Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke


Arkwright and Deanston

You start with an interest in whisky but before you know it you are looking at cotton and the rise of the factory system. How can this happen? Even if you visit Deanston distillery, housed in an old cotton mill, there is nothing inevitable about this path.  But here I am – worrying about a small detail on an information board, which said that the mill was originally designed by Richard Arkwright in 1785.

It is undoubtably true that the Buchanan brothers built an Arkwright type mill but how much was he involved in the actual design?  

If I said that the Tormore Distillery was designed by Sir Albert Richardson (it was and I have much more to say about this in future posts) we have a clear idea of what this means. He, as the architect, worked out the shape, massing, dimensions and layout, specified the materials, and provided detailed plans so everything could be constructed accurately. Part aesthetic, part engineering, he provided the information needed to translate an idea into physical reality. But is this how was this done for buildings of the early industrial buildings? Did theses mills, which basically followed the same pattern have an individual designer? 

Richard Arkwright was not a builder or architect so in what way did he personally design Deanston or was it more the case that he laid down a template with his mill at Cromford and Deanston followed a well established pattern?

Who was Richard Arkwright?

Portrait of Arkwright by Joseph Wright

But first we have to take a diversion to explain who Richard Arkwright was and what he achieved because I have seen a couple of whisky blogs who described him as the inventor of the Spinning Jenny. This is wrong. The Spinning Jenny was invented by James Hargreaves. Arkwright patented the water frame, which by the use of rollers allowed the spinning of cotton to be driven by an external power source so the yarn could be produced in a factory system. Although, previously, a hand operated machines had been gathered together in a large building these were more accurately described as workshops rather than factories.  It was not a continuous and integrated process. Arkwright, with his water frame, actually has some claim to have invented the factory system. In doing so he profoundly altered manufacturing, the organisation of society and even something as deep as our attitude to time. 

For over 250 years there have been arguments about how much Arkwright was personally responsible for the invention of his spinning frame and how much he evolved (or even stole) other peoples but that doesn’t really matter. His importance, and he was a towering figure in industrial history, comes from the way he followed the logic of his machine and organised the workflow in his mills. He concentrated production, increased efficiency, reducing costs and laid the foundations of the industrial age. 

Inside the factories a new form of labour and discipline was enforced. The Arkwright machines, driven by water power, kept going at a pre-ordained pace and could not be stopped. No longer could the operator control the rhythm of their work but instead they had to adapt to the pace of the machine. And clock time, which ensured everybody started and finished work at same time, suddenly became the way the day was regulated. It is something we take for granted now, don’t even think about it, but it is a big shift from measuring a day by the movement of the sun¹. In an Arkwright mill the regulation of the day was marked by a bell housed in a cupola on top of the mill roof. It was of such symbolic importance that it is said that Arkwright and his then partner David Dale fell out over the placing of the cupola on the New Lanark buildings. 

The machines usurped processes that had previously been those of a skilled workman and the nature of the workforce thus changed. In cotton mills marked as most of the workforce were either women or children. The relationship to work was changed by factories and the template was set by Arkwright.

Quite why it was Arkwright who led the way is a bit of a mystery. He was a semi-literate tradesman who left few personal papers and few business records. He started as a barber before becoming an itinerate dealer in hair for wigs. How this led to an interest in spinning cotton is anyones guess as is how much mechanical inventiveness he actually possessed. For his the development of his spinning frame he employed a clockmaker, John Kay and Kay subsequently claimed that many of the ideas were his (the situation was further confused by an ex-neighbour of Kay’s, Thomas Highs, who claimed it was his original idea). Whatever the truth the outcome was that it was Arkwright who was given a patent for a machine to spin cotton by using rollers in1769 and in 1775 a further patent for a carding engine.

