The Geology of the Scottish Iron &Steel Industry: a lament

As a kid, I used to cycle out to  our local volcano (albeit a Devonian felsite intrusion : Tinto Hill ) and explore an ‘Iron Age’ hillfort on its flanks. Its inhabitants were probably among the first to benefit directly from the fabulous geological diversity of the Scottish Midland Valley.

rocks_map
Fantastically clear geological map from the Geological Society of Glasgow webpaage of the Western Midland Valley tucked between the Southern Uplands and the Highland Boundary Fault. s denotes a sedimentary unit and i an igneous unit. 3s is the Carboniferous Coal measures group while 1,2 and 4-6 are the silt, mud, sand and limestones of the Upper Carboniferous. Units 7-10 are the generally coarser Devonian muds, sand and conglomerates.

(Image from the Geological Society of Glasgow.)

So,  as a consequence of geology, I grew up just a few miles from my nearest coal mine, steelworks; sand and gravel quarries, and just over 20 miles from the Leadhills where over 70 different minerals can be found (including gold!).  All that made last week’s news that the very last remnants of the Scottish steel industry were ‘under threat’ all the more poignant. The cold winds of the 1984-85 miner’s strike whip through my memories of secondary school; the towers of Ravenscraig happened to come down when I was home on a visit during my PhD.

The demolition of the Ravenscraig towers in the 1990s. The closure of the steelworks lost 770 jobs with another 10,000 indirectly lost (WIkipedia)
The demolition of the Ravenscraig towers in the 1990s. The closure of the steelworks lost 770 jobs with another 10,000 indirectly lost (WIkipedia). Image Scottish Daily Record.

When these rocks were laid down Scotland benefited from an arid- equatorial climate and the Midland Valley was filled with restricted swampy shallow tropical seas or lakes in a complex  ‘graben’ that provided the lithospheric stretching that allowed for occasional activation of volcanic centres. Rivers flowed from the Highlands into the valley.

These provided the perfect conditions for producing sediments rich in iron-ore and coal beds that provided the ‘heat’ to smelt them.

Fossil Grove in Victoria Park ,Glasgow. This photo taken in 1888 shows the remnants of giant club mosses which would have dominated the landscape.
Fossil Grove in Victoria Park ,Glasgow. This photo taken in 1888 shows the remnants of giant club mosses which would have dominated the landscape.

Ever since the Iron Age we’ve been enjoying these riches,  in the 19th Century industry flourished as Scottish ‘pig-iron’ was smelted by Scottish coal to fuel the building of railways and ships. Scientists contributed ideas that refined and improved these processes and Scotland was an ‘early adopter’ of new ideas. In 1869 David Bremner wrote

 “The blast furnaces are chiefly concentrated in the vicinity of Coatbridge, Airdrie, and Wishaw, all of which towns were rapidly raised to importance by the development of the mineral treasures which lay beneath and around them…..’

In the late 1800s Coatbridge and its iron generation was usurped by the ‘Steelopolis’ of Motherwell.  Soon, the dark clouds of market forces (cheaper materials elsewhere) and politics arrived and so the long hard battles of the next century began.

To my young ear the disputes of the 80s, were complex and horrible: lack of coal could shut the furnaces down that were already under threat. I’ve linked to some resources that explore that.  Its an important part of the pathway that has got us to where we are now.

Sources: 

Scottish mining.co.uk

Mines of Scotland: a Bibliography

History of the Iron and Steel Industry in Scotland

British Geological Survey

Glasgow Geological Society

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