Extracts from Romantic Culross, Torryburn, Carnock, Cairneyhill, Saline and Pitfirrane By Andrew S. Cunningham, 1902


Sir George Bruce's Mining Operations.

Early in the seventeenth century Sir George Bruce carried on a great business as a salt manufacturer, and James VI., who frequently visited Dunfermline and Culross, gave him a monopoly for the furnishing of certain towns in England with salt. Great as was the enterprise he showed in connection with the salt trade it was not a patch on the enterprise and the skill he exhibited in connection with coal getting. Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries the methods adopted for coal getting were very simple if laborious. When the monks of Dunfermline Abbey began to get coals on the estate of Pittencrieff they simply quarried the edges of the crop seams. As time went on the upper seams were followed by mines run in from the surface, and the water was run off by levels, trenches connecting the mines with the nearest burns. The requirements of the salt trade caused a rapid development of the Scotch coalfields, and the demand for fuel became so great that in 1573 a coal scare arose, and Parliament was induced to pass an act prohibiting the export of coal. The prohibition was winked at by some coalmasters who profited by a monopoly. In 1579 and 1507 the coal working on many estates had become practically impossible on the old "coal heugh" system, and the cries of a "maist exorbitant dearth and scantiness of fewall" became so loud that Parliament was again compelled to intervene, and in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots an Act was passed prohibiting the exportation of coal under very severe penalties. The monks of Culross imitated the monks of Dunfermline Abbey, and opened up coal works, and by the close of the sixteenth century coal digging had practically ceased in Culross district because it was found impossible to drain the workings by trenches and levels. In 1612, when it seemed as if the days of the entire coalfields of Scotland were numbered, Sir George hit upon the idea of draining coal mines by the Egyptian wheel system. He had read of the Egyptians raising water from deep wells by chains of buckets, and he resolved to try the experiment at Culross. On the shore, on what is now Dunimarle orchard, he had a shaft sunk to the upper seams of coal, and he fitted an Egyptian -wheel and chain of buckets on the pit. The drawing given below, for which the writer is indebted to Mr Robert L. Galloway, mining engineer, gives a fair idea of the machine. The wheel was driven by three horses, and consisted of an endless chain of 36 buckets. As eighteen full buckets ascended eighteen empty buckets descended. The experiment was a complete success.

  Chain of Buckets 

Sir George's mining enterprise did not end with his novel Egyptian pump. Finding that the coal ran under the Forth, he erected a "Moat" in the bay some 400 yards from the shore, just opposite the Castlehill or Egyptian wheel pit, making the sides of the structure water-tight. Having found he could keep back the sea, he sunk a shaft to the same coal as that worked in the Shore Pit, and had the two pits connected by a mine run through one of the seams. Mining authorities flocked to Culross from all parts of the country to inspect Sir George Bruce's great undertakings, and wheels on the same model, which were either driven by horses or water, were erected at many collieries. Among those who visited Culross was John Taylor, "the Water Poet," and his description, which bears the date 1618, is particularly interesting. He says :-