From 1771 he proved the effectiveness of his method of manufacture in the mill he built at Cromford, in the Peak District. His success caused many people to follow his path and there was an explosion of mills built that followed his system (either legally by licensing his machines or illegally copying). By 1788 there were around 200 Arkwright mills²

An Arkwright water frame

Arkwright, for a time, had two income streams – profit his own mills and licensing fees and so became very wealthy. But many mill owners, especially in Lancashire thought the fees he charged excessive an his patents an onerous monopoly, which is not surprising given what he charged e.g. Arkwright charged Gardom and Pares of Calver mill £2,000 for a licence for the water frame and £5,000 for the carding engine and an annual royalty of £1,000³. Because of this and doubts about the amount of innovation in Arkwright’s machines, the mill owners of Manchester ganged together to challenge the patents.  They were successful and the patents were set aside in 1785, which mightily vexed Arkwright (who was probably not the easiest of men given the number of people he fell out with). Indeed Boulton said, in a letter to Watt, “If he had been a more civilised being and and had understood Mankind better he would have enjoyed his patent. Hence let us learn wisdom by other men’s ills.”⁴

However he wasn’t an emollient man and so wanted his revenge on Lancashire. He wanted to diminish its dominance as a cotton producing area by sponsoring spinning in other places. 

And so he came to Scotland.

Arkwright and Scotland

When coming north Arkwright, the ex-barber, famously said that he would “find in Scotland a razor to shave Manchester” but his motives might not have been simply pique. He might have wanted to shore up an area where his patent had already been ignored. The first power mill in Scotland was built at Penicuik in Midlothian in 1776 by an Englishman who employed an engineer who used to work at Cromford. It pirated the technology and methods but when Arkwright tried to have it shut down for patent infringement the case fell because it was ruled that the patent did not apply in Scotland.  With another another large mill being built in Johnstone, Renfrewshire in 1782, it was obviously in his interest to try to establish mills that would pay his licence fee. He entered into partnerships for mills at New Lanark, Stanley, in Perth, and Woodside, Aberdeen but his formal involvement all these mills was short lived, whether it was his ability to easily fall-out with people or for other reasons such as practical problems resulting from the distance between Derby and Scotland, is unclear. 

His limited formal involvement in Scottish partnerships was, however, not significant. What was important was the widespread adoption of his methods and the way this was promulgated by training given to apprentices and managers at Cromford. It acted as a university of cotton spinning and the graduates were able to go out, specify the design of mills and manage their operation according to the pattern he had developed. In 1791, only 13 years after the first mill in Penicuik there were 39 water powered mills in Scotland. These mills housed 124,800 spindles on water frames, averaging 3,200 per mill.

It has been argued that the transformation of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland was faster than in England.⁶ As in England cotton was a significant part of the story.

What Was An Arkwright Mill?

This is the question that bothered me in Deanston. Was it specially designed by the man himself and so distinctive in some way or did it just follow the same pattern as all the other mills? It is actually a bit like question behind the patent case: how much did he contribute to the actual design, how much did he innovate?

There is a case to be made that the mill building that set the template for all other mill buildings that followed was the Lombe Silk Mill, built in Derby between 1717 and 1721 and designed by George Sorocold. Factory building was probably the most unchanging form of architecture for 200 years. It was mostly based on a pragmatic copying of what worked. So Arkwright could take a lead from Lombe and everyone else could take a lead from the mills Arkwright built at Cromford. As the first Sir Robert Peel said: “We all looked up to him and imitated his mode of building”⁷.

The fact was that almost all Arkwright type mills looked virtually the same and the similarity was  more than skin deep as they all applied the same principles.

The mills were about 27 feet wide within the walls, a figure determined by the length of the first water frames, the need for daylight and the availability of beams that could support the floors without a central pillar. Arkwright built frames of 48 spindles and placed them in two rows along the centre of the building. An overhead shaft running down the centre of the room turned wooden drums at floor level and transmitted power to the frames by means of leather belts. Usually an Arkwright trained engineer was sent to superintend the construction who often brought with him workmen.

