The town of Gatehouse of Fleet was a planned town. Construction began from the mid 1760s and developed through the 1770s and 1780s. These mills, this lower mill and the adjacent ruined upper mill, date from the 1780s when cotton production began here. This lasted until 1810, when these mills closed in the face of competition from the larger centres of production. Re-equipped with power looms, they reopened and ran between 1832 and the 1850s before closing again. Thereafter they made bobbins for the textile industry from 1860 until the site was finally abandoned in the late 1930s.
In 1785 James Murray grants a lease to Messrs. Birtwhistle for a site on the east bank of the River Fleet, immediately upstream of the Fleet Bridge, for the erection of a cotton spinning mill.
By 1788 business has increased to a point where further accommodation is required. The Birtwhistles obtain finance for the construction of a second, smaller mill. This smaller mill has now been restored as the Mill on the Fleet.
In 1790 Thomas Scott & Co. build a third mill at the north-east side of the town and in 1791 John Paple, a Gatehouse surgeon, and his brother in law, John Smith, establish a mill on a site in Fleet Street. John Paple’s business fails in 1795 and Scott’s Mill closes in 1812 becoming the Cally Estate’s saw mill in 1820.
Gatehouse in the late 18th century is far from the recognised centres of trade and industry. When the Birtwhistles commence the spinning and weaving of cotton in 1787 communications by road are poor. The raw cotton from America and India is transferred from ocean-going ships at major ports and transported to Gatehouse by smaller coastal vessels.
By 1800 the Gatehouse cotton industry is in decline, facing fierce competition from larger centres of production and consumption in central Scotland and the north of England. Birtwhistle Mills cease production in 1810 on the death of the principal owner.
In 1832, after being unused for some 22 years, the buildings are refurbished and equipped with new machinery, including some 74 power looms, for James Davidson and Co. Following a severe fire in the upper four-storey mill in 1840, rebuilding and refitting is carried out.
Following closure of the cotton mill c1850, the plant and machinery lie idle for some years. In May 1858 a sale of mill machinery and equipment is held. The catalogue lists in great detail the machinery in use immediately prior to closure. Power transmission equipment includes some 1270 feet of wrought-iron shafts, together with some 100 bevelled gear wheels and some 155 pulleys. Machinery includes 156 power looms, and cast-iron steam piping, serving the preparation, spinning and weaving rooms, running to some 786 feet. Also listed is a 22 ft. diameter, 8 ft. broad cast- iron undershot water wheel and fittings probably from this lower mill.
In 1859 the mill complex is acquired by a firm of timber merchants and bobbin makers called Helme from Dalbeattie. The upper mill is used for the manufacture of bobbins while the lower mill is used as a store and bark mill.
The processing of bark is for leather tanning which is a thriving industry in Gatehouse. The main tannery is housed in the building which is now the Spar minimarket with the tan pits sited where the main town car park is now.
The photographs here date from about 1910 and show the lower mill to be a roofless ruin, the upper mill water wheel flanked by iron roofed saw bench sheds, and the upper floors of the upper mill rebuilt in brickwork following the fire in 1840, with the windows now blocked up. The compound is piled high with timber waiting to be processed into bobbins.
In November 1919 the upper mill is again severely damaged by fire and is demolished to first floor level and reroofed as a single storey building with steel roof trusses and an iron roof. The hipped roof boilerhouse building is demolished and on its site is erected a bobbin drying kiln. The site continues in use until about the 1930s when it is finally abandoned. In the 1980s the lower mill is restored and it opens as a visitor centre in 1991.
Two views show the site in the 1920s or 30s once the upper mill has been reduced to single storey height. The other image show the lower Mill during clearting in the 1980s prior to its restoration as The Mill on the Fleet.
A Planned Town
James Murray used the press to advertise the attractions of his town to prospective businesses. The first recorded plot in the High Street was in 1763 and twenty years later there were 160 houses in three streets, with 1150 inhabitants. The town was at its most thriving around 1800 with all the mills working. But as isolated rural mill towns became unable to compete with the larger towns and cities, Gatehouse stopped growing and has remained much as it was laid out in the late 18th century by James Murray.
As early as 1777 James Murray was using the infant local press to encourage industrious manufacturers, shopkeepers and tradesmen to settle in Gatehouse on very reasonable terms. He boasted that a number of ‘remarkable good houses’ had been built, and ‘several useful manufactures’ had already been established, so that the village was already in a ‘very thriving condition’. Murray made a point of providing each plot with a good garden behind.
The advertisement of 1777 in the Dumfries Weekly Journal appeared in the name of Murray’s friend and business partner John Bushby, sheriff clerk in Dumfries. Robert Burns wrote the following epitaph although Bushby did not die till 1802, six years after Burns’ own death:
Here lies John Bushby, honest man Cheat him, devil, gin ye can.
Gatehouse already had a market and, apart from local produce, cattle, horses, sheep and pigs were imported from Ulster to Portpatrick and passed through en route to market. This was the beginning of local industrial development, for the first factories in the town were tanneries. A small soap works near the Fleet bridge was probably also supplied with animal fats.
It was the cattle trade, too, which was instrumental in developing the main industry in the town. Messrs. Birtwhistle and Sons were cattle dealers from Yorkshire, who bought large quantities of livestock in Galloway and were looking to build cotton mills. Refused a lease at Kirkcudbright, they approached James Murray at Cally. On the 16th of March 1785 James Murray signed a contract with the Birtwhistle brothers for ‘building a cotton manufactory at Gatehouse of Fleet, with provisions for the supply of water to the same from Loch Whinney, and the water of Barlae etc, subject to the requirement of the mill of Barlae and the brewery and tannery at Gatehouse.’ Thomas Scott and Co. established a mill at the top of the town. Such was the success of the Birtwhistles that Burns described the principal partner as ‘Roarin Birtwhistle.’
