The industry Falkirk district was built on

Loading the bricks into the kiln at Castlecary Brickworks in 1924
Loading the bricks into the kiln at Castlecary Brickworks in 1924

The history of the humble brick and its connection with Falkirk has captured the imagination of a civil servant from the borders.

Curious Mark Cranston has made it his mission to build a national database of all the bricks ever manufactured in Scotland.

Over the last three years he has spent his spare time and holidays rummaging around long abandoned brickworks and derelict industrial sites to recover bricks identified as Scottish by their brickmarks.

Now his quest has brought him to Falkirk, at one time the most productive brickmaking place in the UK, to recover even more and trace their origins for posterity.

Mark (52) from Jedburgh wants communities across the district to help him add to his astonishing fact file by letting him know about any they may have stacked and forgotten about at the bottom of their garden or in a shed.

He said: “The central belt was a prolific brick producing location. Thanks to the clay deposits found there, Bonnybridge and Castlecary played a prominent part in Scotland’s brickmaking history.

“The clay and bing waste deposits from the coal seams were used to make different types of bricks putting Scotland among the world leaders in brick production especially refractory bricks which were exported all over the world.

“I’ve travelled all over Scotland to look for old bricks that can be identified as Scottish by their brickmarks. I also recover variations, where the frog is a different shape, where the brickmark is laid out differently or is a different size for example, that all indicate a different phase of production for the company concerned.

“When I first started this project in 2012 the number of recorded and listed Scottish brickmarks was around 350.

“I now have over 1600 on file and it grows every time I venture out. It is all recorded on my website www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk and there is also a section that covers Scottish bricks found overseas.”

When he eventually cannot recover any more bricks - “or my back gives out” - Mark hopes to exhibit his collection and loan bricks to schools and groups to discuss their fascinating origins.

He added: “Brickmaking is a much forgotten part of Scotland’s industrial and social history and all efforts should be made to preserve what we can of what is left. People can assist me by getting in touch about their finds. The more eyes on the ground the better!”

Before the Industrial Revolution brickmaking was carried out on a very small scale where clay could be dug by hand from just below the surface rather than mined.

Because the bricks needed warm weather to dry, the industry was seasonal with the clay recovered in the autumn and left to dry over the winter before being moulded into shape by hand.

Industrialisation and steam power brought huge changes to brickmaking.

The fireclay - which is actually solid rock and not ‘soft and gooey’ like that used on potters wheels - was mined from deep underground then pounded down to a fine powder before water was added to create a clay-like substance used to produce building bricks.

The production of firebricks, or refractory bricks which can survive temperatures of up to 1500C without cracking, became common in the 20th century and were in huge demand from the iron founding industry because they were essential for lining the furnaces.

The Falkirk area had plenty of the natural resources to meet the demand for them and the ‘ordinary’ building brick, but the rich seam of fireclay to be found saw the brickmaking companies specialise in the production of refractory bricks.

The biggest supplier was John G. Stein whose business was to grow into the second largest manufacturer of fireclay bricks in the world.

Born into a brickmaking family, his father operated a brick and tile works in Clackmannan. Stein worked for the Glenboig Union Fireclay Company, founded in the 1830s, before setting up on his own.

He opened Milnquarter Works near High Bonnybridge in 1887 and produced 30,000 bricks a week, all made by hand. The business flourished and in 1896 he introduced a brickmaking machine, first to his Anchor Works in Denny but then to Milnquarter where it produced 10,000 bricks a 
shift.

Expansion saw Castlecary open in 1899, the miners rows in Allandale named after his son, Allan, built in the process, and the Manuel Works near Whitecross follow in 1928. By 1932 Stein’s were producing a million refractory bricks a week.

Milnquarter closed in the 1960s and an amalgamation in 1967 with General Refractories of Sheffield saw the end of John G. Stein as an independent company and the launch of G. R. Stein Refractories Limited.

Castlecary closed in the early 1980s but production continued at the Manuel Works until 2001.