The Water of Girvan rises in the rocky hills and
conifer plantations of the Carrick Forest, and enters a valley of
farmland and broad-leaved woodland about Straiton, through which
it winds first in a northwesterly direction towards Kirkmichael,
and then in a southwesterly direction towards the sea at Girvan.
According to Aiton (1811) "the strath of the water of Girvan,
from Straiton to the sea, is highly ornamented with extensive plantations,
to which very considerable additions are made every year. There
are about 800 acres of woods and plantations on the estate of Kilkerran,
and Sir Hugh Hamilton Dalrymple is adding 100 acres yearly to those
at Bargeny [sic]".(1) There is little industry
in this pastoral and sylvan setting today, though traces remain
of its industrial past: the many mills, lime works, tile works and
coal works. Amongst these the acid works at Kilkerran are at first
sight an oddity, particularly under the description they were sometimes
given, the Kilkerran Chemical Works. But they grew as much from
the local resources as any of the mines, mills or kilns, because
their raw material was the abundant timber.
Pyroligneous acid is obtained by the dry distillation
of wood. This is a development of the traditional process of charcoal
burning - by which is meant the burning of wood in an airless condition
so that it is reduced to charcoal, rather than to carbon dioxide,
water vapour and ash. Arthur Ransome provided a romantic description
of the process and of charcoal-burners in Swallows and Amazons
(chapter 13), from which the following are brief excerpts:
[T]here was a great mound of earth with little
jets of blue wood-smoke spirting from it. A man with a spade
was patting the mound and putting a spadeful of earth wherever
the smoke showed. Sometimes he climbed on the mound itself to
smother a jet of smoke near the top of it. As soon as he closed
one hole another jet of smoke would show itself somewhere else.
"We want ours to burn good and slow,"
said Young Billy. "If he burns fast he leaves nowt but
ash. The slower the fire the better the charcoal."
In the process of wood distillation, a chamber
of firebricks or iron is substituted for the mound of earth, and
a device is added to collect and cool the vapours released to condense
them.(2) The condensate consists of pyroligneous acid
and a tarry residue which separates from it and settles on cooling.
The principal constituent of the acid is acetic acid. In the present
context, this was used to manufacture sodium acetate, required in
the process of dyeing cloth as a mordant, or fixative. Acetic acid
obtained in this way from wood was cheaper than that produced from
malt vinegar. A byproduct of the process is charcoal.
According to Hume (1974), acetate mordants were
produced from pyroligneous acid from about 1820.(3) A
monograph produced by the British Society for the History of Science
lists three companies producing pyroligneous acid.(4) The
earliest was H. Ogden, operating in the northeast of England. Stills
for the production of pyroligneous acid were introduced here in
1826, while in 1839 S. Warburton & Sons were engaged in the
same business at Hunslet, near Leeds. Elsewhere it was being produced
by the Forest of Dean Chemical Works, where there were eight retorts
in 1841. [Note added in January 2010: For more information on a
wood distillation plant see Roger Deeks, 'The Wood Distillation
Works and Munitions Supply in the Great War', The New Regard:
The Journal of the Forest of Dean Local History Society, 24,
2010, 6-18. Reference supplied by Rob Close.]
A pyroligneous acid works was established about
1813 in Camlachie Street, Glasgow, by Turnbull & Ramsay, linen
printers’ colour makers.(5) The works were shut down
in 1965 and demolished in 1967.
A little of the changing names and operations of
the company can be traced through the entries in Post Office Glasgow
Directories. The earliest entry found was in 1825: "Turnbull
& Ramsay, manufacturing chemists, 107 Geo. St." By 1831
the company was "Turnbull & Co., manufacturing chemists
and vinegar makers, 229 George St.; works, Camlachie." Camlachie
continued to be the only works listed until 1888-9, when the entry
was: "Turnbull & Co., manufacturing chemists, 37 W. Geo.
St.; works, Camlachie; branches, Balmaha, Crinan, Kilkerran, Perth,
Renton, and Stirling." Kilkerran still appeared in 1892-3 but
was later omitted, and in 1902-3 the entry included only Camlachie
and Balmaha. By 1932-33 the company’s description had become "wood
distillers and blacking millers" and their telegraphic address
was "Pyros, Glasgow". In 1942-3 the company was "Turnbull,
Stuart & Co. (Camlachie) Ltd."