The power for the mills and water for the other industries was supplied by a system of waterways including the construction of a tunnel to bring the water from Loch Whinyeon. Altogether the Gatehouse mills employed some 500 people. There was also a small brass foundry to supply metal parts for the machines. A machine tool maker settled in the town. There was, too, a small weaving shed in which hand production of muslins began in 1793.
When visited by the factory inspector in 1840, 174 people were found working in the cotton mills at Gatehouse, 64 being under the age of 18. In October of that year the building was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt. From 1859 to the 1930s the Birtwhistle mills continued in operation producing wooden bobbins for mills in other areas.
At that time small coins to pay workers were scarce in many places and in 1793 Scott’s company issued 500 fine copper token coins – the Gatehouse ha’penny.
Before the coming of the railways the sea provided the main artery of communication with the outside world for the people of Gatehouse. Vessels made their way up the Fleet to land their cargoes at the Boat Green and later at Port Macadam. The canalisation of the river in 1824 and the creation of the new quay at Port Macadam in 1836 allowed for the expansion of the sea-trade to and from the town. The quay was 100 metres long with a stone warehouse and a weighbridge and could handle up to five vessels at a time. Main imports were coal, lime, raw cotton, herring and manufactured goods; the main exports were grain, cattle, hides, yarn, soap, minerals, and copper ore to Wales.
Ships were also built at the Boat Green. One ship, the Lady Anne Murray, for instance, named after the wife of Alexander Murray, was a single masted sloop built in 1821 with a length of 48 ft. 3.5 inches. She was built for a Gatehouse ship owner Thomas Birkett and her later owners also included a local wood merchant and grocer. She was transferred to Stranraer in 1844 and was wrecked entering Portpatrick Harbour with a cargo of coal in 1846.
Another vessel which made many visits to Gatehouse was the smack Eliza of Kirkcudbright. Records show she made 73 visits to Port Macadam between May 1847 and January 1858. Thirty-nine of these were deliveries of coal and goods, 10 of coal, 11 of lime, 5 of lime and goods, 1 of coal, bricks and flag stones, 1 of culm flour and iron, 1 of coal cinders and goods and 2 of goods. She only loaded 3 cargoes of wood, props and meal. The captain on 58 of these voyages was Captain Charles Belford (1809- 1889).
Canalisation and New Harbour
In 1824 Alexander Murray brought over workers from his estate in Ireland to dig a canal to channel the water along a straight course to the sea. By first digging the canal and then using the river to wash away the soil the estate factor Mr Craig was able to create the canal at a cost of just over £2000 against an estimate of £5000. The creation of the canal also allowed Murray to reclaim 170 acres of fine farm land.
In 1836 David Macadam, shipbroker in Gatehouse, was given permission to build a new quay and was authorised to levy a rate of one penny per registered ton from masters of vessels unloading at the harbour of Boat Green or at the new quay. This was the beginning of expanded sea
trade from the new Port Macadam. However, with the opening of the gas works in 1847, the closure of the cotton mills in the 1850s and the coming of the railway in 1861 the port became a coaling quay for the gas works with only the occasional vessel visiting until about 1930.
Associated with the port is the swing bridge over the Fleet, built about 1825 by James Faed, engineer and miller, the father of the celebrated family of artists. The bridge was built on two supporting pillars founded on large rocks on either side of the channel. It provided the people of Gatehouse with an access to the sea shore and allowed the laird of Cally to close his drive to the public. The swing bridge is no more but there is today an enjoyable walk from Port Macadam to Cardoness Castle along the banks of the Fleet.
Mid 19th century Gatehouse
A fine panorama of Gatehouse, painted by the Irish born artist Robert George Kelly and dated 1852, gives a good idea of the town in the middle of the 19th century. The general layout of the town remains the same today and is similar to that set out by James Murray at the end of the 18th century.
Cally House stands in its magnificent park. While the scene is one of tranquil opulence the reality was somewhat different. As indicated there had been a major sale of the contents of Cally House in 1845 on the death of the proprietor Alexander Murray of Broughton. At the time of the painting, Horatio Murray Stewart’s trustees were having to rebuild the estate.
At the top of the town are the two mill ponds, which held the water, collected from Bush Loch to the south and Loch Whinyeon to the North to keep the Mills supplied. To the right is the Toll House. Note how this building was square ended. It was not until the early years of the 20th century that a second round bay was built giving the building the appearance we see today.
The town itself is dominated by the large cotton mill, which, with its belching chimney, was still in production. The heat from the chimney would help to keep the building warm and damp for cotton production. Next to the cotton mills there is a factory chimney belonging to the town brewery.
Beyond the town, the Fleet can be seen running out into the Bay, the tide fully in. The river was canalised to straighten it in 1824 and appears much as today passing below Cardoness Castle. The bridge however is not today’s bypass but the swing bridge crossing the river to follow the route to Sandgreen.
At the bottom of the town there is another chimney. Here was the site of the town gas works which provided light for the people of Gatehouse from 1847 to 1919. The gas works was a public company with shares owned by the people of Gatehouse.
The Rutherford Monument erected in 1842 commemorates the Rev. Samuel Rutherford, minister of Anwoth Old Kirk from 1627 until 1639. He was a leading theologian and author and played an important role in the religious life of the time.