Speaker praises Watt at annual supper

The Friends of Kinneil welcomed Dr Nina Baker as guest speaker at the charity’s annual James Watt Supper on Friday, January 18.

She gave an entertaining and educational speech on James Watt – who did early work to improve the steam engine at Kinneil Estate.

Dr Baker is a former Councillor/Baillie of Glasgow City Council. She has had had a varied career as a Merchant Navy deck officer, engineer, academic and politician.

Ian Shearer, the chair of the Friends, thanked Dr Baker for her contribution to the event, held in St Mary’s Church in Bo’ness.

He said: “Nina is a noted enthusiast for Glasgow, James Watt, for science and engineering, for their history and for promoting the role of women in those disciplines.”

We’ve republished Nina’s full speech below. 

Happy two hundred and eighty third birthday, James Watt

Thank you so much for honouring me by this invitation to speak to all you lovely Friends of Kinneil -at your annual dinner. As it is a birthday celebration I thought I would focus on those two essentials of a birthday party: friendships and music.

Let us imagine the young James Watt – only 18, not yet considered an adult in those days – arriving in Glasgow, from Greenock, knowing only his relation, George Muirhead. He apparently quickly made himself so friendly with Robert Dick, ayoung professor of natural philosophy, or physics as we would term it, that the academic gave him advice on his career plans, thereby sending our young man off to London.

When he came back to Glasgow, now just about an adult but still without the contacts in the city that a traditional apprenticeship and journeymanship might have provided, James managed to fall on his feet again. I think we have to compare what he must have been like as a person with what we know of the famously reclusive Isaac Newton of a generation previously. James Watt was friendly and sociable and we hear of him attending some of the men’s dining clubs which abounded in the city in those times. People clearly took to him quickly and remained firm friends thereafter.

James was soon on friendly terms with the city’s most significant academics, gaining their confidence in his abilities. Bearing in mind that he had little formal schooling and never attended any university lectures, this is a testament to how quick on the uptake James Watt must have been in talking with men of such standing. They found him work, gave him advice, taught him all their latest theories and remained his close friends until death. Professor Joseph Black, a dozen years older, was probably his best friend – in every sense – from this period.

Black’s theories of latent and specific heat were the key to James Watt’s greatest invention. I am not going to go on about steam at this point but the friendship of James and Joseph was a benefit to us all. This was just one of many social contacts which James Watt enjoyed in Glasgow – he also joined a local Freemasons’ lodge, and despite the scurrilous comments sometimes repeated – he was a member of the Incorporation of Hammermen. And yes, I would say that wouldn’t I, what with being one of the Masters of the Hammermen.

Next time you are in the Science Museum’s Watt Gallery, I suggest you might take a look at the chart of the network of friends and colleagues with whom James Watt maintained lifelong links. It seems that once met, never forgotten. Even at the end of his life, contacts back in Glasgow got in touch to ask him if he could help out by designing a flexible water main to go under the river at Dalmarnock where the river bed is very uneven.

James responded with a design of overlapping sections, similar to a lobster tail or suit of armour.  An example to us all of the benefits of social and professional networking and generally keeping in touch. Of course, people wrote a lot of letters then and the horse-drawn mail system seems to have beennearly as quick as email.

Life for James in Glasgow was not as easy financially as it was socially and he did a whole lot of things to try to make his way in the world.  His twenties were a time of a number of commercial efforts – making and selling trinkets, mathematical, navigational and musical instruments from a succession of workshops and shopfronts in what we now think of as the Merchant City. After James’ work for the university ended he had shops in the Saltmarket, Trongate, and King Street, with workshops in a variety of places.

And of course also at the Delftfield Pottery in what is now James Watt Street, where he was a partner and had another workshop.

He would really have liked to have made a living making and selling the sort of mathematical and navigational instruments he learned to make in London. But Glasgow in the 1760s was small. It was not a seaport and to sell what he made he generally had to rely on contacts to sell them for him elsewhere such as Bristol.