"But I, taking my leave of Dunfermeling would needs goe and see the truely noble knight, Sir George Bruce, at a towne called the Cooras. There he made mee right welcome, both varietie of fare, and after all he commanded three of his men to direct mee to see his most admirable cole-mines which (if man can or would worke wonders) is a wonder. For myselfe neither in any travels that I have beene in, nor any history that I have read, or any discourse that I have heard, did neither see, read, or heare of any worke of men that might parallel or equivalent with this unfellowed and unmatchable worke. And though all I can say of it cannot describe it according to the worthiness of his vigilant industry, that was both the occasion, inventor, and maintainer of it; yet rather then the memory of so rare an enterprise, and so accomplisht a profit to the commonwealth, shall be raked and smothered in the dust of oblivion, I will give a little touch at the description of it, although I amongst writers am like he that worst may hold the candle. "The mine hath two wayes into it, the one by sea and the other by land: but a man may goe into it by land, and return the same way if he please; and so he may enter it by sea, and by sea he may come forth of it. But I for varietie's sake went in by sea and out by land. Now men may object, how can a man goe into a mine, the entrance of it being into the sea, but that the sea will follow him and so drown the mine? To which objection thus I answer. That at low water, the sea being ebd away, and a great part of the sand bare, upon the same sand (being mixed with rockes and cragges) did the master of this great worke build a round circular frame of stone, very thick, strong, and joyned together with glutinous or bitumous matter, so high withall that the sea at the highest flood or the greatest rage of storm or tempest, can neither dissolve the stones so well compacted in the building or yet overflow the height of it. Within this round frame (at all adventures) hee did set workemen to digg with mattakes, pickaxes, and other instruments fit for such purposes. They did dig forty foot downe right into and through a rocke. At last they found that which they expected, which was sea-cole. They following the veine of the mine, did dig forward still; so that in the space of eight-and-twenty or nine-and-twenty yeers, they have digged mor . than an English mile under the sea, that when men are at worke belowe, an hundred of the greatest shippes in Britaine may saile over their heads. Besides, the mine is most artificially cut like an arch or a vault all that great length, with many nookes and by-wayes; and it is so made that a man may walk upright in the most places, both in and out. Many poore people are there set on work, which otherwise through the want of employment would perish. But when I had seene the mine and was come forth of it againe, after my thanks given to Sir George Bruce, I told him that if th plotters of the powder treason in England had seene this mine, that they (perhaps) would have attempted to have left the Parliament House, and have undermined the Thames, and so to have blowne up the barges and wherries wherein the King and all the Estates of our Kingdome were. Moreover, I said that I could afford to turn tapster at London, so that I had but one quarter of a mile of his mine to make mee a celler to keepe beere and bottle-ale in. The sea at certain places doth leake or soak into the mine, which by the industry of Sir George Bruce, is all conveyed to one well neere the land, where he hath a device like a horse-mill, that with three horses and a great chaine of iron, going downward many fadomes, with thirty-six buckets" fastened to the chaine, of the which eighteene goe downe still to be rilled, and eighteene ascend up to be emptied, which doe emptie themselves (without any man's labour) into a trough that conveys the water into the sea againe, by which means he saves his mine, which otherwise would be destroyed with the sea; be ides, he doth make every weeke ninety or a hundred tunnes of salt, which doth serve most part of Scotland, some he sends into England, and very much into Germany: all which shows the painfull industry, with God's blessing to such worthy endeavours. I must with many thanks, remember his courtesie to me; and lastly how he sent his man to guide mee tenne miles on the way to Stirling, where by the way I saw the outside of a faire and statlie house called Alloway, belonging to the Earle of Marr, which by reason that his honor was not there, I past by, and went to Stirling."

James VI visits the Colliery

According to tradition, James VI was one of the visitors to the colliery. Here is the story of the King's visit as related in the "Old statistical account of Culross " :-

"There is a tradition that James VI., revisiting his native country, made an excursion into Fife; and, resolving to take the diversion of hunting in the neighbourhood of Dunfermline, invited the company then attending him to dine along with him at a collier's house, meaning the Abbey of Culross, then belonging to Sir George Bruce. Being conducted, by his own desire, to see the works below ground, he was led insensibly by his host and guide to the moat above mentioned, it being then high water; upon which, having ascended from the coal pit, and seeing himself, without any previous intimation, surrounded by the sea, he was seized with an immediate apprehension of some plot against his liberty or life, and called out, Treason. But his faithful guide quickly dispelled his fears by assuring him that he was in perfect safety; and, pointing to an elegant pinnace that was made fast to the moat, desired to know whether it was most agreeable to his Majesty to be carried ashore in it, or to return by the same way he came; upon which the King, preferring the shortest way back, was carried directly ashore, expressing much satisfaction at what he had seen. It is certain that at that time the King was sumptuously entertained at the Abbey, some of the glasses, &c., then made use of in the desert, being still preserved in the family; and the room where his Majesty was entertained still retains the name of the King's room."

