The man who brought industry to Falkirk

James Watt's workshop at Kinneil pictured in 1913
James Watt's workshop at Kinneil pictured in 1913

This month brings not only the annual celebration of our national bard but also the birthday of that other Scottish genius James Watt whose discoveries paved the way for the industrial revolution.

He developed his improved steam engine in the little workshop that still stands behind Kinneil House and the folk of Bo’ness are rightly proud of their connection with this great moment in history.

On Friday last the Friends of Kinneil held their annual James Watt Supper which seems to get bigger every year and there were toasts to the man himself and promises of many more celebrations as we approach the 200th anniversary of his death in 2019.

I have written about Watt before and will do so again but today I want to mention the other key figure in this story and indeed one of the most important men in the history of Falkirk district.

Dr John Roebuck was instrumental in bringing Watt to Kinneil in 1765 but had already made his mark as the leading partner in the mighty Carron Ironworks which began production in 1759.

Dr Roebuck was a Sheffield man who came to Edinburgh University to study medicine. On returning south he discovered that he didn’t like the company of sick people and so turned to chemistry and, in particular, the manufacture of acids. This brought him in1749 to Prestonpans, famous for its salt making, where he started producing sulphuric acid.

At national level demand for iron was increasing as war followed war and the English works were unable to meet the demand so Roebuck conceived of the idea of a large scale integrated foundry able to tap into Scotland’s rich coal supplies.

He formed a partnership with another Englishman Samuel Garbett and a Scot William Cadell and after considerable research, settled on the banks of the Carron as the perfect site. By the end of 1759 almost all the things required to make iron including the skilled labour had been brought north and the works went into production.

Roebuck himself settled in Kinneil House rented from the Duke of Hamilton and bought the collieries which he hoped would sell vast quantities of coal to the works. All went well at first but soon the pits were filling up with water which the primitive steam pumps could not remove.

Enter James Watt with his revolutionary ‘condensing engine’ developed and tested at Kinneil and funded in part by Roebuck.

Unfortunately the Carron workers were unable to make the cylinders to Watt’s exacting standards and Roebuck who was involved in other ventures was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In the end he was forced to give his share in Watt’s patent to Matthew Bolton in Birmingham in lieu of a £1200 debt, and it was there that the engine was completed.

Roebuck’s affairs were in a mess and he had already more or less severed his links with the company. He soldiered on with the coal pits and even started a pottery in 1784 but it was not enough to restore his fortunes.

He died in 1794 and is buried in Carriden Kirkyard where his admirers erected a plaque which tells us that he had “a wonderful fertility of genius and a high degree of painstaking labour” coupled with “sparkling wit and humour”.

Unfortunately no portrait of John Roebuck has survived.

James Watt lived to a ripe old age and died a wealthy and successful man. Spare a though for John Roebuck who brought industry to Falkirk and Scotland and, more than any other individual, paved the way for the transformation of our community.