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Archaeology InSites

Wilsontown 18th century Ironworks – near Forth, South Lanarkshire

A Brave Enterprise

When William Wilson found that ironstone he may have had no manufacturing experience but he and his brother John were already merchants, importing Swedish bar iron to London. The eldest brother Robert owned the family estate called Cleugh near Forth, close to the boundary with West Lothian. It was a wild and isolated place with a very small resident community. Robert had a small-scale and unsuccessful coal mine on the family estate, so the idea of an Ironworks must have seemed fantastic at the time. However, the 3 brothers set about building Lanarkshire’s first Ironworks and by 1779 they had one furnace in blast.

The Ironworks and its associated village grew over the years. The works included 2 blast furnaces, a forge, rolling mill, coke and calcining kilns, 3 collieries, several quarries, at least 77 bell pits where ironstone was dug up, stables, wrights’, smiths’ and carpenters’ shops and at least 6 miles of iron railway. The village housed over 2000 people at its peak and had a shop, pub and a religious school. Set apart from the works was a new palladian mansion house for the Wilson family. Quite a change to the local landscape.

Over the years there was ongoing investment into the Ironworks with the hope this would yield high returns. Unfortunately a variety of factors led to the bankruptcy of the Wilsons and the Ironworks was put up for sale in 1811. Nobody bought the works until 1821 when it was purchased by William Dixon. It continued as an Ironworks until 1842 when the furnace was finally blown out forever.

A Rethink And A Rebirth

There are the usual famous industrialist names that can be associated with an Ironworks of this age, but perhaps the most significant contribution that Wilsontown Ironworks made is the discovery of hot blast. In 1828 James Beaumont Neilson was working for William Dixon and sent to Wilsontown to fix a leaking water regulator tank. As a result he observed hot blast for the first time and went on to patent this process later that year. This changed iron and steel manufacture forever.

When industry left the place nature gradually recolonised it. Then in the 1960s the Forestry Commission bought the land to establish a new commercial plantation. After initially damaging and destroying significant remains of the Ironworks during 1974 the site saw a turnaround in thinking by the Forestry Commission.

Work began around 2002 to investigate the significance of the Ironworks and plan for its future. It was clear to Forestry Commission Scotland by now that this place mattered a lot to local people and those with family connections to the works. At first the path network saw improvements, then the forest began to be removed from significant areas such as the bell pit landscape. Further path upgrades and an expansion of the car park took place, together with the installing of several artistic features and interpretation boards to tell the stories of this special place. Prof John Hume contributed greatly to the efforts by FCS at this time, his black and white photographs of the site from the 1960s are a significant archive.

Visitors can now explore the place where iron manufacture in Lanarkshire began. As they enjoy the peace here they can wonder at how it once housed 2000 people and was full of noise, flame and smoke.
Emma Stewart - Environment Forester, Forestry Commission Scotland
Please be aware that this site may be on private land. For more information regarding access please consult the Scottish Outdoor Access Code