The Wreck of the Moat Pit

In the "Borrowing Days" of March 1625, a terrific storm passed over Scotland. The hurricane raged with terrible fury at Culross. During the night the "Moat" was overthrown, the colliery gearing completely wrecked; and in the morning the people of Culross turned out to find that the waves were rolling over the pit mouth. The following is Calderwood's account of the storm:-

"Upon the penult of Marche (1625), by reason of a boysterous and vehement wind blowing in the night, and a hie tide in the sea rysing above the accustomed maner, the ships in the harberie of Leith were so tossed that manie of them, dashing one upon another, were broken and spoiled. Some mariners and skippers, rysing in the night to rescue them, were drowned. The like havoc was done in sundrie other parts upon the coast-side alongs the Firth, in Saltprestoun, Kirkcaldie, Ardrosse, and other parts; saltpannes were overthrowne, ships and boats broken, coalheughes beside Culross drowned. The like of this tempest was not seene in our time, nor the like of it heard in this countrie in anie age preceiding. It was taken by all men to be a forerunner of some great alteration : and indeed the day following—to witt, the last of Marche—sure report was brought hither from Court that the king departed this life the Lord's Day before, the 27th of March, about the noontide of the day at Theobalds."

The wreck was so complete that Sir George Bruce did not think of attempting to re-construct the colliery, and in the same year as the "Moat" was filled with sea water, before he had had time to work out a new scheme, he had "fallen on sleep," and his remains had found a resting place among the ruins of Culross Abbey. His death was mourned by all classes of the community, and so well it might. While giving his works every attention, he spent a great deal of time on institutions connected with burgh life. As far back as 1588 his name appears in the Burgh Records as the outstanding man in the place; and he was appointed Chief Magistrate when, through his influence, James VI, created Culross into a Royal Burgh. In Dunimarle orchard the mouth of the Egyptian wheel pit may be traced, and people with an antiquarian turn of mind might do worse than journey to the site of the "Moat," in low water, and inspect the ruins of the "Borrowing Days" of 1625, and of many subsequent storms. The diameter of the inner wall of the pit is 18 feet, while the outer wall measures 60 feet.

The Decay of the Coal Industry of Culross

Coal working was continued in the burgh and district for a good many years after Sir George Bruce's death; but no lessee of the minerals seems to have attempted anything approaching the magnitude of Sir George Bruce's operations. The mouths of pits can be traced at many points on the shore between the old boat-house and the Pow, but it is apparent from the lie of the strata that the workings could not have extended far below the bed of the Forth. It appears from the minutes of the Town Council that in the beginning of the eighteenth century a good deal of attention was given to the coal under the Town Moor. Colonel Erskine of Carnock, who purchased the Kincardine estates, persuaded himself into the idea that he had more right to the minerals of the moor than the burgh, but in a legal battle he was defeated. In 1724 the Council agreed to carry out a series of experiments by way of exploring the moor for coal. The explorations continued over a period of eleven years, and were not a success. The work was abandoned after a considerable sum of money had been expended. People who know something about coal working will have an idea of the form the search for the coal took from the following extract from a Council minute, dated 1735:- " That the haill materials are rouped and sold and included in the charge, except the winless rope and three cut of deals." The burgh minerals on the foreshore were subsequently leased to the Earl of Dundonald at a rental of £5 a year. The royalty was only to be paid when "operations were commenced." The operations have never been commenced, and to this day the minerals are claimed by the Earl's descendants. The coal working of the olden time was confined to the upper seams, and there is no doubt that the lower seams lying within burgh property will be worked in the near future, if not by the Dundonald family, certainly by some coal company.

