When a local collier found some unusual stones at Hilderston, near Cairnpapple in the Bathgate Hills, he couldn’t have imagined the stir in London his discovery would cause – and the personal embarrassment of King James VI himself.
He took a sample of what he suspected to be silver ore to a well-known metallurgist and mining engineer in Leadhills, Sir Bevis Bulmer. Bulmer was very excited; the silver potential was so promising that the landowner, Sir Thomas Hamilton, went ahead in early 1607 and took a mining lease for Hilderston from King James VI. In fact he took a lease for all mineral rights in the area, including Ballencrieff, Bathgate, Drumcross, Tartraven and Torphichen, and the king, with whom he was on friendly terms, made him “Master of the Metals and Minerals whatsoever within His Highness's Kingdom of Scotland.”
Hamilton and Bulmer started exploiting the silver at Hilderston straight away. They were presumably smelting on site; we have no details of the process, except that an old map of area shows a smelter house and furnace at the mines.
"The Bathgate discovery caused a lot of excitement in London"
The Bathgate discovery caused a lot of excitement in London. Four years previously, shortly after his coronation in 1603 uniting the crowns of England and Scotland, James VI had expressed concern about the depletion of England’s silver mines, and had already discussed new prospecting projects with Sir Bulmer. Scotland had previously relied on English mines for silver; perhaps James was keen to prove what his native kingdom could contribute. Robert Cecil (Lord Salisbury) described the silver as "the best token that ever I received out of that kingdom, or any other kingdom of that quality."
The Crown automatically had rights to a tenth of all metal output and by the end of 1607 the Hilderston mine was reported to the Privy Council as making £500 profit per month. King James sent a commission to investigate and bring back ten tonnes of ore for testing at the Tower of London. Hilderston was described as being “apparently inexhaustible.”
The first large samples of ore on their way to London were lost at sea in December 1607, but by February 1608 ten tonnes had been procured, with Thomas Hamilton’s co-operation, barrelled and taken to the Tower for testing. Initial results were promising and by May 1608 Hilderston was taken over by the Crown and put under the management of Bulmer. (The legality of the takeover was questionable and Hamilton was later paid £60,000 Scots in compensation – a rather good deal for him).
At the time of the Crown takeover, fifty nine men were employed at the mine producing ore from a single shaft which Bulmer had named “God's Blessing,” because of “the wonderfull works of God, that he had seene, which never before, the like thereunto, within any of his Majesties kingdoms [were] known to be." Another politician in London, Sir William Boyer, wrote in August 1608 that the mine "far exseeds annye that euer was in Garmanie.” In October 1608, the King imported miners from Germany and later from England. At least six further shafts were sunk.
In expectation of the large quantities of rich ore, a processing plant was constructed at Linlithgow and a significant amount of money committed. (The exact location of the plant in Linlithgow has been lost). The finishing touches were made to the smelting mill here in March 1609 - a boy was sent from Linlithgow to the mines at Hilderston to order metal to be brought to the mill, and wine, ale and bread was laid on for the “meltars and workmen at the Melting Mill, the first day they began to melt.”
In the meantime, trials in England on the sample ore were still on-going. The problem was they were returning different results for the yield of silver.
Very thorough testing using different methods by different experts indicated by December 1608 that things were not all as they had initially seemed. The ore was of variable quality. One trial reported: "Until the same redd-mettle came unto 12 faddomes (18m) deepe, it remained still good; from thence unto 30 fathome (55m) deepe it proved nought." In August 1609 a further 400 barrels of ore were taken from Hilderston to London.
Reading about all the trials, it’s almost as if they were desperately willing for some good results to justify the nationalisation - which was starting to look rash. It took a long time to accept that the mine was in fact exhausted almost before it started; the best silver had been near the surface, and Hamilton had already taken it.
"They were desperately willing for some good results to justify the nationalisation, which was starting to look rash."
As an indication of the high profile the Bathgate project had in London, a play called “The Silver Mine” was written and staged at Blackfriars Theatre in 1608, during the time that the mine was under consideration for Crown acquisition. The script of the play has not survived, but it caused a political furore as it included a slanderous representation of the King, his Scottish mine project and all his favourites. Three of the actors were imprisoned; the author fled. James was furious and banned any other plays dealing with contemporary events.
“The King was furious and banned any other plays dealing with contemporary events.”
The accounts from May 1608 onwards demonstrate how unprofitable the nationalised silver mine was. Finally in March 1613 the Crown gave up. It was let to a private firm, and abandoned shortly afterwards.
There was some mining in the same spot in the 18th century for lead and zinc. And an attempt in the 1870s to find nickel ore, but no metals of value were found and it was abandoned. Today, you can see three depressions in the ground near the road which are remains of the 18th century shafts, and the ruins of a building which was associated with the silver mine.
It’s a very quiet spot near Cairnpapple, and on a bleak day last month I enjoyed walking around the site and imagining the industry and excitement here, 400 years ago.
First published in Konect February 2017
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer