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The Ambitious Collier's Vision

The degree of involvement [of the landowning class in coalmining] in both personal and economic terms varied enormously and initiative must often have come from unknown, unsung factors and other functionaries.

Baron F. Duckham, A History of the Scottish Coal Industry, 1700-1815, p. 158

In 1799 a 26 year old collier from Cumnock, James McCowan, made a deal with James Corbet of Stockbriggs, in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire. Although a copy of the 19 year lease for the Auchanbeg Coalworks has not been found, we can predict its basic elements...

James Corbet's property in Lesmahagow -- indeed almost the entire Parish -- had not yet entered the "Improvement Era". Lesmahagow was three or four decades behind the more progressive parts of the lowlands, such as McCowan's home parish of Old Cumnock in Ayrshire. Corbett and the Duke of Hamilton and some other Lesmahagow landowners were more interested in improving their estates farther down the Clyde valley. The new merchant class of landowner in Lesmahagow simply wanted their impressive country estate, lovely gardens and surrounding "policies". They had already cleared a large number of cottars from their lands -- "that's improvement enough way out there", they probably bragged at their grand Glasgow balls...

Yes, in 1799, Corbet probably had only passive interest in his coal resources at Stockbriggs -- at least he would certainly not bother running a mine himself. When the ambitious young collier from Cumnock came to his offices accompanied by James Whiteford, the respected property manager or Factor of Weir's Blackwood Estate, Corbet was simply in a listening mood. The energetic collier wanted to rent Corbet's coalworks and farm of East Auchanbeg.

McCowan's pitch about the great agricultural improvements in Cumnock and his apparent expertise in operating steam engines and other coalworking machinery was impressive, but perhaps not totally convincing. Then the respected Factor offered to back McCowan financially. Moreover, Whiteford offered Corbet a deal to survey Stockbriggs estate if he would contract Whiteford's associates to engage in "enclosing" and "improving" the farms.***  "Yes, these are the buzzwords I've been hearing at the lodge meetings near Kenmuir", Corbet doubtless thought to himself. 

And so, terms were drawn and the 19 year lease for the Auchanbeg Coalworks was signed. It probably covered such issues as:

  • McCowan to pay yearly royalties to Corbet as a percentage of production, probably between one seventh and one tenth.
  • Corbet may have provided modest capital advances for construction of new lime kilns, water-drawing engines, colliers' houses, grocery shop or roadways. Or perhaps Corbet waived royalties during the first few years until McCowan's capital expenditures bore results.
  • A modest fixed annual rent may have also been specified, but "entry money" or a "grassum" was probably not.
  • McCowan to leave the buildings and other structures in good repair at the end of the lease.
  • Since McCowan was also renting the land, he would receive no compensation for surface damage due to his own coalworking underground, but such damages might be assessed to McCowan at the end of the lease.
  • McCowan to deliver so many loads of coal annually to the house of Stockbriggs for Corbet's use.
  • McCowan to reserve so many loads of coal annually for the benefit of the poor, to be paid by Corbet.
  • Otherwise, McCowan to be at complete liberty to transport and sell his coal and lime production in any way.
  • McCowan to keep track of the extent of the coal workings, to leave sufficient supporting pillars and to turn over the books at the end of the lease.

There was relatively little risk to Corbet outside perhaps advancing cash for some capital works. Coal on Stockbriggs had been dug out of the hillsides, banks and shallow pits for almost a century. During that earlier period, the coal was used mostly for providing warmth in local homes. There had been little other demand. But the coal was there -- royalties from McCowan were practically guaranteed. That this ambitious collier from Ayrshire had such grand plans to bring agricultural improvement to Lesmahagow was perhaps initially viewed by Corbet as a curiousity. But McCowan and Whiteford "sold him" on the longterm commercial benefits. McCowan had seen what agricultural improvement and industrial activity had done for the farmers and others in Cumnock -- the population there had been rising for thirty years. McCowan would use his coal to process the lime so vitally important to improving soil productivity.

And so, the written terms of the lease from Corbet to McCowan are fairly predictable. What is not so predictable is just what went on in the minds of those three men. What was it that drove the ambitious collier to start his own coalmine? What was his vision? Did he and a few others like him "bring the industrial and agricultural revolutions" to Lesmahagow? 

The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #3

*** Note: As to their discussions and the exact terms of the lease, we are speculating at this time. But Whiteford did survey Stockbriggs Estate in 1802(1), carefully calculating the size of every field and recording the names of many small crofts, affording us a glimpse of denser land occupation. Land surveyors were key implementers of the agricultural revolution.

Development of Coal Relative to
Improvement of the Land

A cursory review of sources suggests that the age of agricultural improvement, in its usual context, actually bypassed Auchanbeg. Improvement, at least on East Auchanbeg farm, may have been coincident with accelerated development of the Auchanbeg Coalworks. It might thus appear that "improvement" at East Auchanbeg was more related to "beautification" and "public image" than to agriculture. Some evidence for this argument follows.

