Bonawe – Scotland’s forgotten heritage
There are hundreds of castles, towers and fortified homes in Scotland, and many are wonderfully atmospheric, full of history, myth and the odd ghost. But there are other aspects of history that are perhaps less romantic and thought to be less marketable to tourists. This doesn’t make them less important.
History isn’t all wars and politics and aristocrats and kings. It’s also about people, places, landscapes and how we used our natural resources: work, play, industry, environment. An excellent example of material heritage that’s all about industry and the environment is the Bonawe iron furnace in Tayinult, Argyll.
In 1753 an company from Cumbria opened the iron works on the Argyll coast near the mouth of Loch Etive. There had been an earlier shortlived attempt at a similar operation at Glen Kinglas. Another furnace was established by a rival company near Inveraray a couple of years later (at the village now called Furnace). The Bonawe site is the best preserved, featuring not only the furnace itself but the charcoal and ore sheds and the lade that turned the water wheel which in turn powered huge leather bellows.
Iron ore was shipped in from England, but the key to the apparently isolated location was charcoal. Extensive areas of woodland were exploited for charcoal to power the furnace. The company signed 110 year leases for woodland with the Earl of Breadalbane and Sir Duncan Campbell of Lochnell. Historian Christopher Smout has made the point that rather than signal the death knell of the woodland in the area, exploitation for charcoal created an incentive to maintain the woodland by coppicing it rather than clear-felling for timber or to clear land for farming. Up to 600 people up and down the Argyll coast were employed in charcoal production during the summer months. Another product of the same coppicing process was tanbark. Oak bark is rich in tannins which are used in preparing leather (“tanning”) and the Bonawe site includes a pit where oak bark was soaked to release these chemicals.
It’s easy to forget, in our car-oriented culture, that not so long ago water was one of the most reliable forms of transport which is why places like Tayinult, which appear remote today, were actually more accessible. This is an observation that holds for all of the western seaboard of Scotland, and gives an entirely different perspective on communications.
The furnace worked for up to 42 weeks a year and in winter the heat and sparks must have transformed the building into a dragon spitting fire into the highland night. And when they knocked off, the furnace men, mostly English drank hard – the village had a reputation as a den of sin.
The works finally closed in 1876. After 123 years of operation it was the longest-lived charcoal fired furnace in Scotland. Lowland coke fired furnaces (like the famous Carron works) finally put it out of business.
The Bonawe site is not glamourous, there are no ghost stories. But it is symbolic of many aspects of highland history that are conveniently forgotten.
Bonawe is maintained by Historic Scotland, and when we visited was staffed by a wonderfully enthusiastic and engaged attendant. Worth a visit.
The furnace is in Tayinult, just off the A85 between Lochawe and Connel. See it on Google Maps. Note – don’t drive to the village of Bonawe – it’s on the other side of Loch Etive.
More information from Historic Scotland here.