Pyroligneous Acid Works
The works were located at National Grid Reference
NS303053, beside the road from Maybole to Girvan that winds on the
northwest side of the valley of the Water of Girvan. This spot is
in the parish of Kirkoswald though remote from Kirkoswald village.
The site lies between two burns that flow swiftly down steep glens:
on the Maybole side, Lyingthorn Burn; and on the Girvan side, Black
Glen. A dam on the burn in Black Glen above the works provided power
for a sawmill.
From the 3rd Ordnance Survey, Ayrshire Sheet 45.13,
1:2534 (25 inch).
1. weighbridge; 2. house; 3. rubble shed; 4. kiln and
The two-bay rubble shed photographed in 1970.
The kiln and chimney, not seen here, were behind this building.
The acid works house (now Black Glen).
Photo David McClure July 2000.
The earliest record of the acid work at Kilkerran
is the following lease:
Messes Turnbull &
Lordship 10/- per
ton of Wood of [??] cut.(6)
According to the 1851 census the "Pyroligneous
Acid Maker (Manager)" was James Aird, who was 46 and was born
in Cumnock.(7) He employed six labourers. In the 1855-6
Valuation Roll Turnbull & Co. are shown as the tenants; the
proprietor was Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran.(8) "Kilkerran
Acid Works" appears on the first Ordnance Survey map of the
area (1856).(9) By 1861 James Aird had been succeeded
by John Durham. It was under his management that effluent from the
works polluted the river and killed "large numbers of fish".(10)
In 1881 the manager was Hugh MacAdam, and in 1891 David Glen.
From the 1897-8 Valuation Roll, in which he appears as tenant at
nearby Wee Craigfin and described as "ex-manager", it
may be that David Glen’s father George was manager of the works
for some time between 1881 and 1891.(11) In 1893 an agreement
was entered into for the Glasgow & South Western Railway Company
to erect a "cartbridge" over the railway at the works
in lieu of an existing footbridge. Mr Glen agreed to give up his
In 1895 Turnbull & Co. gave up their lease
of the works, and David Glen entered into a lease on his own account.
Whether the product was sold by Glen to the company or went elsewhere,
no surviving records have been found to say, but living memory has
it that the charcoal was always shipped from Kilkerran railway station
to Glasgow. Included in the lease was the dwelling house occupied
by the various managers since 1845, and a field.(13)
Also filed with the lease is an 1898 "memorandum of agreement"
for "an improvement of the dwelling house which [David Glen]
states is in a very bad condition", under which Glen was to
pay half the cost.
The period following the assumption of the acid
works’ lease was a tragic one for the Glens. David Glen’s wife,
Mary McCallum, died in 1898; his mother, Susan Glen née Davidson,
died in 1900; and his eldest son George died in 1902.(14) He
continued to hold the lease until his death on 4th November 1910
at the age of 54. His daughter Elizabeth died just a year later,
age 27. It was his second son John who became the tenant, but he
too died young, age 39, on 19th December 1922. One local memory
is that he had a fondness for the wood alcohol which was one of
the byproducts of the wood still.(15) Alternatively,
it may be that he had contracted tuberculosis. A past addition to
the house is an airy bay window, and it is said this was for someone
with that condition.
The new tenant was John’s wife, Jeanie Glen (née
Baird). She ran the works until 1945, when she went to live in Maybole.
She died on 4th October 1949 and was buried beside her husband in
Crosshill Cemetery. She is remembered as a short, stocky woman with
a fierce manner. She is said to have worked very hard and to have
engaged little in the social life of the neighbourhood, though she
was staunch member of Crosshill Church. One story told of her is
that (David) Gordon, her eldest son, chided her about the way she
was speaking to the men. "You go into the house," she
told him, "I have to speak to the men in the language they
David Gordon Glen, January 1941
William McIlwraith, now 88, was a boyhood friend
of the Glens. He remembers that Mrs Glen took her sons to London
every year when, she said, she had a meeting with the Chairman of
ICI to renew her contract. When they returned, he and their other
friends would hear of the sights they had seen, and of their visits
to museums and art galleries. Mrs Glen was determined to give her
sons a good education. After the primary school at Kilkerran and
Ayr Academy, both boys went to Glasgow University, where Gordon
studied Arts and then Theology, and Jack studied medicine.(16)
David Gordon Glen graduated in 1936 and became a minister,
though he turned to teaching later and had a post in Dalmellington.
