Thursday, 24 July 2014

Beyond the census - Woodhead lead mines, Carsphairn

It’s difficult, sometimes, to look at places today and imagine how they used to be. It’s particularly poignant to see only ruins of places where whole communities once lived and thrived. Moss grows on old stones, and people forget small histories.

In the parish of Carsphairn, up in the hills, we find the long-abandoned Woodhead lead mines. It is peaceful – no echoes remain of the heavy sounds of industry that were once heard here. Although ruinous, we can still see the foundations of the manager’s home, the terraced houses of the miners, the schoolhouse and the smelt mill. The mine shafts themselves were blocked up with rubbish when the mine was closed – unassailed by the elements they remain in good condition.

Mining in Woodhead was started in 1838 by the proprietor Colonel MacAdam Cathcart. After discovering that greywacke on the surface was rich in lead, he led an excavation 20 feet deep which confirmed his hopes. There was a great deal of money to be made in lead at the time, and the Colonel was swift to construct not only a mine but an entire village surrounding the works. An 1856 publication described the process thus:

By degrees miners were collected, cottages reared, furnaces, smelting-houses, and other necessary accommodations followed; and where not a solitary shieling appeared before, rows, or streets of cottages now adorn heights eclipsing in size the village of Lagwyne [Carsphairn] below, to say nothing of public works and their gradual extension, which, in the course of little more than three years, have drawn together a body of artisans who have raised the population of the parish from 500 in 1831, to 790 souls in 1841.

The construction of entire model villages around mines was not unusual at the time, with many industrialists providing housing and community amenities for their workers. The village at Woodhead included a library and a school for workers’ children. Our census records for the schoolhouse read thus:  


James  Irvine

Teacher of English
Roxburgh, Ancrum

Ann Irvine

Roxburgh, Jedburgh

James and Ann Irvine would have taught the children until only about twelve years of age. Boys from the age of eight were employed in the washing and dressing of the lead ore and would have attended school only during the winter, when the conditions became too harsh to work. Girls from around the same age would have assumed a number of household duties. Childhood was short, and practically prepared children for their future roles.

Lead mining continued at Woodhead until 1873, producing at its peak around 900 tons of lead a year.  Hundreds made their homes in this remote village in Scotland. Now, only ruins and passed-down memories can recall the mining community which once brought life to these hills. 


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