Admiral Nelson and the Bonawe Iron Furnace
The huddle of buildings sloping towards Loch Etive may not proclaim ‘major industrial site’ yet
here was enterprise on a huge scale in this corner of Scotland. Founded in 1753 the Iron Furnace was in business for more than a century and the site is the most complete charcoal-fired blast furnace anywhere in Britain.
A partnership from Cumbria were seeking a suitable location to expand their operations. Having pinpointed Bonawe, they settled successful negotiations with the Campbell Earls of Breadalbane, giving them a long lease of the huge swathes of oak woodland in the surrounding glens. The plentiful supply of this raw material was the key to everything. With access to the coast they then shipped in the other materials needed; the all-important iron ore came with them all the way from Cumbria and as you look more at the store houses and other buildings, you may notice the colour
of the roof slates, which were likewise brought up from Cumbria along with the work-force to build and operate the furnace.
That’s what my mind dwells on; the men who came up here and took on the back-breaking work of keeping the blast furnace going, churning out its ‘pig iron’ blocks to be fashioned into cannons, cannonball and the like. It was physically demanding for all, not just for the men in the charging house feeding the furnace in searing heat, their clothes, hands and faces stained red from the iron ore but also for those from the local community ( albeit benefitting from this new business ) who laboured for months up in Glen Nant, coppicing the oak and tending the stack kilns that burned to produce the charcoal needed to produce up to 700 tons of iron a year. Two different work-forces from two very different communities. What did the Taynuilt men make of these in-comers from Cumbria and vice-versa, how did the Cumbrians at the furnace communicate with locals, many of whom only spoke the Gaelic ? The workers had their own housing, a school, a blacksmiths even a church and an inn; a whole settlement in itself. Then in time relationships were built beyond the business transactions, no doubt friendships developed and thus the local population would have evolved with its thin vein of Cumbrian blood…. all part of the legacy of the Iron Furnace along with those end-products of canon and canon ball, which made their marked contribution to the successful naval campaigns of Admiral Lord Nelson and his fleet. Indeed the site of the Bonawe Furnace is not the only local memorial to this hero of the seas; on hearing the news of Nelson’s victory – and glorious death – at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, the workers at the furnace erected a great slab of stone on a small hill just above the settlement of Taynuilt, commemorating this historic event.
With around a third ( some 18,000 men ) of the crewmen in the British Navy of the time being Scots, five of Nelson’s ship Captains also Scots, the jute for sail cloth coming from the mills in Dundee and timber for the ship-building from Scottish woodlands, the pig-iron produced at Bonawe Furnace is just part of Scotland’s legacy to British History.