At the Biggar Gasworks Museum you can enter what was one of the first small-town gasworks to open in Scotland – and among the last to close. For more than 130 years, the industrial plant made coal gas for use in the town and beyond. Almost all of the gasworks buildings and equipment remain. You can even see some of the steam-driven machines used for gas production and distribution in action: The Friends of Biggar Gasworks Museum run regular ‘Steam Days’ when the boiler is put to work. Biggar Gasworks passed into state care soon after its doors shut. Today, it’s a lasting reminder of an industry that benefited all of Scotland’s citizens, and the only preserved gasworks left in the country.
For more than 130 years, from 1839 to 1973, Biggar Gasworks made coal gas for the town and surrounding district. It was one of the first small-town gasworks to open in Scotland, and among the last to close. The gasworks passed into state care soon after its doors shut, to be preserved as a lasting reminder of an industry that benefited all of Scotland’s citizens. In the 1780s, Archibald Cochrane came across coal gas while heating coal to obtain tar, for use in preserving ships’ timbers. He was able to use this ‘waste product’ to light some rooms in his home at Culross, Fife.
Experimenting with coal gas was one thing. Solving the technical and commercial problems of creating a large-scale industry was an entirely different matter. Step forward another Scot, William Murdoch, from Ayrshire. In 1806, while working for the Boulton & Watt Company, he designed the first large-scale installation, at a Manchester cotton mill. In 1812, Friedrich Winzer, a German, established the world’s first public gas undertaking, in London. By 1815, the Chartered Gas Light & Coke Company had laid 26 miles of gas pipe. Glasgow got its first supply in 1817, Edinburgh in 1818. Biggar was among the first small towns to convert to gas, in 1839, the year Murdoch died.
Within the gasworks you get an excellent idea of the various processes required to produce gas. Coal was heated in closed containers called retorts. This drove off the various gases within the coal and left coke, which could then be burned to heat the next batch of coal. The gases produced by heating coal included hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane, which were wanted as components of the town gas that was then piped to users, as well unwanted components such as other hydrocarbons, tar, sulphur and ammonia. A large part of the process involved separating the unwanted components from the town gas: they could then be sold for use in other chemical processes.
Biggar Gasworks is remarkably complete – even the coal barrows and shovels remain. Buildings and equipment have been renewed and replaced over the years, but almost everything is in place. You will find: coal sheds, gas retorts, condenser, exhauster, purifiers, gas meter, holders and the office and showroom. The gasworks opened in 1839 and evolved over its 130-year life to meet demand and to keep pace with technological innovations. The retort house built in 1839 is the oldest building on site. It was stripped of its coal-fired retorts in 1914 and ended up as the coal store. (At that time, the gasman was using 400 tons of coal per year to serve 320 consumers and power more than 100 street lights.) A new retort house, complete with purifying equipment, replaced the old one. The building that now contains the visitor centre and display was put up in 1858 to house the gasman and his family. John Ramsay, from Carluke, was the first tenant.The two gas holders originally installed in 1858 and 1879 were rebuilt in 1918 and 1939 respectively.
There is a level gravel car park 20 meters from the museum. The site is 50 meters from the car park or village main street along a level but uneven part tarmac lane. The visitor centre has a single step. The exhibition features a short film (no induction loop). All buildings are accessed from a central courtyard, which has a mainly gravel surface with some brick paths. Most buildings have a single step. Nearest adapted toilet is about 20 miles away, on Main Street, Leadhills. Assistance dogs are welcome:
Location : Biggar Gasworks Museum, Gas Works Road, Biggar, Lanarkshire, ML12 6BZ
Transport: Lanark (Scotrail) then bus (91). Bus Routes : 91, 101, 102 and 191 stop close by.
Opening Times : 1st June - 30th September, Daily, 14:00 to 15:00.
Tickets : Call 01899 221 070 for up-to-date prices.
Tel. : 01899 221 070