Forth District

The open air village

The Village of Wilsontown

Wilsontown stands on high bleak moorland nearly 1000ft above sea level and is situated about 1 mile from the village of Forth.

In pre industrial times it was known as Forkens.

Iron Ore was discovered in the area and brothers William,Robert and John Wilson who owned the nearby Estate of Cleugh founded the Ironworks in 1779.The land on which they built their town amounted to 4500 acres and a vast mineral wealth lay below the surface.

Until 1779 weaving was the main industry as sheep raising on the moorland provided the wool.


History of Wilsontown

For information on the Ironworks please click here

Why Wilsontown you may ask , it just that there is an awful lot written about it, and villages like Forth and Climpy owe a lot to the industrial revolution of Wilsontown.

In early 1700 Britain was becoming the workshop of the world.

It was under the stimulating influence of this extraordinary period in the rise and progress of this country that Wilsontown was founded. Up until now the principal means of livelihood in the district was connected with the old-time occupation of sheep raising in the sheep walks of the moorlands and the equally ancient pursuits of agriculture on the arable lands and in the valleys.

At this time it was known by the name Forkens, the change of designation having taken place when the discovery of ironstones in the surrounding hillsides led the brothers Wilson to embark on their epic adventure of establishing an iron , manufactory on the banks of the Mouse Water.

There are three men outstanding in the first part of this engaging narrative, the brothers Robert, John and William Wilson, natives of the parish of Carnwath as were their forebears for many generations.

Robert who was the eldest of the three had been content to remain at home looking after the family estate of Cleugh, which in those days was very extensive.

John, the second oldest of the family, settled in Gothenburg where he built up a large and prosperous business and was a director of the Swedish East India Company. William, the younger brother, like the proverbial Scot chose the road that leads to London, and in the great metropolis he had set up in business for himself by the year 1769 and was successful beyond the ordinary. About the year 1771, John, having made a fortune, disposed of his business in Gothenburg and returned home, afterwards joining in partnership with his brother, William in the London business.

Several years later, in 1779, Robert appears to have been seized with a desire to acquire certain lands adjacent to the estate of Cleugh which at one time had been part of the family patrimony, but not being possessed of the money necessary to carry out his wish he prevailed upon his brothers to purchase the lands and to this domestic transaction, comparatively insignificant in itself, can be viewed the conception of this wonderful industrial speculation. From such ordinary deeds do great events arise.

At the discovery of ironstone in the purchased lands Robert at once proposed to his brothers that it would be an advantageous venture to set up an Iron manufactory on the estate and suggested that as he was living on the spot the management of the proposed works should be entrusted to him and that John and William out of the co-partners in London should provide the money. This proposal is said to have appealed to John but not to William.

Ultimately William's objections were over-come and the work of planning and erecting an iron foundry with its blast furnace and blowing engine and all the necessary appurtenances, including workshops and offices as well as the building of dwellings for the large number of workpeople which would be employed in the undertaking, and a residence for the manager was commenced.

A school was provided for the teaching of the children of the workmen and as the nearest church was then a long distance away the school was used for many years as a place of worship as well, and the usual works store was built for the stocking and supplying of goods for the material and bodily needs of the people connected with the new works. Huge reservoirs were made for impounding the large volume of water required with the necessary water courses or canals for leading the water to the works and operations were pushed on for the working of the limestone and the ironstone for the furnace burner and the winning of coal for the conversion into char for smelting purposes.

In the year 1787, within six years of starting up the capacity of the works was greatly increased through the building of a second blast furnace, and a few years later an extensive forge was laid down for making malleable bars and rods, thereby adding to the range of products. In the mining of the iron considerable difficulties were encountered owing to the strata being heavily watered and for the purpose of drainage

There grew between the brothers John and William acute differences of opinion regarding the conduct and management of the business, so much so that by the year 1793 it was proposed that one or the other should acquire the concern either by purchase or by lease.

From now the business was carried on by John Wilson and his two sons, William and John, with renewed energy under the firm name of Wilson and Sons, and many important additions and improvements to the plant were carried out by them.



The mineral field was also largely extended in that year by the leasing from George Crawford for a period of 40 years of the minerals in his estate of Climpy which extended to 850 English acres and in order to house the workpeople the Wilsons established a small village there. About this time there was in regular use at Climpy under the Relief Presbytery the meeting house known as the Relief Chapel with a manse for the minister and as many of the older residents will remember the meeting house stood practically derelict for about 30 years and was only cleared away a few years ago.

