It is not customary to open a lecture on industrial heritage by singing a chorus. Professor Margaret Bennett had us sing the “Weavers song” before delivering a talk focusing on the Scottish Flax industry and the Stanley Mills in particular.
The Mill, built by Richard Arkwright, better known for his cotton mills in Lancashire, was opened in 1787. He chose the site to exploit the fast flowing waters of the Tay. The mill processed flax to produce linen. The mill required large numbers of female workers who at that time were confined to domestic or farm work and a smaller number of men. Professor Bennett told of farm girls who preferred the 12 hour days in the mill to being at home on the farm. It was a sign of early female emancipation and the movement of agricultural workers into industry. The village of Stanley was created from the houses the company built. The company also provided a range of cultural and sporting facilities.
The unfinished linen was set out on what were known as bleach fields. These fields situated at Stanley and Luncarty were extensive. As production increased the area required for bleaching increased from 80 Acres in 1791 to 130 acres in 1846. After the linen had lost most of its colour it was pounded to soften the fabric to make it suitable for its final uses. Eventually Arkwright turned to chemicals to give a more assured result. The machinery in the mill encouraged the birth of engineering activities. The town of Kirkcaldy became well known for its innovations in weaving machinery.
The development of shuttles which were safer than those previously used, resulted in the company of McFarlane & Sons becoming supplier to most of the British weaving industry. There were three major employers in the town producing weaving machines which were exported in large numbers to the Baltic States. The need for skilled engineers to build and maintain the machinery was recognised leading to the introduction of apprenticeship for new entrants. The skills the apprentices learnt on weaving and similar machines were transferable to other aspects of engineering.
The Scottish apprentice engineers who had received this training went throughout the world to work on major project. An example was Sir Sandford Fleming, born in Kirkcaldy, where he served his engineering apprenticeship,
who went on to become the main engineer responsible for the construction of the Trans Canadian railway. His engineering and practical brain also saw the need for standardised timekeeping on the railways and his suggestions form the basis of the system used today. Professor Bennett told us that although he is an iconic figure in Canada he is largely unknown in Scotland.
Professor Bennett traced the beginning of Scotland’s industrial heritage to places like the Stanley Mills. The increase in the urban population and the freedom from the land for young women began at this time. The importance of education and training became apparent leading to the introduction of training for engineers.
At the next meeting on 19th October in the Aytoun Hall, Lynne McGeachie will talk on Beatrix Potter’s Scotland, “Her Perthshire Inspiration”.