Bonawe Furnace

In 1753 a Cumbrian ironmaster opened a new works in Scotland, at Bonawe. The chief attraction was the extensive woodland of Argyll, guaranteeing him an almost endless supply of charcoal. Plenty of water for powering the huge bellows was an added advantage. The iron ore was imported from Cumbria.

Scottish Record Office: 1752 GD1/168/13
Contract dated at Inveraray 13 September 1752 between Sir Duncan Campbell of Lochnell on the one part and Richard Ford of Grizedale, Lancashire, and others, Ironmasters on the other part relative to the erection of furnaces and forges at or near Bonaw in Argyllshire for which purpose Sir Duncan sells to them all the wood and underwood on certain lands and farms in the parishes of Innishail and Muckairn and elsewhere

Reference Title Date
GD1 Miscellaneous small collections of family, business and other papers
GD1/168 Invergarry Iron Works

The ironworks proved successful. In its heyday, the furnace produced 700 tons of pig iron annually, and employed up to 600 people, most of them ‘charcoalers’ working in the woods. The works outlasted all the other Scottish ironworks using charcoal as fuel, and when it finally closed in 1876, after 123 years of operation, only Backbarrow, in south Cumbria, remained operational.

The Lome Furnace was originally started by an Irish company in the year 1730. They worked with imported ore, and for fuel they bought the woods of Glenkinglas.
They tried peat made into charcoal as fuel but it was not a success. Their venture soon came to an end in a tragic way. The partners had been drinking in Dalmally Inn when a quarrel broke out and one of them was fatally stabbed.
The works were then taken over by Messrs. Ritchie and William Ford, James Blackhouse, and Michael Knot. They obtained a lease for 110 years of all the woods in the neighbourhood from the lairds who were all Campbells with little jn their sporrans and so were glad of the money.
The lease began in 1750 and the new company immediately got down to business and carried it on vigorously down the years. The ore was brought from Ulverstone in Cumberland, and the charcoal was manufactured locally. The pits can still be seen here and there where the charcoal makers set up their fires, particularly on Loch Etive side.
The charcoal was carried to the furnace on the backs of horses in sacks. To provide the necessary blast there was a huge bellows worked by a water wheel. To facilitate the loading and unloading of their ships they built a pier on Loch Etive, still known as Kelly's pier from the name of a man who was long foreman of it. The pier is now almost a complete wreck.
About seven to nine thousand tons of iron were turned out annually and shipped to Ulverstone. The company d~d not confine themselves to smelting iron ore, they also entered into several other commercial speculations. At that time Glen Etive and other glens were clothed in lofty pines and spreading oaks. Their timber was far too valuable to be made into charcoal. Forestry

The most complete charcoal-fired ironworks in Britain
Bonawe is the most complete charcoal-fired ironworks in Britain. (Running it a close second is Duddon, in south Cumbria, now cared for by the Lake District National Park.) The entire manufacturing process can be traced:
The lade – bringing water from the River Awe onto the waterwheel to power the bellows;
The two vast charcoal sheds – where enormous quantities of fuel were stored in dry conditions;
The small charcoal shed - where imported high-quality haematite ore was stored, along with the limestone (for removing impurities during smelting);
The charging house – where the raw materials were weighed and carefully loaded into the furnace mouth;
The furnace, blowing-house and casting-house – where the iron ore was smelted by cold blast into pig iron;
Bonawe House – built for the manager (please note this private house is not open to visitors);
The two blocks of housing – where the workers and their families lived;
Kelly’s Pier – where most of the raw materials were landed, and where all the finished products (mostly pig iron) were loaded onto vessels

A split workforce
Most of the workforce – numbering over 600 – worked in the woods as ‘coalers’, producing charcoal. They were mostly local, and Gaelic-speaking, and were employed in the summer months only.

Around 20 men worked at the furnace. They were experienced men from English-speaking Cumbria. They worked hardest throughout the winter when the furnace seldom ceased operating, and spent their summer repairing and renewing the fabric.

A proud workforce
The furnace mostly produced pig iron for export. However, during the Napoleonic Wars it churned out cannonballs. The workforce was the first in Britain to erect a monument to Admiral Nelson’s memory after Trafalgar in 1805. The monument still stands on a hillock north of Muckairn churchyard, in Taynuilt, but the Cumbrian slate plaque is on display at Bonawe.

Established in 1752-3 by Richard Ford and Company, Bonawe Ironworks produced pig iron from haematite ore. In addition to the furnace and storage sheds of the ironworks, the company created an infrastructure for workers that included housing, a school and a church. Rights to nearby woodlands were negotiated with landowners in order to produce the charcoal necessary for the smelting process. The ironworks closed in 1874, some buildings subsequently falling into ruin. The remaining structures, including the furnace, have been preserved and are open to the public.
Information from RCAHMS (SC) 29 August 2007
Hay, G D and Stell, G P 1986

—The Lorn Furnace Company, Taynuilt.These works were originally started by an Irish company in the year1730. This company worked with imported ore, and for fuel they boughtthe woods of Glenkinglass. The company tried peat as fuel, but failed.When the York Buildings Company took up the Strontian mines theysent to Glenkinglass for certain castings.The Bunawe Works were taken over by Messrs Richard and WilliamFord, James Blackhouse, and Michael Knot. The lease ran for 110years from 1752, and on the expiry of that period the tack was retakenby Messrs Harrison, Ainslie, & Company, who also possess large ironmines in the Ulverston district and the only two surviving charcoalfurnaces in the country. The second lease was for 21 years, and fellout in 1883.Through the kindness of Mr Hossack, solicitor, Oban, I have read theoriginal leases, which are very full and complete.The last lease was not finished, the works ceasing in 1866. The machinery was removed to England in 1878. The ore was imported from Ulverston
The Bonawe furnace produced between 600 and 700 tons of pig iron a year using both local, seasonal workers and skilled ones brought up from Cumbria. The production was so great that it necessitated the construction of a new pier to cope with an increase in traffic. The furnace eventually shut down in 1876, a new lease having been signed in 1863, however the development of coke and steam furnaces mean that charcoal was an outdated technology, and Bonawe one of the last of its type in the UK.


The surviving buildings of the complex in the care of Historic Environment Scotland are two vast charcoal sheds, cathedral like in their proportions, with a capacity of 2663 cu meters, a long low building compartmentalised for storing iron ore and limestone and the furnace area with the furnace itself, the charging house, the fragmentary remains of the blowing house, the casting house and the lade. Beyond these are the extended pier, the manager’s house and workforce housing along with a meal mill, store and school. Many of the architectural details at Bonawe such as the slate roofs & eaves of the buildings, and the red sandstone of the furnace are Cumbrian in origin.

The documentary evidence surviving for Bonawe allows a limited look into the social relations of those working there. Firstly, the workforce at the furnace itself, including their wives and families, comprised English-speaking incomers in a Gaelic environment and, from day one, formed a self-contained and isolated industrial community, complete with its own housing, school, church and inn. Secondly, although the core of the workforce were incomers (the furnace master and his men), much of the ‘coaling’ (charcoal production) was carried out by local people, taken on as seasonal workers to work in the woods the company leased.

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