This seeming prosperity was, alas, only short lived, for in the year 1808, about the start of the Peninsular War which was a time of great adversity throughout the land, the company became financially embarrassed, its debts amounting to a very large sum of money, and the existence of the concern whose activities provided the wherewithal for the sustenance of no fewer than 2000 souls was seriously imperilled.

This having been done the whole of the properties, excepting the works, mines, and quarries and lands connected therewith- now known as Wilsontown - were offered for sale by auction on Tuesday March 14th 1809 in the Royal Exchange Coffee House in Edinburgh after the reading of the article of roup and the setting up of a half-hour sand glass. Only one lot was actually disposed of at this roup, the other lots being sold afterwards by private bargain. The following is a description of the different lots exposed for sale and the names of the purchasers: -

1) All and whole the lands of Greenwall comprising six lots. Purchaser John Nimmo, William Alton (or Aitken), John and Adam Prentice, Ann Mclean.

2) a. All and whole the west half of all and sundry the land of Easter Handaxwood b. All and whole the lands of Wester Handaxwood.

3) All and whole the mill of Fauldhouse etc. with the coal, ironstone, limestone etc. Purchaser: Dr James Hare jun. of Calcutta.

4) All and whole the forty-five shilling lands of Haywood etc. Purchaser: Trustees of George Douglas of Bands.

5) All and whole of the four pound land of East Forth with mansion, etc. embracing Backshot and Carmuir. Purchasers: John Wilson of Guildhouse and Henry Wilson late of India.

6) All and whole of the thirty-five shilling lands of Cleugh with mansion house etc. Purchaser: Henry Wilson late of India.

7) All and whole and these parts and portions of the lands of Cleugh, Haywood, Forth and Greenwall, known by the name of Wilsontown sheep walk, together with the house and lands formerly possessed by Mr Gunn, overseer at the ironworks. Purchaser: William Mowbray, merchant, Leith. There was excepted from the sale of the lands of East Forth a number of building leases which had been given off by the trustees to run for 99 years - from the term of Whit Sunday 1809 i.e. until the year 1908. In favour of the following parties: James Morton, roadmaker, at Wilsontown: David Dick, mason, at Wilsontown, James Alexander, wright, at Wilsontown: John Brown: William Dickson, grocer, in Glasgow: John Laidlaw: William Wilson, mason, at Forth: John McCulloch: William Nimmo, labourer, at Wilsontown: Archibald Weir: William Smith, collier, at Wilsontown: Robert Hill: Alexander Ross, undertaker, at Wilsontown: Philip Ross, undertaker at Wilsontown: John Beveridge.


Up till this time there were only a few struggling houses in what is now the prosperous and growing town of Forth, so it can be said that these tacks men of 129 yrs ago comprising mostly Wilsontown men, not only inaugurated a town but displayed a remarkable perspicacity and a faith in the future which the passing of the years has more than justified.



For nearly nine years the works stood idle, rusting away although put up for sale on several occasions, such was the dire effect of the failure of the Wilsons had on the minds of the business people of that period, but early in the year of 1821, a purchaser came forward in William Dixon, of Govan Colliery and Calder Iron Works, a man known throughout the length and breadth of the land as a pioneer in all that pertained to coal and iron. At the roup in Edinburgh at which the works were sold there were only two intending purchasers in attendance and both hailed from Glasgow. One was William Dixon whose object was to purchase the works and restart them, and the other was an engineer whose object was to purchase the works and break them up; and on looking back on all that has happened since it would appear to be a fortunate circumstance that the successful offerer was the well known pioneer himself.



William Dixon, the new proprietor of Wilsontown, was recognised as a man of unusual foresight. As a youth of seventeen years he had come to the West of Scotland from Northumberland in the year 1770 to seek his fortune, having at an early age already acquired a knowledge of coalfields and the winning of coal. He started at Govan Coalworks, which was started in 1766 to the south of the city of Glasgow, and working with a will he soon became lessee and eventually proprietor of the Govan coalfield.