John (Jack) Glen graduated in 1938, after which he spent a year
taking a Diploma in Public Health.(17) There must have
been fond memories of their home; within the last decade relatives
have returned to the old acid works to scatter the ashes of one
of the sons and his wife in the garden there.
In 1945 the tenancy of the works was taken by Atlas
Crucible Company. The house was occupied by George Campbell, who
may have been employed by the company. There is no record of their
business; one day they slipped away leaving rent unpaid. Later the
site was occupied by a piggery, reputedly unsuccessful, but by 1968
the former acid works manager’s house was occupied by James Gray,
one of the employees of Kilkerran estate. A few years later he purchased
the house and the site of the acid works, and he and his wife are
there today. It is now known as ‘Black Glen’.
The buildings were demolished in the 1970s. Hume
(1976) observed "a 2-bay rubble shed, now with asbestos roof
.... now a store."(18) This building can be seen
in the corner of a 1970 photograph of some turkeys, which has been
enlarged to provide the accompanying illustration. Behind the rubble
shed the retort building was on the side of the steep bank of Black
Glen, its roof protruding only about three feet above the top of
the bank. This had a tall chimney, which may have been newer than
the rest of the works. There was another building at the bottom
of the glen. The works were below the level of the road, from which
descended a steep drive. At the top of this was a weighbridge, used
to measure incoming timber for payment. It is remembered that this
always weighed light, favouring the acid works by a couple of hundredweight
compared with the weight recorded at the weighbridge at Kilkerran
Ken Andrew, who was born in 1919 and is the oldest
resident former employee of Kilkerran estate, remembers that local
children were told to stay away from the acid works. This was as
much because their mothers did not want the intimidating Mrs Glen
at their doors with a complaint, as from any fear of the works themselves.
It was an injunction they could not disobey without being found
out, for the smell of the wood tar and the acid clung to anyone
who went there, and the charcoal stained clothing and skin. The
charcoal was broken up and bagged. Because it was very light it
was piled high on the carts on which it was hauled to the station.
He recalls that once a horse dropped dead in the traces. "It’s
never done that before", said the carter.
No business records of the acid works have been
found, whether for the early period under Turnbull & Company
or the later under the Glens. A limited impression of the scale
and the decline of the business may be gleaned from the estate rental
rolls. In the year 1861-2 the rental was £408 4s. 6d., about 4 percent
of the gross rental of the estate. For comparison, the rental of
"Dalzellowlie Coal Work" in that year was £280 and Kilkerran
Sawmill was £50, while most farm rentals were less than £400.(19)
So the acid works was one of the most valuable properties
on the estate, with the rental income supplemented by timber sales.
These amounted to about £1,500 in 1861-2, though how much of this
was accounted for by sales to the acid works is not known. Twenty-five
years later the rental had fallen sharply, and contributed only
£16 out of a gross rental of over £12,000.(20) One may
presume that the much lower rental reflected a similar drop in the
value of the business to Turnbull & Company. There is no indication
that the scale of the business increased later: in 1932 Mrs Glen
was paying £25, and in 1951 the rent for the Altas Crucible Company
At some time the works became known locally as
‘the secret works’. Tibbie Houston (née Ferguson), who moved to
Kilkerran in 1927 when her father took up the post of gamekeeper
there, is sure that she never knew them as anything else. There
is speculation still as to the possible reasons for secrecy: manufacture
of gunpowder; bullets; even poison gas? The most plausible explanation
is that suggested by Dr Elizabeth Haggarty: ‘secret’ is simply a
corruption of ‘acetic’. Since acetic acid was originally the chief
product of the works, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they
were referred to as ‘the acetic works’, and that this evolved, at
a time when the knowledge of science among the community would have
been limited, into ‘the secret works’.
