Birkhill Fireclay Mine

Fire­clay is used main­ly for mak­ing bricks for use in met­al foundries, kilns and fire­places, because it can with­stand high tem­per­a­tures. Birkhill Fire­clay Mine sup­plied the local foundries and fur­naces in the cen­tral belt of indus­tri­al Scot­land, so was fun­da­men­tal to the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion as it hap­pened in Scot­land. The mine is in the Avon Gorge and was arrived at on the Bo’­Ness to Kin­neil Rail­way. The muse­um, how­ev­er, has been closed since 2011.

These works are what are seen first in the muse­um and would have processed the fire­clay by crush­ing it into a pow­der for sale to fire­clay brick man­u­fac­tur­ers. They sat at the top of the gorge, with the mined fire­clay brought up in train trucks.They have since been demolished.

Fire­clay pro­cess­ing plant

The vis­it to this mine com­prised a love­ly train jour­ney, a walk through for­est in the Avon Gorge and then under­ground to the mines. The guides described the life of the fire­clay min­ers, the marks of ancient riverbeds in the roof of the mine and the 300 mil­lion-year-old fos­sils, laid down in the Car­bonif­er­ous Peri­od, long before the dinosaurs walked the earth.

The walk down the gorge towards the mine

Across the Riv­er Avon


The dif­fer­ent forms of clay is fas­ci­nat­ing. It varies from the fair­ly rare chi­na clay, which has to be blast­ed out of the gran­ite rock hills and is non-plas­tic, must be blend­ed with oth­er mate­ri­als to make it work­able by the pot­ter, and becomes white and extreme­ly hard when fired at high tem­per­a­tures; to the very com­mon ter­ra­cot­ta, which are set­tled beds of sur­face clay and is high­ly plas­tic, is almost ready to use by a pot­ter and becomes red­dy-brown and rel­a­tive­ly soft when fired at low tem­per­a­tures.  Then there is fire­clay at Birkhill, which is deep down in the ground and is so hard it can sup­port remark­ably wide tun­nels with­out sup­port, is high­ly plas­tic but requires grind­ing before use, and fires to var­i­ous grey colours at high tem­per­a­ture. Its main qual­i­ty is that is is high­ly refrac­to­ry that it can stand very high temperatures.

The mine’s entrance

Hard hats must be worn

Six miles of tunnels

Walk down the mine

Sup­ports in some of the wider parts of the mine

Under 300 mil­lion-year-old fos­sils, laid down in the Car­bonif­er­ous Period

Min­ers worked in extra­or­di­nar­i­ly low light con­di­tions, hack­ing away at the mine walls and fill­ing trucks to be tak­en up to the top.

Not a real man!

Dead end tun­nels were often dug off from the main mine. After reach­ing a cer­tain depth, mines require ground water to be con­stant­ly pumped out — a prob­lem that was only resolved by the devel­op­ment of the steam engine. Since this mine is no longer used, there are no pumps in oper­a­tion and water fills it’s low­er levels.

A dead-end tun­nels going off to the side of the main mine

Bricks used for lin­ing foundry walls


It is a shame this muse­um is no longer open, as it was a fas­ci­nat­ing place to visit.