When Calder Ironworks were established at Whifflet in the year 1795, William Dixon was one of the partners and latterly he became sole owner, so that besides having the early experience in the management of coal pits he had been closely associated with the iron business for many years. He died in 1824, almost three years after he purchased Wilsontown, and was succeeded in the business by his second son, William, who had been trained, from his youth in the personal management of his father's huge undertaking. This second William Dixon was a man of great energy, and being possessed of administrative powers of a high order was well entitled to be ranked as one of the originators and controllers of the coal and iron trades in Scotland. It was he who established a century ago the Govan Iron works, one of the sights of the city of Glasgow and familiarly known by the Glasgow people in particular and by Scotsmen generally the world over as "Dixon's Blazes". Besides being one of the foremost masters in coal anchin iron of his day he was a pioneer of railways in the West of Scotland and had a fortune invested in them in the days when few dared to take such risks. His activities in the promotion of railways in these early industrial times and in the furtherance of his own business as an ironmaster took him frequently to London, a journey which in those days of the stage coach was not unattended with peril. He was also well known as a promoter of public roads, having had extensive experience in this connection on his own lands on the south side of Glasgow where he planned and made many roads and streets which stand to his credit to-day. And so when he came to take his father's place at Wilsontown one of things which engaged his attention was the question of a shorter and a better road to the west country for the transit of goods from the works.



There was the new toll road to Edinburgh via West Calder, over which the pig-iron and other goods were conveyed from the works in carts to that city and to the port of Leith and which was a great benefit in the transport of materials being a tremendous improvement on the old mines road but the road to Glasgow was not so direct and Glasgow had become a valuable outlet for the produce of the works. In the autumn of the year 1827 William Dixon and John Nimmo, his manager at Wilsontown, mapped out a line of road from Climpy westwards to the Holytown road, joining it almost a mile and a half east of Newhouse, going by the old engine at Climpy, Knowton, Shotts Iron Works, Hillhouserigg, Fortissat, Jersey, etc. In all about nine miles long. This line of new road put Wilsontown within twenty-four miles of Glasgow. There was talk at the time of forming an extension to the north of the Ayr and Edinburgh road, but this was abandoned.

With that enthusiasm which he brought to bear on all his projects he called a meeting in November 1827 at Newhouse of all the landed proprietors whose estates would benefit by the new road, and following the meeting the necessary public notices were posted on the doors of the parish churches for three successive Sundays, according to law. Thereafter a meeting was held in Wilsontown School to deal with any objections and to arrange the necessary steps to obtain the approval of Parliament. In course of time the second William Dixon was followed by his son, William Smith Dixon, who in traditional manner had also had a thorough practical training in all the ramifications of the extensive business which his father and grandfather had established.

The Dixons were regular in their visits to Wilsontown works and on three visits they and their friends made the Mansion house their headquarters. They took a keen interest in the conduct and management of the works and in the affairs of the neighbourhood, but with all their resources and knowledge of this class of business they, like their predecessors, found it difficult to carry on the manufacture of iron at Wilsontown.

Operations were continued at the blast furnaces until the years 1842 but in that year, described as a time of the most gloomy and unparalleled unenviable distress which had ever before occurred in the country, they were blown out, never to be lit again, and the works were finally broken up in the years 1846 and 1848. These years formed part of the decade, which was aptly described and known for long afterwards as the hungry 'forties.

Thus after a period of three score years, the great adventure of iron making, begun by the Wilsons of Wilsontown with such high promise and great expectation, came to an untimely end,

From this time onwards, from an industrial outlook, Wilsontown became purely a mining community.



There is in existence a plan of the estate of Wilsontown (the estate of John Wilson drawn by Robert Bauchop in the year 1804, when the works were at their zenith, in which the boundaries of the several lands and the works, mines, pits, quarries, farm and other buildings are shown in remarkable detail. Several of the farm steadings and other buildings are now derelict and some like the subject of our story, have had their names changed, since Bauchop prepared his plan.

On the north, the boundary generally was the Breich water: on the west the lands of Muldron, Climpy and West Forth: on the south the lands of Guildhouse, which at that time were owned by a member of the Wilson family: and the lands of Lawhead, and on the east the boundary, as far as Breich, followed approximately the old drove road, the great cattle highway which came from the south country, across the Lang Whang road to the east of Carnwath, through Auchengray and Haywood, and from thence taking its devious course northwards to Stenhousemuir for the old-time cattle trade to and from Falkirk Tryst. After the closing of the works in 1842, the working of coal and ironstone was continued for several years on a diminishing scale, and by the year 1851 practically all mining operations had ceased on the estate. As the trade prospects were extremely discouraging, Wilsontown had once more the unenviable experience of being offered for sale by public roup after a lapse of thirty years, but although advertised at a low upset price, not a single offer was forthcoming - the times were so bad and there was as yet no railway connection nearer than Auchengray.



