Today's Coatbridge lies north of the M8 motorway in North Lanarkshire, largely indistinguishable to a visitor from its uphill and easterly neighbour, Airdrie. By-passed by through roads, the town centre is easy to avoid: too easy, as what you find is an attractive pedestrian precinct surrounded by a range of interesting buildings. Coatbridge is a town with real character. It also represents perhaps the most spectacular, dramatic and, literally, awful, flowering of the industrial revolution in Scotland.
The 1799 Statistical Account for the thinly populated parish containing what became Coatbridge said: "Beside a vast quantity of natural wood, there are more than 1,000 acres planted. This beautifies the country and improves the climate. We have many extensive orchards. A stranger is struck with this view of the Parish. It has the appearance of an immense garden. Here are produced luxuriant crops of every grain, especially wheat. The rivers abound with salmon in the proper season and trout of every species. There is also plenty of pike and perch in the Monklands Canal."
The Monklands Canal had been built in 1788 to allow coal from the mines of North Lanarkshire to be transported to Glasgow. But then ironstone was found in profusion in the Coatbridge area, at the same time as technological advances revolutionised the iron and steel industry.
By the 1840s the view of Coatbridge had changed from the "immense garden" of 1799: "There is no worse place out of hell than that neighbourhood. At night, the groups of blast furnaces on all sides might be imagined to be blazing volcanoes at most of which smelting is continued on Sundays and weekdays, day and night, without intermission. From the town comes a continual row of heavy machinery: this and the pounding of many steam hammers seemed to make even the very ground vibrate under one's feet. Fire, smoke and soot with the roar and rattle of machinery are its leading characteristics; the flames of its furnaces cast on the midnight sky a glow as if of some vast conflagration. Dense clouds of black smoke roll over it incessantly and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything."
By 1869, rationalisation of the industry had started, and the Gartsherrie Ironworks had become the largest in Coatbridge and in Scotland, employing 3,200 men and boys; operating 6 steam engines on 50 miles of railway track; and consuming over 1,000 tonnes of coal each day, most of it mined in the immediate locality. More difficult was sourcing the ironstone, which was having to come from further afield; and the waste from the process was steadily mounting - by 1869 the waste bing or heap for the ironworks was said to be as large as the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
Things had improved very little by 1894, with Coatbridge being described as: "this large mining town, the centre of a group of blazing iron furnaces surrounded by a network of railways. A desolate, black district, where nature's surface is scarified and loaded with rubbish heaps."
The decline in the shipyards on the Clyde from the 1920s meant a steady decline in the demand for steel from their suppliers, many of whom were in Coatbridge. The Second World War saw demand increase once more, but only temporarily. The Gartsherrie Ironworks closed in 1967.
Wander around Coatbridge today and this history of industrial despoilation seems as remote as Mordor in Lord of the Rings: and remarkably reminiscent of it. It is a testament to our ability to overcome the legacy of our history and its impact, that almost none of it would be at all obvious to the casual visitor to Coatbridge today. The main reminder of Coarbridge's indistrial past is Summerlee, the superb Museum of Scottish Industrial Life.
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