Where has Blackburn come from?
How it originated is known only vaguely, as its ancient settlement. The earliest maps we have in the library collection are dated 1590, and there we see Blackburn, little Blackburn, mill of Blackburn and Meikle Blackburn – not villages but farm towns. There are still earlier stories to be found out about Blackburn. A writer in the courier of 1877 states that there was a hill or knoll on the farm of Trinley Knowe which once belonged to the Barony of Blackburn. The Baron-Baillie (who then had the power of judgement – of pit and gallows at it was called) over his people and could condemn them to imprisonment or death, used this hill at Trinley Knowe to hang criminals. So the story goes though it is impossible to prove it to be truth or invention.
According to “Bissett” in 1336, a troubled time when Scotland and England had been at war on and off for years, the English nobleman Lord Berkeley was leading a convoy of prisoners from Edinburgh to the castle of Bothwell. Sir William Douglas, the night of Liddesedale lay in wait for him, presumably trying to free the prisoners, but when he attacked at Blackburn he was defeated and only escaped because it grew dark.
Its not possible to put together a very coherent history of Blackburn at this early period, as there are only brief mentions of it in the history books.
There were only two occasions when the Convenanters retaliated against all the persecutions and executions and resorted to murder, one of these two occasions was, the murder of Archbishop Sharp on Magus Muir near St Andrews, and the other was the murder at Swineabbey between Blackburn and East Whitburn. Two dragoons, that is, government soldiers named Duncan Stuart and Thomas Kennoway, had been active in harassing Convenanters in the area – seeking out conventicles – fining those who attended or refused to attend Sunday worship in the church under Mr Honeyman. On the night of 19th November 1684 the two men were murdered as they slept in the inn at Swineabbey. An official enquiry was held at the Kirk of Calder into the murders, but the criminals were never found.
To imagine how Blackburn looked in the 17th century takes a lot of feat of the imagination. There was no village as we think of it today, more just a cluster of cottages and steadings, not occupied by one farmer but by a group of perhaps half a dozen tenant farmers and cottages – that is labourers. We know that in 1691 there were about 40 families living in these “fermtouns” of Meikle and Little Blackburn.
The second life of Blackburn could be said to begin in the later 18th century, that was when a land owner from Airdrie called George Moncrieff bought the estate and lands of Blackburn and Meikle Blackburn and built himself a fine house – Blackburn House 1771 – 72. We don’t know for sure if he instigated or encouraged the changes in agricultural practices, which took place around this time, but it seems likely. After all it was to his advantage. What happened was that small tenant and cottagers didn’t have their leases renewed. The land was thrown into larger more economic farms. New methods of fertilising, cattle breading, tree planting and all the rest would be introduced, the land would become more productive, rent of course went up, and Mr Moncrieff had a larger income.
Mr Moncrieff ordered that new houses be built further west – about three quarters of a mile away from his new fine house. And so the village of Blackburn flitted – It moved westwards nearer to the River Almond, which was to be a source of power and employment throughout most of the nineteenth century. Me George Moncrieff lived to be an old man in his 80’s, which is pretty old for his time, and he seems to have been childless. The heir was his nephew, Major Thomas Clarkson a former army man with a large family. He seems to have taken a fatherly interest in the new village of Blackburn. Apparently he offered to donate the “hill” or the Knowe at the west end of Blackburn, where the annual games had been held since 1750 at least to the village, if they would undertake to establish a cattle market on it, however the scheme failed. Its known that Major Clarkson and his family used to attend the annual fair and his daughters took part in the dancing.
There was a man named Gilchrist who became notorious, he was one of two men who devised a cunning plan to rob the mail coach which came from Glasgow by Forrestfield, Armadale and Bathgate to Edinburgh. He was hanged in Edinburgh for his crime and was possibly the last man hanged in Scotland for robbery. This was in the early 1820’s
At the end of the 18th century it was relatively easy to hire a loom, learn the weaving trade and get custom from the great Glasgow and Lanarkshire manufactures. Wages were good and the standard of living was high because there was a tremendous demand for cloth. But mechanisation was just around the corner. By the 19th century, steam powered looms could weave more cheaply and quickly than a handloom weaver. Trade declined wages fell and there was great hardship amongst the weavers. In Bathgate the town Council helped the destitute weavers by employing them to break stones to relay Cochran Street and South Mid Street. By the middle of the 19th century there wasn’t many weavers left. Most of them had taken up alternative work in the coal mines, the foundries, the Bathgate Chemical Works and later in the shale and oil works. One of Blackburn’s weavers, Tom Gardner when work was short, played his flute in the street for a few pennies, and it was he who started the first flute band in Blackburn.
Blackburn for most of the 18th century was a textile town. The old statistical account tells us that in the 1790’s there was a cotton factory employing 120 men, women and children. This was probably the one whose remains can still be seen today at the West End up the mill road, “Blackburn Mill”. It was first run by a man named Kelly, then by a Mr Thom, then first ran it was taken over by a Mr Gilchrist. It remained a cotton mill where cotton was spun and woven, until 1877 when it was burned down. It was infact the second mill on the site, the smaller original one been burned down in 1805. The cotton mill was turned into a paper mill and was run by the Hopefield Millboard Company (though it was called the Blackburn Mill, not the Hopefield Mill).
Major Clarkson was also responsible for the building of a distillery in Blackburn, probably in the 1790s. it was sometimes known locally as the “stell” and was quarter of a mile from Hopefield. Evidently the Blackburn folk weren’t heavy drinkers, for in the early years of the 19th century or there about it was bought by a Mr Scales and turned into a canvas weaving shop – more textiles. At the times that these textile works were operational, there were a large number of women employed, especially in the spinning mills. The opportunities of employment brought incommers from spinning villages further north in Stirlingshire and lanarkshire and so on.
Major Clarkson was long since dead, and Mr Robert Douglas (also owner of Murrayfield farm) had acquired his estate of Blackburn. He opened various pits around Blackburn – small ventures, but his credit ran out before he came into profit, so his estate had to be sold to meet his debts. And so Blackburn estate was sold in a number of different lots, and there was no major landowner to come to the rescue with more public works.
But fortunately there was other employment available in the growing number of coal and shale mines, though not for the women who lost their jobs.
In the early 1960’s the British Motor Corporation decided on a site between Blackburn and Bathgate for its new vehicle works, and at the same time the council agreed to re house 300 of its quota of the Glasgow overspill population in Blackburn. Blackburn was to be the centre of the expansion of West Lothian to meet the influx of industrial workers. 500 new houses were built on Murrayfield and Riddochhill farms, a new shopping centre was built, two new academies, a hotel and a new circular library. Blackburn was planned to grow from a population of just over 4000 to 10.000, another new town just along the road from Livingston.
It must have seemed in the 1960’s that West Lothian’s unemployment problems were solved for the foreseeable future, 6000 jobs at British Leyland to replace the lost jobs in the mining industry. But as the next two decades were to reveal, dependence on one major employer is a very doubtful advantage. The population of Blackburn did double between 1960 and 1970 going from 4,300 to 9.000, but the closure of the British Leyland caused Blackburn in particular severe problems, a town planned for 10.000 but with a population with just half of that. However it has come through and with the District Council and local people are striving to introduce new employment to the area, new factories and workshops, and to encourage the unemployed to start up their own businesses. No one can deny that Blackburn has many problems, unemployment, vandalism, poor housing, lack of facilities, but perhaps today the future looks a bit brighter than it has been for the past decade.