On the twenty-second day of October, in the year 1860, the Wilsontown main branch railway was opened for goods and mineral traffic, the terminus being in a siding to the west of the Quality Row, and about five years later it was extended past the old iron works to the site of the present passenger station. The line was opened for passenger traffic on the first day of March in the year 1867 and about two years later the extension to Climpy was opened for mineral traffic. The coming of the railway is an outstanding event in the history of any community, but in the case of Wilsontown, far removed from the seaboard and without any means of transport save horse drawn vehicles, it was an occasion of first rate importance. It brought fresh hope to a population which had been sorely tried and had suffered much and quickly led to a fuller development of the valuable resources of the district. But what an interesting field of speculation would be opened up in the contemplation of what might have been the fate of the works had the railway arrived twenty years sooner and the effect this anticipation would have had on the fortunes of Wilsontown. However, with this as with many other things, we must rest content with-the realisation of the facts as they have come down to us.



Thomas Nimmo in Cleugh, who had a long and close connection with Dixons, as had his sons in later years in the management of the ironworks at Wilsontown, Calder and Govan, and of the mines and pits connected therewith, and who had been working coal pits on Wilsontown and Cleugh on his own account, since he relinquished the management of the ironworks in 1832, now that there was a railway connection, extended his operations to the lands of Haywood and Lawhead, where he and his son, Thomas Nimmo, in Lawhead had taken a lease of the rough coal in these lands.

The Coltness Iron Company opened up the gas coal in Haywood in 1862, but only carried on for a few years, when the lease was taken over by the Haywood Gas Company, who worked both the coal gas and the main coal on an extensive scale for about thirty-five years.

After an absence of nearly fifty years the Coltness Company returned to the district again, having acquired the Climpy Colliery, which had been worked previously by Gavin Paul and by William Darling, thereby renewing a very old connection in the working of coal in the neighbourhood. During recent years they have intensified their mining operations in the lands lying to the west of Climpy, thereby adding materially to the prosperity of the town of Forth and surrounding district.

About this time also the district was fortunate in attracting a newcomer in William Darling, a Glasgow iron merchant, who purchased towards the end of 1868 from the trustees of Alexander Gillespie of Sunnyside the lands of Cleugh and Mid and East Forth, which he had bought in the years 1819 and 1822.



Nature has bestowed on this upland district a somewhat rough exterior, but this has been liberally offset by the abundance of mineral wealth deposited so lavishly underneath its moorland surface, so that although the working of coal has been going on now for more than a century and a half and notwithstanding the intensive methods of extraction, made possible through the introduction of coal cutting machines, coal conveyors and other types of modern mining equipment, it is a comforting reflection for all those connected with the neighbourhood, and especially to those whose lot it is to earn their living in and about the coal mines that the Wilsontown coalfield which from its resources has provided work in the past for generations of men will continue to do so on a larger scale than ever before for generations yet unborn. The mechanical devices and appliances which engineering science has made available in recent years makes it both practicable and economic to work and win seams which previously were looked upon as unworkable, and this should materially prolong the life of the coalfield.

An instance of this is to be seen on the slopes of the hillside to the east of the old iron work, where an extensive area of the Kilsyth coking coal seam about twenty-four inches in thickness is being worked from mines recently sunk and bearing the old-time name of Forkens. It is the precision of the modern type of coal cutting machine and face and gate road-conveying plant, which has made the winning of this seam an economic proposition.

The dwelling houses and all the creations in connection with the works were built of stone and lime, as was the custom of the time, and so thoroughly did the builders do their work that many of the houses erected by the Wilsons at the start of the works continued to be occupied until quite recently, a striking example of this being the old and well-known Quality Row which, previous to being closed for human habitation in the year 1936, housed no fewer than 174 souls. Two stories in height this famous row occupied a commanding position looking down on the works, and what hosts of men, women and children from generation to generation during its long period of usefulness were happy to call it their home.



The structure of the Wilsontown Mansion is in a good state of preservation notwithstanding its long age, and the old school still stands as if defying time, although it is now in a ruinous state. On the lintels of the doorways of this ancient house of learning for the edification of all who might pass within its portals, can still be read the two great commands: "Fear God" and "Love thy Neighbour." Within its walls boys and girls through many generations were taught to read write and count at a nominal charge, and those scholars who showed an aptitude in learning were encouraged towards a wider curriculum. The school continued to be managed as a works school long after school boards were set up under the Education Act, being taken over by the Carnwath Board as late as 1887 and was finally closed for teaching about the year 1926.

