The town of Alloa has been linked to glassmaking for 300 years. Sandra Dick finds the remarkable story of Scottish glass is gradually being pieced together.

main run

The work was slow, heavy and hard, beside a red-hot furnace where a single slip-up would be an expensive disaster.

Perhaps little wonder that the skilled men who could magically fuse silica and sodium oxide to create Scotland’s early crystal-clear glass were paid handsomely - twice the national average salary - for their impressive skills.

While of course today glass is cheap and commonplace, it was once as valuable as silver, created by those feted craftsmen for Scotland’s wealthy landowners and brilliant Enlightenment minds for their expensive claret, some etched with secret Jacobite symbols or brilliantly stained for kirk windows.

But while Scotland’s glass industry has spanned over 400 years – much of it based in the Clackmannan town of Alloa – some elements of its fascinating history had been lost.

Now, however, a scientist with family ties to the town’s 265-years of glass production has by chance uncovered family papers which shed new light on an element of the industry which – thanks to growing demand from traditional and new whisky producers – is once again thriving.

Dr Craig Kennedy of Heriot-Watt University’s Institute for Sustainable Building Design and a former conservation scientist with Historic Environment Scotland, had researched Scotland’s glassmaking history for almost a decade yet was unaware of a family link that reveal some of its economic and social aspects.

“I’m from Alloa and I knew my grandfather had worked in the glassworks. However, he died when I was very young,” he says.

“I happened to mention to my mum that I was bringing the history of Scotland’s glassmaking up to date and hopefully to life in a new paper I was writing.

“She found his old papers in the loft, and gave them to me.”

His grandfather Jimmy Whalen’s documents revealed fine details of workers’ pension payments, trade union papers, and his terms of employment for Alloa glassworks.

They provide vital important modern social detail about an industry which developed from 1610, grew rapidly in the mid-18th century, attracted some of Europe’s most skilled artisans and saw inventive use of natural resources to turn an elite product into an everyone day one.

Today the Alloa plant – which still stands on the same site as the town’s original glassworks – is owners’ Owens-Illinois’ second largest European plant. It employs 600 people and produces more than two million bottles every day, most of them for the booming Scotch whisky sector.

Now highly mechanised, the first glass manufactured in Scotland the early 17th century relied upon skilled artists from abroad and imports of fine sand and other materials to create the quality demanded by the nation’s well-heeled.

As glass became increasingly popular and cheaper to make, glassworks sprung up in towns with harbours such as Kirkcaldy, Leith and Dumbarton - ideal for transporting the delicate cargoes by water.

However, as time progressed, Alloa’s proximity to a sand quarry at Devilla in Fife gave it an edge. While others closed, it continued to thrive.

Scottish glass was a globalised industry right from the beginning, adds Dr Kennedy.

“From the start in 1610 they were bringing people from overseas to work as it was such a highly skilled thing to do.

“Absolutely everything was imported: the materials required, the ingredients and the workers.

“When the Alloa glassworks was founded in 1750, Lady Frances Erskine invited workers from Bohemia, part of the modern-day Czech Republic, to supervise the building of the glassworks and then to train others in their craft.”

The skill and strength required to create large pieces of glass, was immense, he adds.

“Glass blowers would take a blob of glass at the end of a pontil and twirl it so the blob would spin and grow outwards to as much as five feet wide.

“In the 17th century glass was, by weight, as expensive as silver.

“And by the late 1800s, glass blowers earned twice the average national salary. It was a prestigious and sought-after role.”

Alloa emerged as Scotland’s hub for glass bottle manufacture, recognised across Europe and with highly-skilled glass artisans travelling from as far away as Chile, America and Australia to work in Central Scotland.

The industry was mechanised in the 20th century and the role of glassblower switched to machine operator. The town's reputation for well-crafted bottles, had already attracted the town’s other key industry, brewing.

Today the site of the former Carlsberg brewery, the last remaining of nine major breweries in the town, is a branch of Asda, however glassmaking is booming, courtesy of a new generation of whisky distillers.

And at the heart of the original glassmaking site, surrounded by towering modern machinery, a fragment of Scotland’s original manufacturing industry remains.

The 79ft high brick cone, built around 1825 and which once housed a main furnace around which skilled glassblowers would twist and twirl pontils to create jars, bottles and glasses destined for fine tables around the country, is the only one of its kind left in Scotland.

Now a monument to the skill of the glassblower's lost trade, Dr Kennedy’s research and his grandfather’s papers mean it can be joined by another small piece of the jigsaw that tells the story of Scotland’s glassmaking.

Dr Kennedy adds: “We had a lot of scientific knowledge about Scottish and British glass. We could date it and check the chemical composition.

“But we didn’t have the historical context or story. We didn’t know how this industry grew or what impact it had on our economy and society.

“Because of my grandfather’s papers I’ve been able to glean more information about salaries and working conditions, as well as what the job actually entailed in the 1960s.

“It was a very happy coincidence that my own grandfather popped up in my research project.”


Tie piece

Scotland’s glass makers were supported by a thriving industry of suppliers.

By the early 1700s seaweed from Orkney and the Highlands and Islands was used to melt the sand to make the glass. For 50 years, Orkney kelp production was at a peak, with 3000 people employed and thousands of tons of kelp sent to glassmakers across Scotland.

However, the development of sodium carbonate offered a cheaper alkali option and the Orkney kelp market crashed.

For every ton of sodium carbonate used, 13 tons of waste was produced alongside gaseous hydrochloric acid - a particular problem in Glasgow, home to the Verrville glassworks in Finnieston.

As a result, the nation’s first ‘clean air’ laws were passed in the form of two alkali acts.