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Wanlockhead Lead Mines, History. Wanlockhead, Dumfriesshire.

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Wanlockhead is an old mining village in the parish of Sanquhar. The discovery of lead around the area is generally attributed to a Dutch gold prospector, Cornelius de Vois, locally referred to as Cornelius Hardskin (Hardskins was a name give by locals to foreigners). Vois was active in this area of Scotland at the end of the 1560's, however records show that mining activity was present as early as 1512. In these early days, gold and silver was being searched for, usually by the means of hushing in the hope of exposing any veins. Some native gold was found and even nuggets have made appearances, but most of what was recovered, was by panning or sluicing. No native silver was found, and only when lead mining was started did some recovery of silver occur via the process of smelting lead ore. Due to the general failure in finding any rich veins, the area was abandoned at the beginning of the 17th century.

Very little activity occurred for most of the 17th century, and only in the last two decades during which Sir James Stansfield and a number of others obtained leases mines were opened. These operations were on a small scale and it was not until the last decade that lead mining activities increased. In 1691, Matthew Wilson obtained a lease until 1710, and successfully worked Margaret's vein (also know as Straitsteps). During this period smelting lead ore with peat was introduced. After the end of the lease, the London Lead Company took over the Wanlockhead mining grounds. Under their control the area expanded into a hive of mining activity - the result of investment and the introduction of new technology. Many new levels were driven, "Bab-Gin" pumping engines installed and a new smelter using coal was built with de-silvering facilities.

In 1723 the London lead Company took out a 'forced' new joint lease with the Friendly Mining Society, but the partnership was dissolved after 6 years. The Friendly Mining Society continued to operate until 1735, but its success was limited and records show that it operated at a loss. Afterwards, Alexander Telfer took over the mine leases and operated until 1755. Telfer successfully expanded up on previous companies workings and deepened many of the mines to new horizons. He installed water powered pumping engines to dewater the deeper workings.

In 1755, a new company, headed by Ronald Crawford took over the mines and they operated until 1777. After this, their successors operated with a succession of renewed leases until 1842, when Marquis of Bute ended up as the last shareholder. During their time the company proved to be very successful and they mined all the major veins at Wanlockhead, as well as discovering new veins they introduced steam powered pumping engines and later on, water pressure pumping engines. The company proved to be very profitable for a large part of its tenancy and only in the later years due to a fall in lead prices did operations see a decline.

When Marquis of Bute's lease expired in 1842, the then landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch having failed to find new lessees took over the management of the mines, appointing James Barker Stuart as manager. Stuart built a new dressing plant and smelt mill as well as installing new pumping engines and water siphons. In 1870 Thomas Barker Stuart succeeded his father as manager and continued to improve the mining operations. By the 1890's the mining activities were starting to decline and major investment was required, in the early part of the 20th century the Duke terminated mining operations. Two of the hydraulic engines commission from this era are still preserved underground in the New Glencrieff workings.

In 1906, two brothers Archiblad and William Fraser took over the leases and formed the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Company. Employing a talented mine manager, John Mitchell; the failing operations under the Duke were turned around, and by 1910 the mines output had almost doubled. Mitchell introduced compressed air drills and more powerful pumping engines, allowing deeper workings, which in turn opened larger ore bodies at a faster rate than was known before. He also drove much wider levels and used ponies for getting the ore to the surface. As well as lead, zinc had started to be mined at this time as well. After John Mitchells death in 1920, his son, William took over as manager. The mines at this time were facing difficulties after the 1st World War and the ensuing depression. However, even with the poor economic climate output of lead was still very good. Finally in 1934 production ceased and the mines were closed.

In 1951 a joint venture between Siamese Tin Syndicate Ltd, Bangrin Tin Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd was formed under the name of Lowland Lead Mines. The group was interested in operations at the New Glencrieff mine and in 1953 pumping had started to dewater the flooded workings. A year later when almost a depth of 300m had been drained, underground exploration and mapping started. Problems were faced by the group, as there was a shortage of labour and in 1954 Rio Tinto pulled out of the venture. A concentration mill had been erected at a later date, and over 1600 tonnes of lead concentrated had been milled. The price of lead fell towards the end of the 1950's and production was stopped in 1958. The mine closed in 1959. At closure, the reserves were estimated to be at over 200,000 tonnes of lead ore and a further 110,000 tonnes of millable stopes, with additional tonnage in surface dumps. In the early 1960's a small venture was started to re-process the old sand lagoons using a froth floatation plant and this yielded some 3-5% of lead fines. The only other activities have been the removal of gravels and hard core for large civil engineering projects.

In the 1980's the local estates granted permission on behalf of the Wanlockhead Mining Museum for a group of mine explorers headed by Jeremy Landless to explore the old mine workings. This led to new understanding of the whole complex and a number of amazing discoveries, the most prominent being the finding of an intact water pressure pumping engine and a water pressure winching engine in the New Glencrieff mine. Today most of the 20th century industrial surface remains have been demolished, but the earlier mine buildings are still standing in various states of decline, with some having under gone restoration or preservation to stop further delcine. There are preserved buildings including the famous Wanlockhead Beam Engine at Straitsteps Mine, Pate Knows Smelter, and the Bay Mine area, which is managed by the Wanlockhead Mining Museum.

Access to the underground workings is still possible, but the local estates frown up on it, with most of the mines being locked, hidden and buried - a shame, as contemporary mine explorers surely would be able to unearth a vast amount of industrial heritage that is currently hidden away.

Pates Knowes Smelting Mill

Updated 20th June 2008.

Straitsteps Mine

Updated 20th June 2008.

New Glencrieff Mine

Updated 20th June 2008.