I am currently a student on the MSc Heritage, Environment and Policy course and am creating a new route as part of my final assessment. This new route is based in and around the village of Twechar in East Dunbartsonshire. An area that was transformed with the cutting of the Forth & Clyde Canal and the opening of the colliery. The route consists of 3 circular paths; a core loop around the village of Twechar itself, around 6km, with the option to continue onto the Kilsyth loop, 9km or the Auchinstarry loop, 7km.
This story is centered around the coal baron William Baird. The Baird family had been farmers in the Old Monklands area for generations, Williams father Alexander proved to be a canny businessman and quickly expanded his farming interests. Unfortunately, only one of Alexander’s eight children wanted to follow in his footsteps so he began to explore other opportunities for his sons. With the cutting of the Monklands Canal in 1770, a transport route was created between the central belt coalfields and the lucrative Glasgow market. So, the Baird family diversified and took their first lease of a coalfield at Rochsolloch in 1816.
William became the manager of operations with his brother Alexander Jnr being sent to Glasgow as the sales agent. They were successful and developed a good reputation, but they were always on the lookout for new opportunities. This came in the form of an increase in demand for locally made iron due to disruption in overseas supplies. The decision was made, and they established the Gartsherrie Iron Works at Monklands in 1830. Within the ten years the works had sixteen furnaces with the capacity to produce 100,000 tons per annum, making Gartsherrie the largest single pig-iron producing unit in the world.
They needed more and more raw materials and so began to look beyond the Monklands area. In 1865 they opened a colliery in the village of Twechar. This area was chosen not only for the mineral resources but because of its proximity to the Forth & Clyde Canal which linked to the Monkland Canal where Gartsherrie Iron works were located.
The first pit was sunk on the north bank of the canal with more quickly following in the surrounding areas at St Flannan, Dumbreck, Haugh and Barrwood. Not only did Twechar become a pit village it became the headquarters for all the Baird’s interests in the region. This brought infrastructure to the area and employment in the workshops that were set up to manufacture, maintain and carry out repairs for the whole mining operation. They set up their own training pit linked to the school which, during WWII, became one of the training grounds for the ‘Bevin Boys’.
Looking around the village today you can see reminders of not only the industry but also of the social life of the mine workers. Walking down the Main Street you pass the Twechar Miners Welfare Bowling Club, established in 1926 after a request from the local miners in 1922. You pass the Parish Church which was built and furnished using funds from William Baird & Co. and the local estate owner Alexander Whitelaw. You pass the Institute, again funded by Baird, to provide a place for events and for recreation.
Despite bringing jobs and providing recreational facilities Baird was disliked by the mining community. There were concerns over the safety in the mines and how the mining families were treated, particularly when they fell on hard times. Recently, when developers were building a new estate in the village it was suggested that a street be named after William Baird. This was opposed by the local people who petitioned hard against this plan. It is summed up well in an interview that took place during an oral history project in 2017,
“you lived, breathed and danced to William Baird’s tune…Luckily, in ’45,’46, the mines were nationalized. It was never a great job, but it was more of a job that the men were in control of rather than the coal baron.”Andrew Bell, Twechar – An Oral History of Pit Village
The colliery closed in 1964 but has left a visible legacy that can be seen around the village in its buildings, street names, and the landscape.
Lisa Snedden, July 2020