One of Billy Connolly’s best early gags was describing Glasgow to those who didn’t know it as “A little fishing village on the Clyde.”
Today that description might have STILL fitted that now mighty city if, here in Clydesdale, there hadn’t had a family spat over two hundred years ago.
Indeed, Glasgow’s place as Scotland’s largest city might well have been taken by a community deep in our countryside that has now disappeared almost without trace – Wilsontown.
There are those who now argue that the few hundred acres of tranquil rural woodland where it once stood was the true birthplace not only of Scottish industry – but the world’s.
As was common in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Wilsontown was named after the family which founded it.
Legend has it that the owner of a small local coal mine, Robert Wilson, was taking a country stroll with his brother William in the early 1770s when they came across some ironstone in a burn.
The idea was sparked that, with the abundant supplies of coal under the landscape plus these deposits of ironstone, these natural resources could be married and a then state-of-the-art ironworks created. With another Wilson brother, John, drawn into the partnership, this venture was launched and the new Wilsontown quickly became the nation’s biggest source of that precious basic material of the Industrial Revolution.
Although it prospered for a relatively short time, Wilsontown iron production was cutting edge technology at the time and found its way into all sorts of useful products ranging from nails to rails.
There was quite probably Wilsontown iron in the cannonballs Admiral Lord Nelson’s battleships sent tearing through the enemy’s vessels at Trafalgar.
At one time Wilsontown was producing a then-gobsmacking 90 tonnes of iron a week and it held a far, far, more important place in the Scottish industrial economy than Glasgow did at the time.
Largely due to a fall-out between the Wilson brothers over future development in their works, Wilsontown’s ‘‘golden age’’ was a brief one.
Due to indecision at the top of management and the area’s remoteness from national transport links such as a canal, the ironworks went bust in 1811 but it carried on under the new Dixon ownership until 1842.
There were grand plans to improve local infra-structure that might have saved Wilsontown such as the building of a Lanark to Glasgow canal but these came to nothing, mostly due to technical difficulties.
The descent of Wilsontown into what doesn’t even now amount to a ghost town wasn’t immediate. Work was still to be found for decades in the local coal industry but eventually even that faltered; the once bustling community faded and died.
Walk through the place where hundreds of men once toiled among the reek and noise of a busy ironworks today and you’ll find little more than grass and trees and hear nothing but birdsong.
A few – very few – ruins poke through the tranquil rural landscape to hint that the heart of Scottish industry once beat here.
However, although virtually vanished from the landscape, so long as there are history books and local industrial heritage projects, memories of the part Wilsontown once played in the making of our modern world will never die.