Airlifted Trees Reveal Remains Of 18th Century Scottish Ironworks

By Caroline Lewis | 13 March 2008
photo of a helicopter above some trees

Photo courtesy Forestry Commission Scotland © Alan Peebles

An unusual sight graced the skies over a woodland near Forth in Scotland on Thursday March 13, when work began on the airlift of 2,000 trees as part of a project to reveal the area’s industrial heritage.

The forest, planted in the 1970s, presently covers up a large group of shallow mine workings - part of the Wilsontown Ironworks, South Lanarkshire. The former ironworks features about 80 bell pits – primitive shafts where shallow-lying minerals are extracted and passed to the surface in a bucket – dating back to 1779.

The tree-lifting, carried out by helicopter, is the first phase in the Wilsontown Ironworks Heritage Project led by Forestry Commission Scotland in order to tell the story of a part of Scotland’s industrial past.

“We started research on the site in 2002 due to the great deal of local interest in the site,” explained Emma Stewart of Forestry Commission Scotland. “So far, it’s been really interesting and exciting to restore features that date from the ironworks era.”

photo of two men watching a helicopter lift a fir tree upside down off the ground

Photo courtesy Forestry Commission Scotland © Alan Peebles

The local community has already been working to improve paths and clear vegetation to improve access to the site. After meetings to discuss the Commission’s findings, bringing together historians, academics and local people, some people have found out that their ancestors worked in Wilsontown. Now, the task is to reveal the place where these forebears actually worked.

“The biggest challenge to us has been finding a way to remove the trees from the bell pits in a way that didn’t damage the mines and was safe for forestry workers,” said Emma.

Usually, machines would be used for such a job, but felling in this way would damage the mines as well as being dangerous, so a solution using helicopters was decided upon.

“It will take about five days to lift the trees away and this will provide a great opportunity for the local people to see the landscape as soon as the trees are airborne,” said Emma.

photo of a helicopter carrying a tree on a long rope pas a tall pine

Photo courtesy Forestry Commission Scotland © Alan Peebles

The project has already created new resources for people to find out more about the ironworks and the people who worked there. An archaeological report has informed an artist’s impression of the ironworks in 1808, which has been turned into a poster available to buy from the Forestry Commission, and stocked by the Post Office in Forth.

Founded by brothers Robert, John and William Wilson, Wilsontown was only the second coke-fired Ironworks in Scotland, and was at the technological forefront of developments that went on to shape iron manufacturing.

A village of 2,000 people from far and wide lived and worked at Wilsontown, including women and children. The works closed in 1842, though coal mining continued until 1955, before the forestry industry took over the site. Traces of the ironworks have gradually faded from the landscape, with unsafe remains being demolished in 1974, leaving only the faintest hint of what once took place at the now peaceful spot.

“One of the reasons that Wilsontown Ironworks is so special is because the complete iron manufacture set-up and the village for the workers are all found together, squeezed into a small valley, and this is unusual in other Scottish ironworks,” commented Emma.

“Once the trees have been removed, the bell pits will be restored and people will get a better idea of the sweat and toil spent here in the past and the area will be one of the most wonderful places in Scotland to view this kind of industrial remains.”

Other improvements will include more suitable parking facilities and the erection of interpretation panels.

Find out more about Wilsontown on the Forestry Commission Scotland website.

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