So, his wee shop in the town also sold all sorts of other items, some known as toys – in those days toys were not necessarily children’s playthings but could be all sorts of items. The word originally meant device, trick or ornament, by coincidence for his later life, pretty much what his future partner Matthew Boulton’s company made.

We know that James Watt in this period also made and sold musical instruments and their components. Again, the Watt Gallery in the London Science Museum has a display of various bits and bobs – bits of flutes and special tools  for making them – which he packed up and took to Birmingham when he moved there.

However we also know, largely from letters and accounts books, that he was making a wide range of stringed and wind instruments, such as flutes, guitars, violins and viol da gambas which are similar to a cello.

An interesting spur to this direction of his work was that various friends and acquaintances asked him to make instruments, which is testament to his practical skills since Watt himself was the first to admit to having no ear for music and did not  enjoy listening to it. It was even said that he found it physically painful to listen to music.

Which brings me to an odd bit of Watt’s history. In keeping with our birthday party theme, this story has strong resemblences to the game we played as kids, known as Chinese Whispers, where a phrase is repeated until its sense has changed utterly. In Glasgow’s museums store is a small wooden chamber organ, clearly labelled and indeed catalogued as the James Watt Organ, on the understanding that it was made by the great man himself.

I have spent several entertaining days chasing down dusty documents in the Mitchell Library and of course online too to try to get the evidence for this. Although a recent renovation and inspection by a local organ builder concluded that it was of the correct period and included metal components unusual at the time, I have been forced to conclude that it is not possible to be certain that it was built by James Watt.

The labelling and attribution seem to have come about by a combination of hero-worship, hagiography, wishful thinking and ordinary muddles. Even during his lifetime the level of hero-worship of the James Watt ‘brand’ was endemic. All sorts of memorabilia were produced for the public – medallions, busts, images and so on. So it is not surprising that there was the strong desire to own something he was said to have made. Of course fact-checking is much easier in this internet age than in the days when only rich men had libraries to consult. Once the organ starts to be mentioned in print it is as though the ‘fact’ of James Watt having made it himself is set forever,  like a fossil, with each writer merely repeating or elaborating on the previous publication.

The only organs he is absolutely known to have made for which we have descriptions, bear absolutely no resemblance to ours. At best we might hope that ours is some sort of experimental ‘test bed’ instrument for him to try out some innovative ideas which it contains. No proof however. Ah well.

Here at Kinneil however, provenance is no problem at all! You know you have the Watt Cottage where you know he did his experimental development of the separate steam condenser. You know the role of his friend and patron, Dr John Roebuck, himself a significant inventor, in supporting Watt at that time, ultimately to his own disadvantage.

When we compare the various structures associated with our national Bard, Rabbie Burns, a contemporary of Watt’s, it is noticeable that they are in far better repair and fame than this cottage at Kinneil. If the idea for the separate steam condenser was conceived on Glasgow Green,  the cottage here could arguably be said to be the very cradle of the steam age in which Watt’s device began its development. Surely in the bicentenary of Watt’s death and the 250th anniversary of the condenser’s patent, it is shaming to a nation which is justifiably proud of its massive industrial heritage that so little has been done to enhance the story the cottage could convey if in better repair.

There is admittedly little left of the physicality of many of the UK’s great engineering centres, but 2019 is also the centenary year of two engineering organisations: The Newcomen Society founded during a dinner in 1919 to commemorate the centenary of James Watt’s death, in order that the history of British Engineering should have its own learned society. And the other was the Women’s Engineering Society also founded in 1919, to support those women who had become engineers during the first world war but whom the law required to be sacked when peace came. The Society continues to work to encourage engineering careers for women and  the centenary will be bringing to light the stories of Scotswomen in engineering as well as others across the UK.

