Experience Lead Mining in Leadhills

Leadhills Railway, South Lanarkshire Leadhills Miner's Library, South Lanarkshire

The History of Leadhills and Wanlockhead Lead Mines

It was the desperate and the destitute that showed up looking for work in the lead mines in around the villages of Leadhills and Wanlockhead, high in the Lowther hills. 

The promise of work in the mines drew the landless, the homeless and the jobless from much of South-West Scotland and they would make the arduous journey over the Enterkin pass, to sign up for long hours and a mercifully short life.

Miners’ homes were no more than squalid makeshift hovels that offered little protection to the severe winter weather. Drunkenness and brawling was commonplace and the air was thick with lead dust.

And there was no escape. A new miner needed equipment and for that he needed to borrow money from his employer. After the first week’s work he paid off the loan for the equipment and then had to borrow again to buy food and candles to continue mining.

In such difficult terrain employers such as the Scotch Mining Company were able to sell the imported food and provisions at exorbitant rates and kept their miners and their families permanently in hock and unable to leave.

Despite such shameless exploitation the mines ran at a loss.

Everything changed however with the arrival of James Stirling, a famous mathematician, who was to prove to be an enlightened employer.

When he arrived in Leadhills in 1734, Stirling was the foremost authority on the shape of the earth and had been a pupil of Sir Isaac Newton yet he was to devote himself to the well-being of the miners and their families and in so doing transform their lives and the fortunes of the Scotch Mining Company.

Hi first changes included closing down the alehouses, cutting the working week from 72 hours to 40 hours and giving the miners a whole day off each week.

Proper homes were built and notably each household was allowed a parcel of land on which to grow vegetables and keep livestock.

He appointed a doctor and a minister and improved the ventilation in the mines. Miners’ wages were levied in a ground breaking scheme that provided pensions to the elderly and care to the sick.

Along with the Pentland poet, Allan Ramsay, who was born in the village, Stirling was to establish the Leadhills Subscription Library in 1741 and is the oldest of its kind in Scotland.

Leadhills flourished and villagers such as William Symington went on to develop the first ever steam-engine propelled boat.

So many reminders of Stirling’s improvements and the village’s lead mining past remain that it resembles an open air museum.

Leadhills Points of Interest

  • Bulmer Moss – this high moor on the southern slopes of Coomb Dod is peppered with the gold mines exploited by Sir Bevis Bulmer on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
  • Curfew bell – hangs from a pyramidal supports in the middle of the village. From 1770 it sounded the change of shifts and emergencies in the mines. It is now only rung to bring in the New Year.
  • John Taylor – a former mine manager in Leadhills, his gravestone suggests that he was 137 years old when he died.
  • Leadhills Library – situated on Main Street the library was established in 1741 and is the oldest subscription library in Scotland. For those looking to trace details of their ancestors the library has full cemetery records, census records and bargain books, which details the deals struck between the miners and the mining company.
  • Leadhills railway – the highest adhesion railway in the UK it was used between 1900 and 1930 for transporting the lead. A short tourist railway runs between Leadhills and Wanlockhead.
  • William Symington Memorial – next to the cemetery overlooking the village the memorial commemorates the engineer and the building of the first working steam boat.
  • Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining – one mile further on from Leadhills the museum provides a more formal account of mining in the Lowther hills. The museum also offers courses in gold panning.