Tibbie went to Carrick Academy,
and she remembers how the acrid smell of the works pervaded the
passing train on its journey between Kilkerran and Maybole. She
can also recall being on the Burning Hill and looking down to the
works; the area was less wooded then than it is today. By a curious
coincidence, Tibbie lived near Balmaha before the family moved to
Kilkerran, and she can remember the chimney of the charcoal works
there near the pier. This was another of Turnbull & Company’s
Of the interior construction or the operation of
the works, no record or recollection has been found. William McIlwraith,
despite being a friend of Gordon and Jack and a frequent visitor
to the house, was never inside the works buildings. Perhaps some
photographs and records have been preserved by descendants of the
Glens, and may become available to add to our knowledge of this
lost enterprise in the future. In the meantime, it is hoped that
this article serves some purpose in recording an outline history
of this 100-year industry of the valley of the Water of Girvan.
In the course of researching the acid works I met
two people who have memories of the area in the 1920s and 1930s,
and corresponded with a third. They are Ken Andrew, Tibbie Houston
(née Ferguson) and William McIlwraith. I also visited the present
owners, James and Molly Gray, on more than one occasion. I would
like to thank them all for their patience and assistance.
David Courtney McClure
This article was first published in Ayrshire Notes
No.19 (2000). See also Appendix
1 below: "'Secret Works' are Demolished" (Ayr
Advertiser, 14th July 1955, 14a).
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1 William Aiton, General View of the Agriculture of the
County of Ayr (1811). John Strawhorn described this work
as "perhaps the most fascinating book about Ayrshire ever
published", and the present author makes no apology for
repeating the quotation about the Girvan valley which he used
in connection with the sawmills of McClymont and Dunlop (Ayrshire
Notes No.16 (1999)).
2 Earth continued to play a part. James Gray remembers that
clay was used to seal the roof during the three-day burning
process, though at this time charcoal was probably the chief
product of the works.
3 John R Hume, The Industrial Archaeology of Glasgow, (Glasgow,
4 BSHS Monograph No. 6, Archives of the British Chemical
Industry 1750-1914. A handlist, (1988).
5 Hume (1974), op. cit. If they engaged in production
of pyroligneous acid from 1813, they predated the enterprises
given in the BSHS Monograph (above). According to Hume’s description,
the works included a "4 bay red and white brick blacking
mill and a tall rectangular section chimney."
6 Fergusson of Kilkerran, NRA(S) 3572/39/31, c. 1839 - c. 1906,
Rental of Kilkerran estate. [Private collection.]
7 1851 Census; 601 Kirkoswald, ED15 p.11.
8 VR90/1, Valuation Roll for the County of Ayr, Carrick 1855-6.
[National Archives of Scotland.]
9 First Ordnance Survey, Ayrshire sheet 45, 6 inch (1856).
10 Minutes of a meeting of the District of the River Girvan
Fishery Board, Maybole, 29th July 1871. Printed in: James Leslie,
Papers on The Improvement of the Salmon Fishery (Edinburgh,
11 C03/9/3/15, Valuation Roll for the County of Ayr, 1897-8.
12 NRA(S) 3572/63/23, Correspondence relating to the erection
of a bridge at acid works, Kilkerran. [Private collection.]
13 NRA(S) 3572/69/53, Lease of Kilkerran Acid Works. [Private
14 From memorial inscriptions in Crosshill Cemetery.
15 Methanol (methyl alcohol); causes blindness and death.
16 Attendance at Ayr Academy as yet unconfirmed.
17 Information from The Archives and Business Records Centre,
University of Glasgow - Alison Scott, Assistant Archivist.
18 John R. Hume, The Industrial Archaeology of Scotland.
1. The Lowlands and Borders, (1976).
19 NRA(S) 3572/39/15, Rental of the Entailed Estate of Kilkerran
for the Year Whit 1861-2. [Private collection.]
20 NRA(S) 3572/39/17, 1886-7 Rentals of Kilkerran estate. [Private
21 NRA(S) 3572/63/55, 1932 Gross Rentals; NRA(S) 3572/63/83,
Agents’ reports on the finances of Kilkerran estate, 1947-1951,
1957. [Private collection.]
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Ayr Advertiser, 14th July 1955, 14a.
Rob Close found this item recently. Its principal interest is
in the description of the operation and the reference to the "60-foot
brick kiln". The item is reproduced here with the permission
of the Ayr Advertiser.
"A well-known spot near Maybole, which over
the past 100 years as been referred to as the Acid Works, has
been slowly but surely crumbling away during the past 12 months.