The Salt Industry

Between the Pow and Culross pier as many as fifty saltpans studded the seashore. It will be noticed that the "Water Poet" in his description of his visit to the burgh quaintly tells us that Sir George Bruce "doth make every weeke ninety or a hundred tunnes of salt, which doth serve most part of Scotland; some he sends into England, and very much into Germany." In almost every garden from the centre of the burgh to the Pow the ashes of the saltpans of the seventeenth century may be struck at no great depth, and the remains of the once busy harbour where the salt, and no doubt coals, were shipped may be seen, when the tide is back, at Preston Cottage. In front of the cottage there is a pond which has a connection with the river in "stream" tides, and among some visitors to the burgh the pond and its probable uses have given rise to a good deal of conjecture. The cottage was built by Sir Robert Preston long after Sir George Bruce was gathered to his mother earth, but everything points to the conclusion that the pond was in existence before Sir Robert's cottage. Tradition has it that the pond was a bathing place for the monks of old, but the theories which find credence with matter-of-fact men are that the "lake " of to-day is nothing more nor less than a double saltpan, or was the pond by which Sir George Bruce cleared his harbour of mud. The cottage is let on lease by the Earl of Elgin, to Mr Hector Chalmers, artist, Edinburgh, and a prettier cottage and grounds will not be found on the banks of the Forth between Stirling and the East Neuk of "The Kingdom."

Low Valleyfield

Preston Island.

Preston Island, which lies about a mile from the shore, is the eastern spur of the Craigengar rocks, and was called Craigmore. In the early days of the Nineteenth Century Sir Robert Preston discovered that seams of coal cropped out at certain points of the rocks. Sir Robert thought that coal would afford him an opportunity of emulating the Culross captain of industry of the seventeenth century, and he hit upon the bold idea of converting the reef into the site of a colliery. He sunk a pit to a depth of 40 fathoms to one of the seams - very possibly the Lochgelly Splint - fitted up pumping and winding engines, and built a number of houses for workmen. A supply of fresh water in pipes was conveyed from the shore to the island houses of the miners. A level was run for a considerable distance in the seam of coal struck; but one morning a terrific fire-damp explosion occurred, and the men engaged at the coal face were all killed. The miners of those days had not the appliances for fighting fire-damp which they have to-day, and rather than sacrifice more lives Sir Robert abandoned the undertaking. The experiment cost him £30,000. It is evident that Sir Robert originally meant that the work should be carried through on an extensive scale. On the first shaft getting near the coal he began other two shafts, but they had not reached a great depth when the catastrophe occurred. For many years the pits were filled to the mouth with water, and the general impression was that the sea had broken into the workings. However, three years ago the late Mr James Hutton, who contemplated opening the pits, proved this theory to be an error. He repaired the sea wall and kept back the Forth, and by means of a comparatively small steam pump was able to practically clear the big shaft of water. On the mainland, and almost due north from Preston Island, recent borings have proved how true and correct were the reports of the bores put down by the late Mr James Goodwin, nigh twenty-five years ago, for the Cadell family. A range of salt pans was erected by Sir Robert Preston on the island, and the manufacture of salt was carried on up till a comparatively recent date.

One tenant, at least, of the island did not confine himself to salt working. He seemed to think that whisky would prove more profitable than salt, and despite the difference in the "reek of salt" and "John Barleycorn," he set up an illicit trade. Ultimately he found that the authorities were on his track, and had to fly from the district. A grand-daughter of the first salt-maker brought by Sir Robert Preston from England died recently in the Dunfermline Poorhouse, and "none so poor as do her honour." A lease of the Valleyfield minerals has recently been taken by the West of Fife Coal Coy., Ltd., and now there is a prospect of Preston Island being made what Sir Robert Preston contemplated, the site of a busy colliery. In Sir Robert Preston's will he speaks of “my lease of the minerals of Craigmore." This clause gives rise to the question - From whom did Sir Robert lease the minerals?