The ridge and furrow method of pre-improvement cultivation is still plainly evident, even in the arable part of the farm between the houses of East and West Auchanbeg. Here, it may be seen how the plough annually turned the soil toward the crown of the ridge, leaving the furrow to drain surface water. Crops were manually cultivated on the ridges. The Auchanbeg "outfield" areas were apparently never brought up to the more intensely fertilized "infield" standards. Indeed, it appears that the mid-nineteenth century laird, J.W. Alston, pencilled onto his copy of the Ordnance Survey "infield" and "outfield" as appropriate. By this time, of course, the outfield was most certainly used as pasture: the ridge and furrow complexion numb for perhaps a century. As early as 1802 (at least), the south 250 acres was considered to be "braes and pasture." Aerial photographs might be useful in identifying the more ancient ridge and furrow "fields". Thus, a plotting, over time, of cessation of cultivation might be realized. This may also be of significance relative to increasing interest in coal on the farm.

By 1802, the enclosing of Auchanbeg had apparently progressed little beyond the erection of a single dyke running between the east march (property line) dyke and East Auchanbeg farmhouse. In contrast, those farms on Stockbriggs estate that were north of, but about equidistant from, the Nethan Water had been more extensively enclosed. The leases on Yondertown and Cleughbrae (1807) apparently required that "the tenant to pay... 6 1/4 pcent on advances for enclosures."(2) At East Auchanbeg farm there was apparently not even a written lease let alone advances for the erection of enclosures. The written lease on the East Auchanbeg Coal, however, ran for 19 years from 1799.(3) This might suggest that the land was of minor significance relative to the coal, the rents being in the approximate ratios of 1:2 in 1818 and 1:7 in 1819 (after spirited bidding on the coal lease by four potential tacksmen). While East Auchanbeg was essentially "unimproved" by 1802, West Auchanbeg apparently had an enclosed garden: this was, however, the extent then of enclosure of West Auchanbeg.

Very early in the nineteenth century, enclosure of Auchanbeg's north 100 acres began. One of the owners of the estate (probably J.W. Alston) pencilled onto another copy of the Ordnance survey, 1860, the designations for each of the "parks" or enclosures. Of particular significance are "Old Engine Park" and "New Engine Park", both obvious references to the coal works. "Croft Park" was named for the pre-improvement alternate term for "infield". By the early nineteenth century, somewhat less than half of Auchanbeg's 64 arable acres was probably used by the tenant of East Auchanbeg in strict association with the Coalworks. "Auchanbeg" was  probably more formally divided into "East" and "West Auchanbeg" very late in the eighteenth century coincident with heightening interest in coal. The coalmaster doubtless wanted some arable ground for the maintenance of his gin horses(4): hence the parallel tack on East Auchanbeg farm.

A feature adjacent to the house of East Auchanbeg tends to support the theory that the notion of "enclosure for public image" prevailed over the usual strategy of "enclosure for agricultural improvement". A plantation of beech trees identified on the 1860 Ordnance Survey as area number 4021 and of area 0.652 acres(5) might be considered to be the "policies" (ornamental grounds) of East Auchanbeg house. A curious depression ringed on 3 sides by the bounds of the plantation might be particularly ornamental. An avenue of beech trees running from East Auchanbeg farmhouse toward the coalworks in "Old Engine Park" seems to proclaim the early dawn arrival at the pit of a proud coalmaster -- and is perhaps also symbolic of this unique marriage of the coal and the farm during Lanarkshire's industrial revolution.

Coal was vital to local agricultural improvement because it was needed to burn limestone -- the output of this process was fertilizer for the soil.

Farming seemed to survive at Auchanbeg until about 1880 -- for several decades after 1818, East Auchanbeg farm was detached from the Coalworks. The land was apparently not very productive. The houses at both East and West Auchanbeg were apparently abandoned well before 1900: the floor plans are still readily discernable. Outlines of wells, ponds and gardens have survived to some degree.

From How the Works is Going, D.B. McCowan, 1989
The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #2

Note: In 1991, open cast coal operations destroyed all physical evidence of previous land-use and occupation on East Auchanbeg.


(1)  In 1979, Mr. Ian Buchanan of Stockbriggs kindly allowed the author to photograph his Stockbriggs estate maps, plans and Ordnance Surveys including "A Plan of Stockbriggs in the Parish of Lesmahagow, the Property of James Corbet Esq. Surveyed by James Whiteford AD 1802
(2)  Scottish Record Office, CS 96/1224, p. 111
(3)  Scottish Record Office, CS 96/1224, p. 112
(4)  B.F. Duckham (A History of the Scottish Coal Industry, Vol. 1: 1700-1815, David and Charles 1970) implies that the cost of keeping gin horses was greater than the wages of the gin keepers (p. 107).
(5)  Another of Mr. Buchanans Stockbriggs plans was the 1909 revision of the Ordnance Survey, 25 inches per mile.