Scotland and the Industrial Revolution

For such a small country lying on the fringes of continental Europe, Scotland was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution that took place during the second half of the 18th Century and the first half of the 19th Century. Small scale localised industry existed prior to this period but during the second half of the 18th Century, Scotland began to shift from a largely rural economy with small scale craftworking to more specialised and heavier industries, powered first by water then by steam.

Better education, a banking system, technological advances, new markets, improved communications and above all an abundance of raw materials provided the conditions which allowed trade and industry to flourish. This transformation had to a degree already begun with the Act of Union in 1707 which stimulated trade and created access to new markets.  Importing raw materials such as sugar, cotton and tobacco from the New World and jute from the Indian subcontinent became a Scottish specialism, creating significant wealth in cities such as Glasgow and Dundee. This new wealth provided a ready source of investment for new business.

The founding of the Carron Ironworks in 1759 is seen as a pivotal moment in the rise of Scotland’s industry. Here, coal and iron ore reserves were exploited on a scale never seen before. This in turn drove the formation of other industries and created the need for better communication networks – roads and canals - for the transport of raw materials and finished products for export. The invention of the hotblast furnace in 1828, by one of Scotland’s many industrial pioneers J B Neilson, further ramped up the demand and supply. Steam power steadily replaced water power which had advanced technologically, but simply could not keep pace with demand.

Scotland is perhaps best known across the world for its excellence in engineering, a reputation built in the shipyards and locomotive works of the Clyde in particular. Other industries flourished too. Light engineering – making boilers and other equipment for brewing and distilling spirits and sugar, textiles - cotton, carpets, shawls - chemicals – paint, bleach and acids – glass, pottery and brick making, brewing beer and of course, distilling whisky. 

Scottish industry exported widely and many of its finest products can still be found in far flung parts of the globe. Ships and locomotives built in Glasgow can still be found in operation across the world. Prefabricated cast iron buildings made in Scotland are still in use in India, South America and Australia. Many of the finest scientists, engineers and architects of the industrial age were Scots – Dale, Black, Telford, Rennie, Smeaton, the Lighthouse Stevensons, Watt, Nasmyth and MacAdam.

The M74 Dig examined the industrial landscape of the south side of the Clyde in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The excavated sites represent a sample of the sorts of industries that would have been found across Glasgow during this period. These include iron foundries, a brass foundry, a pottery factory, a biscuit factory, a cotton textile mill, limekilns and a canal. We also examined sites of housing, both for the workers and the managers. Key dates in Scottish industrial history in relation to the excavated sites can be found in the Timeline.