Bridge of Weir’s Hidden Tunnels

Bridge of Weir is one of at least eighteen planned and unplanned villages in the old County of Renfrew which originated as cotton spinning settlements. The short stretch of the River Gryfe running through the village supported at least ten separate mills, thanks to the development of an ingenious system of dams, tunnels and lades. The last of Bridge of Weir’s mills disappeared with the demolition of Clydesdale Leather Works in the past decade. Although all the mill buildings may be gone, fieldwork is showing that most of the system of lades and tunnels which powered the mills still survives.

The village originated at a narrow rocky gorge, which provided a suitable bridging point of the Gryfe. The village straddles a geological boundary, between the plateau lavas of the Renfrewshire hills, and the flatter Carboniferous plain of the Cart Basin below. There is no actual waterfall, simply a succession of rapids, dropping nearly ten metres over a distance of some 500 metres. Traditionally the main fall powered a grain mill, the Mill of Gryfe. By the 1770s lint and waulk mills had been added.

The site was brought to the attention of cotton spinners by the enterprising Mill of Gryfe owner, who placed adverts in the Glasgow press in 1790. By 1794 the village had three large cotton mills. By the 1840s a dozen individual mill sites were in use, varying greatly in size, all powered by the Gryfe.

The key to the water system was a succession of five dams. The top dam served Burngill cotton mill and leather works. When the railway came, the viaduct had to negotiate not only the river, via a five-span skewed viaduct with segmental arches, but also the cotton mill and lade. The legs of the viaduct straddle the underground lade system which still survives in a brick-lined tunnel. The tunnel passes under the mill site and exits at an arch visible from the upstream side of the Bridge of Weir. Remote investigation with a camera has revealed that this leads into the original 1792 tailrace tunnel, cut through solid rock, with a vaulted masonry roof.

Burngill Tailrace

Burngill Tailrace

Further down, the second weir powered lint and cotton mills, but the dam was washed away in a flood many years ago. The next two dams or weirs are at the main fall on the river and served an upper and lower lade system. The start of the upper lade and a sluice gate still survive by the river path. This powered at least six mills, including two grain mills, two cotton mills, a saw mill and a bleachworks.

Corn Tunnel

Corn Tunnel

The water from each mill discharged directly into the lower lade, which was also fed by its own dam, and then carried on to serve the big cotton mill. Brick tailrace arches can still be seen beside the rubble lade wall. Inside, remote photography again reveals long brick tunnels, leading back under the former mill sites. Further down the rock-cut lower lade are the walls and windows of an eighteenth century grain mill.

The lower lade leads to the site of the Laigh Gryfe cotton mill, the lowest and biggest in the village. The mill was burnt down in 1898, but a leather works rose from the ashes in 1905. This was built on the footprint of the 1794 cotton mill, from its lower walls. Until recently, two storeys of the original cotton mill survived facing the river. The leather works survived until 2002, when it was demolished.

When the site was redeveloped, despite its importance to the origins of village, no investigation was carried out of the eighteenth century mill walls, buried lade, wheel pit and tailrace. Fortunately photos survive of the brick arched tailrace which exited to the river. A short distance below the mill site is the fifth dam which served the cotton mill at Crosslee via a very long lade.

The full lade system may yet return to service as it has the capacity to generate a substantial amount of free power from the flow in the Gryfe.

© 2014 Stuart Nisbet

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