Mr H. Bennet is converting the works into a piggery with the help
of a few local men, some of whom worked in the former factory.
Last week the 60-foot brick kiln came tumbling down.
"It is believed that the small factory was
originally a brick works [the evidence is that it was established
as an acid works, with no reference to a pre-existing brick works,
as is shown in the article above], but some time later it came
into the possession of the Glen family and it remained theirs
for three generations. Hard wood such as birch, alder, oak and
beech was brought from the neighbouring estate of Bargany and
also from Kilkerran Estate on which the factory stood. The wood
was then cut into uniform lengths and placed in ovens, when it
was fired and the vapour harnessed and condensed in barrels. These
barrels were then left for several days until the acid had risen
to the top and the by-product of tar settled to the foot. This
wood alcohol or acid was next sent to a firm in Camlachie, Glasgow,
where it was purified and some of it used in the manufacture of
paint dye. The tar was exported abroad for painting round the
base of rubber trees.
"During the First World War the factory
became known locally as the "Secret Works" because it
was thought that it was carrying out work under special Government
"Fifteen years ago the factory was taken
over by the Atlas Crucible Company in Glasgow which up until two
years past still carried on in a small way until it went bankrupt.
"The four men who have aided Mr Bennet in
the demolition work are Mr Mungo McAlpine, Craigfinn Cottages,
by Maybole, a former employee of the original works; Mr F. Connolly,
Maybole; Mr H. Dougan and Mr R. Reid, both of Crosshill. Mr Bennet’s
piggery, which is the property of Kilkerran Estate, has for the
past year been known as the Black Glen, the original name for
the site of the old acid works."
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Appendix 2: Further
information supplied by Mrs Elizabeth (Betty) Glen, September
the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company
1) 12th October 1936 (pictured).
48 bags of charcoal despatched to Stevenston; weight 1 ton
2) 11th September 1937.
8 drums of wood naphtha to Higginbottom & Co; weight
1 ton 6 cwt 1 quarter 6 lbs.
3) 18th March 1938. 35
bags charcoal and 3 barrels wood tar to Denny; weight 2
tons 1 cwt 1 quarter.
4) 11th March 1940. 52
bags of lime to Deans Lane; weight 2 tons 1 cwt 3 quarters.
5) 20th April 1940. 52
bags of acetate of lime; weight 2 tons 2 cwt 2 quarters.
Postcard dated 28th February 1939 from
John Shackleton, manufacturing chemist, Manchester, recording
the return of 320 empty bags for credit.
Offer dated 11th April 1941 from Atlas
Crucible Co. Ltd to buy the business carried on by Mrs Jeanie
Glen under the name of John Glen at Kilkerran Chemical Works
for £1800, including plant, machinery and goodwill, with
an additional sum to cover stock in hand at the time of
purchase. The offer was formally accepted by Mrs Glen
on 13th May 1941. The additional sum amounted to £1039
5s 2d for the following materials: 400 tons heavy
wood @ 25s a ton (£500); 400 tons light wood at 20s a ton
(£400); 16 tons 1 cwt slabs at 20s a ton (£16 1s); 5 tons
Dalbeatie wood at 27s a ton (£6 15s); 2 tons lime at £9
15s 9d a ton (£19 11s 6d); 9 tons coal at 21s a ton (£9
9s); 381 gallons lime liquor (£14 5s 9d); acid (£47 7½d);
4½ cwt dried lime (£1 17s 1½d); wood delivered at 12th May
1941 (£3); binder twine (£4 7s 6d); proportion of premiums
on Fire, Boiler and Workmens Compensation Insurances (£6
17s 8d); still and copper pipes (£10). The managing
director of Atlas was Duncan R. Boyd.
Notice of transfer, reprinted from the Edinburgh Gazette.
Photo of house and works.
Photo of works.
Photo of railway line passing the works showing smoke
billowing over the track. Note Tibbie
Houston's recollection of the smell of the works pervading
From David Thom, 30 September 2006:
The articles describing the Pyroligneous Acid Works
at Kilkerran have solved a personal myatery of 44 years
standing! Since I first read David L. Smith's "Tales
of the Glasgow & South Western Railway", (1962),
I have wondered what went on at 'the secret works'which
are mentioned in the book as having been 'down past Kilkerran.'
Thank you for resolving this mystery.
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