Camelon was first chemicals capital

Port Downie circa 1900
Port Downie circa 1900

For most of the last 100 years Grangemouth has been the chemical capital of central Scotland. But long before that it was the Camelon Mariners who supplied the country with products from several chemical factories in the Lock 16 area.

I was reminded of this in Tamfourhill where the Hurlet pub has lost its name and the unusual building is undergoing refurbishment. It is, or was, almost the last reminder of the thriving but highly dangerous activities which once employed hundreds of workers in the village. The name ‘Hurlet’ comes from a small village near Barrhead in Renfrewshire.

It was there in the early 19th century that a company began manufacturing alum, a precious commodity vital to the textile industry. The Hurlet Chemical Works did very well so that by 1851 it had expanded its operations to the junction of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals in Camelon.

But the Hurlet was not the first chemical works in the area. The completion of the Union Canal in 1822 had established the village as the centre of a new communication system and soon inns, workshops and houses appeared along the banks and basins of Port Downie.

By 1840 the population had risen to over 1300 and in that year two brothers from Airth, James and Andrew Ross, began building boats in a yard near Lock 16. After only five years Andrew was dead and young James, having discovered the value of pitch in the boatyard, had moved into chemical manufacture at Limewharf, west of Port Downie.

Crude tar from various gas works was shipped to Camelon where it was converted into naphtha, pitch and refined tar and business boomed for 30 years until 1878, when Robert Sutherland and Robert Orr assumed control.

New products multiplied - sulphate of ammonia, benzine, creosote and toluene, a key ingredient in the manufacture of TNT explosives - and prosperity followed. In 1929 Limewharf became part of Scottish Tar Distillers and it survived well into the modern era until a disastrous fire on November 6, 1973, destroyed the works.

Melted tar poured into the canal and hundreds of firefighters fought what was one of the worst ever fires in Falkirk’s history.

When the flames and the dust settled the factory was all but destroyed and, though the firm continued for a few years more, it never fully recovered and eventually all production came to an end.

The site is, of course, now home to the Falkirk Wheel.

Back in the Victorian era a number of other chemical companies had followed James Ross into the chemicals business operating from Port Downie.

One final part of the story is that James Ross opened a new factory in Philpstoun, near Linlithgow, in 1883 to extract crude oil from shale and with James ‘Paraffin’ Young the venture led to British Petroleum and the refinery at Grangemouth.