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Industrial Revolution

Industrial Nation: Work, Culture and... Society in Scotland, 1800-Present


Scottish Industrial Revolution

Scotland was much affected by the Age of Revolutions, by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, by the American Revolution and the French Revolutions, but above all by the revolution in industry that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Four main aspects deserve consideration:
(i) The concept of the Industrial Revolution and how the changes affected Scotland between 1780 and 1820.
(ii) The main developments in the period of preceding large-scale industrialisation before 1780.
(iii) The key sectors of Scottish industrialisation, including textiles, coal and iron; (iv) the immediate social impact of industrialisation.
(i) This is a complex subject, mainly because industrialisation was part and parcel of the whole process of economic growth, involving not only an Industrial Revolution, but also new developments in agriculture, commerce and transport. The period, for long described as the 'Industrial Revolution', saw the introduction for the first time on a large scale of mass- manufacture, applying new technology largely imported from south of the border, and in particular leading to the growth of the'Factory System' in textiles. Scotland already had a well- established textile trade, particularly wool and linen cloth production - but the new element was mechanisation using water power and steam power as prime movers. In both coal and iron there was parallel growth, partly stimulated by general home demand, and partly by the strategic needs of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815.

The Industrial Revolution - somewhat later in Scotland than in England - saw the 'Take-off' of these key sectors into what some economic historians have described as 'self-sustained growth', and helped lay the basis for further expansion after an initial spurt of activity before 1820. Not only this, demand was stimulated for the products of other sectors, notably agriculture, and processing industries like flour milling, drink, leather goods, etc. None of this growth - essentially concentrated in the Lowlands and especially around Glasgow - would have been possible without significant inputs of capital, entrepreneurship and labour. Capital came mainly from agriculture and existing commercial and industrial enterprises, with banks playing a significant role in its mobilisation and application to new developments. Entrepreneurship was a quality Scots apparently had in abundance and some businessmen, landowners and lawyers (among others) were quick to see the potential profits to be made from dynamic enterprise.

Labour was more of a problem in the industrialisation process than one might think, though there was no shortage of skills in textiles and coal mining. More problematic was the attraction of labour to the new textile mills and ironworks - many in remote locations. Problems of retaining labour, and of discipline, were often solved by resort to paternalistic planned villages, like New Lanark. Finally, resources were geographically concentrated in the Lowlands, which made capitalist exploitation easier, given the development of transport facilities like the new turnpike roads, canals, improved harbours and, ultimately, railways - a Transport Revolution coinciding with industrialisation.

(ii) Historians have long realised that the concept of an 'Industrial Revolution' is something of a misnomer, because there is increasing evidence of longer-term development - in other words various stages of'proto- industrialisation', which in Scotland would find their origin earlier in the eighteenth century if not before. Agriculture certainly had a critical part to play, as had consumer industries like distilling, brewing, milling, salt, pottery, leather and textiles - all of which were becoming increasingly geared towards expanding urban and export markets long before the 1780s. Heat-using industries - including lime burning and the nascent iron trade - stimulated further demand for coal, while urban building programmes led to expansion of stone quarrying and the timber trade. Finally, the Treaty of Union had solved the problem of access to English and export markets overseas, so an environment for potential growth existed as early as the 1700s.

(iii) In the textile industry there were few 'dark satanic mills' before the 1820s, quite the contrary. Most of the early spinning mills using Arkwright's water frames were established in the countryside on rivers like the Clyde and Tay. New Lanark was the example par excellence of the planned industrial community, developed by the financier-entrepreneur David Dale (1739- 1806) from 1783, and managed by Robert Owen (1771-1858), the social reformer, after 1800. Yet much of the evidence would indicate that the larger mills were still atypical and that a fair proportion of the output was still concentrated in smaller units even by the 1 1800s. Only after 1815 did cotton production really become concentrated in urban mills around Glasgow and Paisley, though both linen and wool were still essentially rural or small-town enterprises. Alongside factory production there was a parallel development of the domestic - sector - notably handloom weaving. This soon became the first real casualty of mechanisation brought about by the introduction of the power loom.

Both coal and iron industries were closely related geographically and in terms of technology, for the application of coke smelting (as opposed to the use of charcoal) stimulated coal mining. Steam engines - themselves coal-using - were applied to haulage and drainage in mines, and adapted for blasting air into furnaces. The first large coke-smelting plant was established at Carron Ironworks (1759) near Falkirk, followed by later works at Wilsontown, Muirkirk, Shotts, and on the Clyde, near Glasgow. Coal mining was widespread and still small-scale throughout the Lowlands, though the opening of the Monkland and then the Forth and Clyde Canals greatly stimulated production in north Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire.

(iv) All of this was achieved at considerable social cost, though it has to be admitted (perhaps surprisingly) that the social climate was one of stability rather than conflict. The idea that people flocked to work in the new mills, mines and furnaces is certainly open to question; folk had to be persuaded and even cajoled into working as cotton spinners, colliers or furnace hands. Labour certainly came from the Highlands and from Ireland on a seasonal basis at first, later by migration settling permanently in the Lowlands. But with the new skills and opportunities came the threat of cyclical unemployment, something that few had experienced in the subsistence life of the crofts or cotton farms. As regards the standard of living of the working class it is difficult to make meaningful generalisations beyond the obvious fact that for some things got better, while for other groups the opposite was the case. The standard of living controversy in the Scottish context remains to be resolved.

Urbanisation brought new challenges - the problem of the poor, bad housing, health and sanitation - most of which were already identifiable. But solutions, if only partial, were beginning to be found later in the nineteenth century, when things had got much worse. Glasgow's social problems during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were perhaps atypical - but only in terms of scale, for other towns shared the same difficulties. While it would be easy to exaggerate the immediate consequences of new and imported technology and modes of production, there can be little doubt that both combined to make a considerable impact on the economy of the Scottish Lowlands, notably on the textile, coal and iron industries. Some sectors and large parts of the countryside - including the Highlands - were at first unaffected, though gradually the spirit of modernisation spread everywhere. Given the relatively late start industrialisation in Scotland proceeded rapidly. The process was thus more concentrated than in England - a phenomenon seen in other peripheral industrial regions of Continental Europe such as Silesia or Sweden.

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