resulted from the labours of the charcoal burners and similar doings. In Gairloch there are charred stumps still to be seen preserved in peat bogs, that support the conflagration theory; but there is also widespread evidence of extensive charcoal

burnings, so that there must be some truth in both these modes of accounting for the destruction of the woods. Some localities of charcoal burnings will be mentioned in Part I., chap. xx.

All the ancient Gairloch ironworks are in the vicinity of burns. This fact raises a strong inference that the older ironworkers, like their historic successors, utilised the water-power afforded by adjoining streams for the purpose of working machinery. The Rev. D. M'Nicol's statement, already quoted, that hammers were used to | produce malleable iron confirms the inference; and the remains of | dams or weirs, and other expedients for augmenting the water-power, convert the conjecture into an established fact. It appears certain, then, that heavy hammers worked by machinery, with water for the motive power, were used in remote times,—another testimony to the ingenuity and mechanical skill of the ancient inhabitants of the Highlands. The tuyere for a furnace-blast found at Fasagh {see illustration) is another evidence of that skill.

The reader must please remember that the ancient ironworks referred to in this chapter are quite distinct from the historic series to which our next is devoted.


 


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