Mark Cranston set up the Scotland-wide Scottish Brick History project in 2011 and now has 2,750 examples in his collection in Jedburgh. And each has a story to tell about its manufacture, working life, and impact on our industrial, social and economic heritage.
From the 1840s to the 1970s, Scotland was one of the world leaders in manufacturing bricks especially refractory bricks – those resistant to heat.
Bricks made at Glenboig, Bonnybridge, Castlecary and other areas had a reputation second to none and their products were exported all over the world. Such was the demand for Scottish bricks, that at one time the Glenboig Union Fireclay Works was the biggest brick-producing works in the world.
The Scottish clay found from Fife down into the Lothians across the Central Belt to Stirling, Falkirk, Glasgow and into Ayrshire had such qualities and purity that Scottish bricks were sought after to support and drive industrial revolutions in country after country.
Mark explained: “Brickworks did not just manufacture bricks. They produced a myriad of items such as drainage tiles, salt glazed sewer and water pipes, animal feed trough, roof ridges and tiles, flower pots, garden edging etc. Some of the bigger works made magnificent clay vases, urns and fountains.
“You would be hard pressed to think of another item that is so interwoven among our Scottish industries. Bricks were used to build factories, houses, chimney, furnaces, stoves, fires. Wherever there was steam, there was a boiler and inside the boiler there were fire bricks. The iron and steel industry, coal mining, the glass and chemical manufacturing industries, and the textile factories depended on bricks in one form or another.”
Sadly, by the 1970s the world was changing and the demand for Scottish bricks dwindled. Refractory bricks are no longer manufactured in Scotland. The one surviving brickworks is in Blantyre, Lanarkshire.
Mark, who has always been interested in history, began the project after looking for a brick to hold open his garden shed door. “I knew I had some in my garage, and when I found them, I noticed for the first time that the six bricks all had different names on them.
“This intrigued me. I looked them up and I was amazed at the wealth of social, economic and industrial information surrounding their manufacture and uses. I contacted the National Museum of Scotland to discover that there was no national database of brick marks and that the poor humble brick was a piece of forgotten Scottish history. I decided to create a national database and once I started I couldn’t stop!
“Until I started this project, the brick was under-valued, under-rated and under-appreciated with regards to its place in our industrial heritage. Pottery, glass, iron products, textiles, etc, have all been routinely gathered and national collections formed – but not so for the unloved brick.”
In October 2016, the Scotland-wide project was recognised for its work and awarded a Scottish Heritage Angel Award in the ‘Volunteer/community-based projects recording local history and heritage’ section.
“This was a fantastic accolade,” said Mark, “and placed the humble brick on top of the pedestal instead of its usual position below it!”
The project website at https://www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk/ details all the research that has so far been carried out on particular brickworks. The search is also on for memorabilia referencing the industry such as catalogues, tools, signs and advertising.
“I meet many people on my travels,” said Mark. “When I explain the project, many are keen to help – whether it’s suggesting places to hunt or collecting bricks on walks in the hope that they are ‘new’ examples for the list. I get numerous emails on a daily basis from people all over Scotland, and indeed the world, asking questions about bricks they have found. It’s fascinating once you get into it. Archaeologists and historians find the database and the research information a great help and that’s just what I wanted the website to be – a one stop source of information on the Scottish brickworks of old.”
Anyone who would like to know more, or have a look at Mark’s collection in Jedburgh, can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org