The Industrial Past of Auchindrain

This is a fantastic story that pushes our understanding of industrial Auchindrain back into the mid 18th century.


In 1745, young Duncan Munro from Auchindrain joined the Argyll Militia commanded by the Duke of Argyll, and fought for the Hanoverian side. He distinguished himself and was promoted to Sergeant. When the Militia disbanded after Culloden, Munro returned home, and was rewarded by the Duke for his bravery and loyalty with a heritable (he could pass it on down the family) sub-tenancy of a croft (an individual land-holding) within the township. There was probably no paperwork, just an indication to the tenants that this was what His Grace wished to happen - an instruction which they of course followed knowing what was good for them.


The croft, about 2.5 acres in size, was called "Dail na Ceardach", which best translates as "The Workshop Field". The next field along was "Dail na Mhuilinn", "The Mill Field". This indicates the presence of small-scale industry alongside farming as integral to the township's economy, and suggests that Munro was something of a blacksmith and general fixer and maker of things.


Duncan Munro had two daughters, before his wife sadly died quite young. We see his name, aged 55, within the township's population in what's called "The Duke's List", an unofficial census taken by the Estate in 1779, but by then his daughters had married and gone away. His younger daughter didn't go far, only to the next township at Braleckan. We don't yet know when he died, but we do know that in accordance with the law and practice at the time his daughters could not inherit the croft, and the sub-tenancy appears to have skipped a generation and passed to the second son of his younger daughter, Duncan McNicol, we think around 1810.


Duncan McNicol was a weaver, according to the census data for Auchindrain first of flax and later of wool. He was occupying the croft in 1841 and 1851, but by the 1850s he and his wife were getting on in years and their children had grown up and gone away. Obviously none of them wanted the croft, because sometime in the 1850s it passed to Neil McGugan who had grown up at Braleckan and was the son of one of McNicol's younger sisters. Neil had lived at Auchindrain since the mid 1840s, in a small house in the West Township. In 1851 he was there with his housekeeper, Elizabeth McArthur, and in due course they became a couple and children followed. The growing young family would have been very cramped in the small house in the West Township, and by the 1861 census Neil McGugan and his uncle Duncan McNicol had swapped houses. McNicol then seems to have built a weaving shed next to his new house, the remains of which can be seen today.


Neil McGugan had started out as a farm worker, but quite quickly joined the workforce of the two copper and nickel mines near Auchindrain, Craignure and Collie Bhragad, where he stayed, probably until the late 1870s. The surviving records from the mines suggest that he ended up as foreman of the gang which was reworking the "spoils" left from earlier mining, to extract the valuable nickel ore that had been dumped when the mines were being worked for copper. The mine records also indicate that he almost certainly worked alongside other men, and women, from Auchindrain, including Peter McCallum who was the carter for the mines for many years, Peter's daughter Isabella, later known within the township as Beal Pol (Bella who lives by the muddy place), and Neil's own elder brother Alexander, who in 1842 was the father of Bella's illegitimate son, John, before - it would appear - dumping her and wandering off elsewhere. This looks to have been a quite prosperous period for the township, with a proportion of its population regularly employed in the mines.


In the 1860s, Neil McGugan was interviewed by John Dewar who was then collecting folklore and historical stories for the 8th Duke of Argyll in what became one of the most remarkable pieces of Gaelic tradition-collecting of the 19th century. Neil confirmed the story of his great grand-uncle Duncan Munro and Dail na Ceardach, and was mentioned in history for what he had reported.


When the mines closed in the 1870s, Neil McGugan spent a few years at the gunpowder works two miles away in Furnace, until that blew up one Sunday morning in 1883. Thereafter, he worked as a dry-stone dyker and mason's labourer, being recorded as such in the 1901 census when he was 77 years old. Soon thereafter Neil's wife Elizabeth died, and he moved in with one of his children in Inveraray. But we are still not finished, because in 1902 a mining speculator from London came sniffing around the by then long-closed mines, and recorded his conversations with an "old Mr D McGougan" who knew the mines "from 25 and 50 years before", and who we think was probably in fact our Neil - recorded in history for a second time!


But what of the croft? Sadly, it would appear than when Neil moved away to Inveraray in 1902, none of his sons wanted it. The house and workshop were left to fall into ruin, with the land being re-absorbed into the township as a whole. But we can still see traces of it today in the landscape. When it was created in the 1740s, all they seem to have done was to partition off one end of the area of crop-growing land at the south-west corner of the township, by digging a ditch. The earth "head-dyke" separating this crop-growing "inbye" land from the rough-grazing "outrun" beyond runs along two sides of Dail na Ceardach, with a third side bounded by part of another earth dyke which separated this crop-growing land from the inner area of the township around the houses and barns. When, in the 1840s, the township switched from cattle to sheep as its main agricultural product, and abandoned runrig in favour of an arrangement of small fields, the land in this area beyond the croft was turned over to grazing because it was too steep and uneven to be worked with horses and the new agricultural implements by then available. The earlier ditch was obviously not sufficient to keep livestock out of the croft, so an additional earth dyke was built along the line of the ditch to completely separate the croft from the grazing land around it.


We have drawn on many sources to assemble this story of Auchindrain's industrial past, but particular thanks are due to Dr Ronnie Black, formerly of the University of Edinburgh, for the story of Duncan Munro drawn from the Dewar Manuscripts, and to the author Marian Pallister whose research into mining in Argyll uncovered the extent to which the mid-19th century population of Auchindrain was employed in mining. This research has recently been published as "Not a Plack The Richer", by Birlinn Books, copies of which can be purchased in person or by post from the museum - email to if you would like a copy.