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The canal builders

We take for granted our railways, roads and canals nowadays, the latter mainly used for leisure by most of us. While ongoing work makes our infrastructure what it is today, it is good to pause and look into the history of the hard labour that went into cutting the earth in the first place, many years before powerful machines could help.

“Navvies”, many of them Irish immigrants, made a major contribution to the industrial development of Scotland in the 19th century by working on the canals, railways, roads, mining and other industries. While Irish workers had always come across for seasonal work harvesting in Scotland, the 19th century saw a mass immigration, this time including entire families permanently leaving Ireland.

The Union Canal near Broxburn
The Union Canal near Broxburn

The first significant wave of immigration was in the canal building period. Canal diggers – navigators – or “navvies” as they became known, in central Scotland were Irish immigrants and Highlanders lured by the prospect of steady work.

They worked on canal projects all over Scotland, following the work from project to project.

Most locally to us, the Union Canal, 31.5 miles long between Edinburgh and Falkirk, was dug in just 4 years between 1818 and 1822. No accommodation was provided for the workers by the canal proprietors, they had to find lodgings and make do however they could.

At either end of the canal in Edinburgh and Falkirk it wasn't too difficult to find lodgings, but in between there was little or no accommodation to be found, and the families had to accompany the wage-earner. A newspaper at the time reported :

“Along the banks of the Union Canal certain edifices have been erected which strike the traveller with no little astonishment. These are huts erected by Irish labourers upon some few vacant spots of ground belonging to the canal proprietors and are pointed out to strangers on the passage boats as great curiosities. Each, of course, is more wretched than than another, and presents a picture of squalid poverty which is new to the people on this side of the Channel. One of them, with the exception, perhaps, of a few sticks, is composed entirely of rotten straw; its dimensions would not suffice for a pig-stye.”

Scottish industry became very successful in the 1840s, coinciding with the agricultural disaster in Ireland which led to the “potato famine” and many thousands of Irish fleeing famine conditions made their way to Scotland. The population of Irish in Scotland increased 90% during the 1840s. They worked on the burgeoning railway network – the construction of the last canals overlapped with the first railways - textiles, and later on in mining. Large numbers of Irish navvies worked on the excavation of the compensation reservoirs in the 1840’s outside Balerno and along the edge of the Pentlands.

The Irish were also contributors to the man-power in the mines of West Lothian, and formed a significant proportion of the population of mining towns such as West Calder, Addiewell and Pumpherston. In fact figures for 1891 show, for example, that 30% of the population of Pumpherston was Irish.

The Irish navvies were treated with contempt. Not only religious differences (the vast majority were Catholics), or historical enmity between the nations, but a range of other factors made them unpopular. They were prepared to work for less money than Scots or English, thus lowering the general wage level for the work they did. They also earned themselves a reputation for rough noisy behaviour in their few leisure hours. There were many complaints from the locals, the most common being for drunken and riotous behaviour. A parish minister complained of the Irish navvies - “They lowered very much the moral tone of the district, from which, he feared, it might never recover.” They were seen as carriers of disease; ‘Irish fever’ was the name given to Typhus fever and although prevalence was higher among the Irish this was due to poverty. Nevertheless, despite the intolerance and discrimination, from the 1850s on there were distinct Irish communities in Scotland with both formal and informal social support groups.

The most infamous of Irish immigrants

The most infamous of Irish immigrants to Scotland, Burke and Hare, worked on the Union Canal for a short time around 1818. They didn't meet up until Burke and his partner became lodgers at Hare's house in Edinburgh several years later. They made a lucrative living by murdering and selling the fresh corpses to the anatomist Dr Knox, who never asked questions...

Burke and Hare
Burke and Hare

However the murder of a young man known as "Daft Jamie" was the beginning of the end of their grizzly career, as he was well-known in his community and some of Dr Knox's students recognised him. Daft Jamie is said to have stopped for a drink at the Torphichen Arms in Mid Calder the night he was murdered.

Burke and Hare are said to have frequented the Grey Horse Inn in Balerno; after their trial, the innkeeper's wife from the inn that stood at Caueswayend at that time, is said to have recognised that they were in the district too.

Lord Meadowbank of Kirknewton was an advocate in their trial. Hare turned kings evidence, while Burke was hanged in Edinburgh on 28th January 1829.


Published in Konect March 2011

Author: Helen-Jane Gisbourne


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