One striking feature seems to stand out clear and distinct in the course of a study of the industrial history of Wilsontown, and that is the appeal which the district has had to men of vision and enterprise in the world of commerce, notwithstanding its undoubted drawbacks due to the geographical position, more especially before the advent of the railway.



From the rising ground above the old works where the boundaries of Wilsontown, Cleugh and Haywood meet, a wonderful panoramic view of hill and dale of great natural beauty is unfolded, lying southwards and westward and stretching as far as the eye can reach. Numerous ranges of hills go to form the background of this beautiful picture of nature. There is the Pentland range to the left, and circling to the west the Dunsyre hills, the Biggar hills with Coulter Fell standing out clear and distinct from the rest. Then the Tinto hills with Mount Tinto itself rising high and stately, meriting to the full the appellation of "Lord of Clydeside." And within this natural background, pursuing the same order, there can be discerned in the distance the outline of the old Land Whang coach road, rich in Covenanting glory, with the whitewashed toll-house of Carswoodhill like a speck on the road away beyond the brick-red refuse heaps of Tarbrax, silent witnesses of a bygone shale industry. Nearer in the view is Cobbinshaw with its broad expanse of waters pent up as a feeder for the Union Canal, that old-time waterway which joined the great Forth and Clyde canal by a remarkable series of water locks at Camelon near Falkirk. This old water route was used for passenger and goods traffic between Edinburgh and the east country and Glasgow and the West of Scotland and intervening spots before the advent of the railway, but for the purposes of transport it is now a thing of the past.

Then there is Auchengray, the small rural village on the hill, clean and austere, the same in appearance to-day as it was half a century ago, and further to the west a glimpse is obtained of the old country town of Carnwath, steeped in feudal history and known to lovers of sport near and far for it's open race of odd origin held annually on the common at the head of the town for the coveted red hose. And next there is the old established village of Braehead, perched like many of its neighbours on the crest of a hill and looking down, as it were, on everything around. A self-supporting community in the days of the weaving, many of its buildings have fallen into decay, but it still retains its individuality and from its elevated situation and its sylvan surroundings had undoubted attractions as a residential quarter. Taking a still nearer view, there lies to the east of Lawhead, the village of Haywood, at one time a prosperous mining place full of robust communal life, but now almost deserted, and while in substance a mere vestige of its former self, in spirit it is kept alive by the remarkable attachment of its natives and their descendents and friends. From its pit shafts during its mining life many millions of tons of rich cannel coal were raised and dispatched to cities and towns at home and across the seas to provide light and heat to the inhabitants

And next to meet the eye, and in completion of the panorama, is the town of Forth, colloquially known as The Forth, one half old and one half new, with all its modern amenities and recreations, the centre of the social life and activities of the whole neighbourhood.

Forth presents a unique picture with the sun shining on the multicoloured roofs of its myriads of new houses and the tall spire of its elegant church, rising above the housetops like a watchtower in the middle of the town.

Many forms of recreation are available nowadays, even in remote country places to the varying tastes and inclinations of the people in their leisure hours, but away back in those earlier times they were not so numerous and the opportunity to take part in them was more limited. For the most part the pastimes engaged in were of a somewhat vigorous kind and appealed more to the able-bodied and the robust. Besides such manly outdoor sports as running, jumping, quoiting and curling, there was the old-time popular game of hainching or throwing underhand, which was played on turnpike roads. This was a favourite pastime with the grown-up men in rural districts like Wilsontown and was played with bullets made of whinstone, ironstone or other hard material of a size suitable for holding in the palm of the hand. The party or side who could throw the bullet furthest along the road or who could cover the prearranged distance with the fewest number of throws was declared the winner, and many keenly-contested games between opposing sides chosen from amongst the crack hainchers in the village and between exponents of the game in neighbouring villages took place season after season. Wagers of money, especially in the challenge games, which attracted large numbers of followers, were a popular form of backing the favourites and kept the excitement at fever heat. At the end of the contests there were celebrations in keeping with the manner of the times and which were entered into with great enthusiasm. The authorities frowned upon the game owing to the danger to road traffic, and like many of the pastimes of the period it gradually fell into desuetude ceasing altogether about fifty years ago.

Special thanks to the good people of Forth and Wilsontown for this help in providing this article.Extracts from 'Romance of Wilsontown." By P.M Ritchie Managing Director of Wm. Dixon Coal Co.

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