Jill Harden, Project Archaeologist at RSPB Scotland, uncovers an industrial gem at our Airds Moss nature reserve.
Airds Moss – a hidden industrial gem
Archaeological sites are extremely varied in type, period and extent and this is reflected in the range that is protected by law as being of national importance. Scheduled monuments don’t just include prehistoric burial mounds or Roman forts. There are also medieval castle ruins, post-medieval abandoned farmsteads and fields, and much, much more.
Airds Moss, hidden between Muirkirk and Cumnock in east Ayrshire is not really the sort of place where one might expect to find a site of such significance. But just because it is on the edge today doesn’t mean that it was so in the past. It is here that we can still see the only 18th century charcoal-fired blast furnace for commercial-scale production of iron in south Scotland. You have to travel north to Loch Fyne, Loch Etive or even further north to see others. And the Tarrioch ironworks at Airds Moss is not just unusual for its location. It seems to be the only recorded example where the local estate owner funded the works, rather than a commercial company from afar.
The Earl of Cathcart’s ironworks, constructed in the early 1730s, took advantage of local materials. Around Airds Moss the geology, deciduous tree cover and river Ayr provided the natural resources that were fundamental for successful iron production. Here, hematite iron ore could be quarried nearby rather than being brought by sea from Cumbria, while charcoal must have been made in the area. Water-power was harnessed by digging an artificial waterway from the river Ayr to a wheel that worked the furnace bellows. It was only then that sufficiently high temperatures could be reached to create the pig iron, ready for casting or working into wrought iron in a forge.
The grass-covered mound immediately behind the tree conceals the stonework of the furnace.
This ironworks may now be in ruins but elements are still clearly visible:
The massive banks that line the waterway from the river Ayr to the Tarrioch ironworks.
Although the works may only have lasted 20 years it was clearly a huge commitment for investor and labourers alike. The number of men needed must have been considerable, both during the construction phase and when it was producing pig iron, but we aren’t even certain where they stayed; there is still much to learn, not just about the place but also about its links into the wider environs.
Today the site is very quiet – sheep graze the riverside, a variety of water and moorland birds frequent the habitat, and occasionally you’ll meet someone on the long distance footpath that runs alongside the ironworks. The River Ayr Way traces the length of the water from its source at Glenbuck Loch east of Muirkirk, down through Mauchline to the coast at Ayr, some 65km in all. I wonder how many walkers realise that this site exists, let alone how important it was in the development of Scotland’s industries.
Nowadays you really have to use your imagination to start to grasp how noisy, smelly, and eye-smarting the ironworks would have been in its heyday. But when I visited the site last week with the warden Stephen Owen and area reserves manager Gerry McAuley we had little time to think about this. The wind howled and the rain lashed down, while the sleet and hail battered us. I’ll have to go back, if only to get a few clear photos.
Please note: This site is one of several that due to its size, location and/or conservation sensitivity is not capable of accommodating large numbers of visitors.