Renewable energy, including wind and water power, is seen as a modern concept. Yet, in the days before heavy industrialisation, wind and water power were crucial for the development of Renfrewshire. Beyond mills for grinding grain and processing textiles, wind and water were used, particularly in mining.
Although the highlands of central Renfrewshire consist mostly of igneous rocks, coal and lime is available along the valleys of the Black Cart to Castle Semple, and of the Gryfe towards Bridge of Weir. The most ambitious landowners were keen to exploit these minerals on their estates. However, in the west of Scotland climate any hole made in the ground for a quarry or coal pit quickly filled with water. An early solution was to construct tunnels, known as ‘levels’ from the bottom of the quarry or pit to the nearest low point in the landscape. Once the level was completed, mining could carry on for many years, without fear of flooding. Early examples include the Corseford area with tunnels draining to the Black Cart. One of these still spouts water near the weir on the Black Cart at Elliston Bridge.
Once the quarry or pit became too deep to drain naturally, the water had to be pumped out. One method was to use horse gins, such as on the Speirs estate at Elderslie, where one or more beasts walking in a circle turned a wheel, lifting buckets of water on a rope. However, keeping and feeding horses was an expensive task. This encouraged the motivation to find an innovative source of power which could run day and night at little cost. The novel solution was to use water to drain water. By damming and diverting a burn along a lade, a fall could be created to drive a waterwheel. The wheel then powered a pump to drain the workings. The wheel could also be used to raise the coal or lime.
By the early eighteenth century water power was being used at Craigends, where ‘the water was taken out of the coal pits by a water engine, and great lime work was also carried on’. A lade from the Locher drove a water wheel, and a lime kiln and coal pit can still be seen.
Coal and lime working had been carried out in the Spateston area for a long time but any more organised working was plagued by flooding. The solution was an enterprise in 1776 between Houston of Johnstone and McDowall of Castle Semple to set up water powered drainage. Power was provided by the Swinetrees Burn, which flows from the foothills of Walls Hill. At Corseford, the water was dammed and carried to the water engine for a great distance on an elevated wooden channel.
The most lucrative coal reserves in the county were at Quarrelton, where the famous ‘100 foot’ coal was worked intermittently from the medieval period. By the 1690s drainage was provided by a pump situated over a shaft at the lowest point of the coalﬁeld. The Craigbog Burn nearby was insufficient to power a water wheel, but was supplemented by an innovative scheme which diverted the Old Patrick Water three kilometres away. This fed a reservoir near Johnstone Castle. The water machine was situated near the former ‘Bird in Hand’ hotel, from where the lade still exits down the ‘Colliers Level’ in Linn Park. On a 1733 map of Quarrelton, covering five acres of Brownockhill farm, there were a dozen coal pits clustered around the water engine. In the early 1700s the engine was maintained by millwright, Neil Small from Kilwinning, who was paid for ‘maintaining, guiding, ordering and repairing the water wheel, pumps, gins and other machines for winning and out-taking the coal of Quarrelton and for draining the water therefrom’.
Other less obvious uses of water power were to grind Barytes at the mine at Muirshiels above Lochwinnoch. A previous article in the Advertizer showed how water was also used to pump water from the drained Barr Loch at Hole of Barr.
Where a suitable burn was not available, wind power was also used. At the limeworks on the White Cart at Blackhall near Paisley in the 1780s ‘the water was taken from the lime quarry by a wind miln carried on by William King’. Another example was at the limeworks at Boghall, on the west side of Windyhill, near Milliken, where a windmill is shown in Ainslie’s 1796 county survey. Such innovations allowed the early industrialisation of the area before the advent of steam power.
© 2013 Stuart Nisbet