The Development of a Coalmine at Brora

This week’s blog is contributed by Clive Hayward.  Clive is completing his first year as a part time MLitt student on the History of the Highlands and Islands programme offered by the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The name William Young is possibly known to inhabitants of Sutherland and readers of this blog.  A sub factor of the Sutherland estate in the early nineteenth century his name became synonymous with the Great Clearances.  However the name William Hughes is probably less well known in the area.  Hughes was a mining engineer and having managed a Flintshire colliery he moved north to work on the Caledonian Canal and Spyrnie Loch.  The two met in October 1809 and discussed the coal and limestone of Sutherland, the result of their discussions was the development of a coal mine at Brora.  Coal mining itself was not new to the area, coal had been found and mined there as early as 1598 and in the middle of the eighteenth century substantial operations were carried out at Inverbrora Point, but these had been abandoned in 1777 due to the rather poor, sulphurous, quality of the deposits.  However in February 1810 following his discussions with Hughes, William Young wrote to Earl Gower (George Granville who became the Second Duke of Sutherland) with proposals to develop the mine.  Hughes, with his experience, used a further visit in July to deduce that better and deeper coal deposits might be found on the north bank at Brora.  These proposals were accepted and the Marquis of Sutherland, having had experience of coal mines in Staffordshire, took an active interest in the endeavour.  As R J Adam suggests: “it was a significant moment of involvement which was to lead to a very large expense and a very uncertain return.” The sinking of a trial bore was undertaken during the winter and on 12 June Hughes reported that three useable seams had been found at a depth of 220 feet, Hughes recommended that the bore be continued to 500 feet and a new shaft be sunk to work on the seams already discovered.  The estimate cost of all this was £372, a somewhat optimistic figure as by the end of 1812 over £3,300 had been spent!

Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea.  However during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by a mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal.  His report also recommended the building of a brick and tile works and for salt pans to be constructed all to be powered by the mined coal. Young and Hughes enthusiastically supported the new ventures making Brora into what would nowadays be called an “industrial estate”.  Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates.  As Adam suggests: “in retrospect the story of Brora, under Young, is a microcosm of his whole Sutherland history.  Large plans, eager beginnings, defective controls, disappointing returns, the catalogue is formidable.” By 1816 the expenditure of the Marquis in the development at Brora came to over £30,900.  Young admitted that the outlays at Brora were “immense” but believed that the enterprise would soon become self-sustaining.  Although the years prior to 1820 did indeed produce an expansion in the production of goods it all soon fell apart.  As Eric Richards suggests: “the salt and coal trades suffered from poor quality and the price reducing effects of southern competition.  The entire Brora industrial establishment made a loss of £4,000 between 1819 and 1821 mainly in the colliery operations.” The Marquis, unwilling to sanction further expense on the Brora colliery, meant it lingered on until closure in 1825.

The story does not end there however.  In 1872, the then Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management.  Indeed Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”.  The works were afterwards leased to a Mr John Melville.  In 1914, when the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, Captain T.M. Hunter leased the colliery.  The firm of T. M Hunter Ltd. carried on until 1949.  The colliery and brickworks were taken over by a company named Brora Coal and Brick Co.  Afterwards, with a grant from the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the pit was run by Highland Colliery Ltd., and subsequently the miners themselves became shareholders.  The mine closed for good in March 1974.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).


Photo from collection of Clyne Heritage Society.

2 thoughts on “The Development of a Coalmine at Brora

  1. Thank you for this very informative blog. From a personal point of view perhaps, it is fascinating to look back and relish these little gems of history, something our parents and our descendants from the Grants, Gordons and Melvilles would give dearly to have seen such is, the wizardry of the high-tech invisible string.
    Can someone confirm whether or not London Bridge was compiled from the Coalmine stones?
    And coming as we do from a rugby playing nation, wasn’t the coalmine replaced with turf for the game played in heaven? Or have they re-turfed the place?

    The Holms and Grant Families from NZ
    Descendants of John Melville

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