The design was thus a template adapted to the amount of capital the mill owner might possess and hence the size of the mill he could build.

That still leaves me with an unanswered question about who produced the drawings for each building. I don’t know and will probably never find out. The similarity of the buildings means they are usually passed over with the barest of mentions.

But Was there a Special Relationship with Deanston?

Deanston might have been one amongst a large number of Arkwright mills and there was no formal partnership relationship as with New Lanark, Stanley or Woodside but that does not mean there was not a strong relationship with Arkwright.

The Buchanan brothers who founded the mill had previously been Arkwright’s first Scottish agents, so it was them, along with David Dale (a cotton dyer and later owner of New Lanark) who invited Arkwright to Scotland in 1784. It was on this visit that Arkwright saw something in the youngest brother, Archibald, who was only 16 at the time, and offered him the opportunity to work and be educated at Cromford.  Not as one of the normal cohort of apprentices but as a guest lodging in Arkwright’s own house. Archibald was thus able to see at first hand every aspect, mechanical and managerial of the cotton trade and closely observe the working methods of the great man himself. Not that Arkwright was a very open character. Archibald later recounted that many an evening was spent sitting on opposite sides of the fire, in total silence as Arkwright schemed the schemes of a totally driven man⁸. After 18 months Archibald had been thoroughly educated and he went back to  Deanston where, at the age of 18, became its manager.  In 1787 the first thing he did was to set about building a larger mill which was filled with water frames and managed in the Arkwright way. (This makes me wonder about the nature of the building which the distillery claim was designed by Arkwright in 1785). About this time Arkwright visited the site and was impressed with its potential, he wished the venture well and presented Archibald’s mother with some spectacles. All very cordial and it suggests he was happy with the progress of his protege but it does not suggest any direct role in the building. 

However the elder Buchanan brothers, who founded the mill, were a bit wayward in their business methods and could not make it pay and went bankrupt. George, personally, burnt through £50,000 in six years and John had previously had his business practices questioned when as a young man he was given a position of book-keeper in his uncle’s firm but got the sack for failing to provide any accounts. Archibald, though was more steadfast was an important character in the history of the Scottish cotton industry. Firstly and Deanston, then at Ballindaloch, and finally at Catrine, which he managed for the last 40 years of his life. In all of these he applied Arkwright principles but with his own technical innovations.

As far as Deanston is concerned, his other important contribution was to train his nephew John Smith, who lived with him at Catrine. In 1806 Kirkman Finlay, a cousin, bought Deanston from the floundering Benjamin Flounders and a nineteen year old Smith was made manager and organised the enterprise according to the principles learnt from his uncle who had in turn learnt them from Richard Arkwright. Like his uncle, but unlike Arkwright (who failed to make any significant mechanical developments after the carding engine) he continued to be technically innovative throughout his life. He was by far the most important character in the history of Deanston mill and is responsible for the way it looks today. The works he put in place included: new lade, new dam, embankment walls along the Teith, housing, new roadways, a gas works, a new mill and weaving shed and great water wheels.

The Factory System

Archibald Buchanan recounted in 1833 how he reorganised the Catrine Mills along Arkwright lines (James Smith used exactly the same system):

“In the works there are 21 different rooms or departments; in each of these the master, or overlooker, is at liberty to choose his own hands; and in like manner the workers have it in their power to change at the end of every week, and to go to any room in the establishment, where the master of that room can employ them, upon giving  six days notice to the master they leave… The master, as well as all the workers, apart from learners and extra hands are paid by piece work; of course it is in his interest to have the best workers he can get and should a worker not be able to obtain employment from any master, it is pretty evident that the fault lies with the individual, who must choose some other employment.” 

The working day used to be 12 hours. Apparently the reason for this is that that was the shift in Lombe’s silk mill, which was then adopted at Cromford and hence everywhere else. The Industrial Revolution was built on a lot of copying but the change was profound – through its organisation of labour it created the working class.

It was the system that needed mass labour, that changed the relationship between worker and master. The system that was the most important thing. Not the building which housed it, even if those buildings loom large in the way we visualise the Industrial Revolution with its ‘dark satanic mills’.

The Deanston Building

The Old Deanston Mill

The mill building we see today when we visit the distillery, which we look at and imagine layers of time being peeled away, is not the original Arkwright mill. No trace of that survives, it was demolished in 1947 and on its site is the 1960s warehouse. What we see is the new mill built by Smith in the 1830s.  It is rather squarish in shape whereas all the original Arkwright mills were long, thin rectangles. We can now see nothing of the eighteenth century history. What we see is James Smith’s mill and this should be celebrated he was a significant innovator in his own right.

Under James Smith Deanston became the first fully integrated cotton mills in Britain where all the processes: washing, preparing, spinning, weaving were carried out on the same site.

Deanston Twinned With Clynelish

This is, theoretically, a whisky blog but this post has been more off topic than normal. I’m sure the overlap in the Venn diagram of whisky enthusiasts and those interested in cotton spinning and the early industrial revolution is very small. Nevertheless I can, perhaps, do something to bring them closer together by pointing out a rather odd link between Deanston and Clynelish.

James Smith looking back at the initial recruitment for Deanston:

“from the great wages that people earned, the better part of the surrounding population were ulitmately attracted to the works. The first supply was chiefly from the Highlands, where, from the introduction of sheep, the farmers and small cotters were forced away to seek employment in such establishments… these works have been an asylum for many a reduced farmer, with his family, and for the widows and orphans of the agricultural village population.” ¹⁰

The industrial village of Brora was designed by the Sutherland Estate to be a place for the crofters they uprooted when they turned the Highlands over to sheep farming. It had, at various times, a col mine, woollen mill, brewery, distillery and fishing. It was part of a failed scheme to turn the area into an economic hub – it was just too remote. nevertheless it did provide employment for some of the displaced.

This makes clear the connection between the two distilleries: agricultural displacement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – or the Highland Clearances, if you will.

Now Clynelish happens to be one of my favourite whiskies that has a slightly magical ability to enhance a blend when added to other malts (it is no coincidence that it is one of the go-to ingredients for Compass Box). In my own unscientific and completely unsophisticated way I have, to great effect, blended it with Glenlivet (50/50), following the lead of George Saintsbury in his ‘Notes 0n a Cellar-book’. Perhaps I should now experiment with Deanston and Clynelish to see if they are also as satisfying when mixed. As both distilleries are linked to the Highland diaspora I could call the blend ‘DeasBrora’ but there again perhaps not. It might raise expectations a little high.



¹ On the subject of time it always comes of quite a jolt when I remember that we only had to have a standardised time in this country because of the railways. They had to run to a timetable and so times in each area had to agree. Before that local time had been calibrated by a sundial and there could be differences across the country of up to 20 minutes. It was not until 1880 that standard time was legislated for and this always strikes me as surprisingly late.

² S. D. Chapman (1981) The Arkwright Mills—Colquhoun’s Census of 1788 and 

Archaeological Evidence, Industrial Archaeology Review, 6:1, 5-27 

³ Tann, Jennifer., and Boulton Watt. The Development of the Factory. London: Cornmarket Press, 1970.

⁴ ibid

⁵ COOKE, A. (2010). The rise and fall of the Scottish cotton industry, 1778-1914 ‘The secret spring’. Manchester, UK, Manchester University Press

⁶ Whatley, C.A.The industrial revolution in Scotland Cambridge 1997

⁷ Fitton, R.S. The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune. Manchester, Manchester University Press. 1989

⁸ ibid

⁹ ibid

¹⁰ ibid

P.S. The title image is a painting of Cromford Mill at night by Joseph Wright


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