The young people whom we all hope will take up engineering careers in greater numbers, can learn a lot from James Watt and the two societies I just mentioned. Watt showed us the benefits of a clear grasp of first principles and also the benefits of professional and social networks in advancing knowledge as much as careers. Also we need to help the general public appreciate the wealth generated by manufacturing and innovation and how our proud history of these is the foundation from which to go forward.

I would like to conclude with a toast and a new year’s resolution: “To engineering and to friendship”.


Special year to celebrate James Watt

He was one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. He became so famous his name was used to denote a unit of energy.

Now – in 2019 – heritage chiefs are going “full steam ahead” with efforts to honour him.

Today, January 5, marks the 250th anniversary of the patent of James Watt’s “separate condenser” – the invention which radically improved steam engines and changed the world. August 2019 will also be the 200th anniversary of Watt’s death.

In his native Scotland and across the UK, museums, galleries and professional bodies are marking the year with special events and celebrations.

A new website – http://www.jameswatt.scot – has also been launched to promote forthcoming events and highlight Watt’s ongoing significance.

Miles Oglethorpe, Head of Industrial Heritage at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), said: “It looks like 2019 is going to be a great year.

“Partners are working on lots of activities to celebrate Watt and his achievements. As dates are confirmed, we’ll publicise these on our new website and through the media. We’ve also been highlighting places with Watt connections for people to visit. Hopefully, our efforts will make people more aware of this great Scot and his amazing contributions that changed the world.”

Events for 2019 will include:

• a focus on Watt at the Glasgow Science Festival and at the University of Glasgow (where Watt worked) through a range of events including a symposium and exhibition;
• exhibitions at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, the Engine Shed centre in Stirling and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow;
• celebratory events at Kinneil House, Bo’ness (home to a Watt workshop) and Kennetpans, Clackmannanshire, once home to Scotland’s first Boulton and Watt engine;
• the re-opening of the McLean Museum and its Watt Library – to be renamed The Watt Institution – in Watt’s hometown of Greenock, after a major refurbishment programme; and
• a James Watt Supper, run by the Friends of Kinneil charity in Bo’ness.

There will also be a programme of activities around Birmingham, where Watt spent much of his later life.

Read the full story on the JamesWatt.Scot website.

The new James Watt website

Join Friends at special Watt supper

IMG_9150-002The Friends of Kinneil charity in Bo’ness is holding its annual James Watt Supper on January 18. The event celebrates the local links with the Scottish inventor and is held  around the time of Watt’s birthday each January.

The Supper is open to Friends members and non-members. Full details are listed below.

A Friends spokesman said: “We do hope you will be able to attend this great community celebration of one of Scotland’s most globally-recognised figures. The cost to members and their guests is the same as previous years, just £10 per head. (Cost to non-members is £15, or £16 as a special offer to include a new membership subscription).”

James Watt's signature


Summary: The 2019 James Watt Supper will have added significance as 2019 marks the 250th anniversary of the patent (granted on 5th January 1769) for James Watt‘s most famous invention, the condensing steam engine, developed in partnership with Dr John Roebuck of Kinneil (co-founder of the Carron Iron Co).

It is also the 250th anniversary of the only surviving building in Scotland directly associated with Watt‘s work, his workshop at Kinneil – the James Watt Cottage.

The year 2019 also marks the bicentenary (200th anniversary) of Watt‘s death in August 1819.

There will be a series of significant commemorative events taking place throughout the year across Scotland, the UK and beyond.

The evening will include a three-course buffet meal followed by traditional music – this year with the wonderful Kinneil Band.

The Friends will also welcome Dr Nina Baker, a former Councillor/Baillie of Glasgow City Council, as the guest speaker. Dr Baker has had a varied career as a Merchant Navy deck officer, engineer, academic and politician. She is a noted enthusiast for Glasgow, James Watt, for science and engineering, for their history and for promoting the role of women in those disciplines.

If you would like to have an alcoholic drink with your meal, please bring this with you. However, the organisers will provide soft drinks.

Event website: http://www.kinneil.org

Date(s) of event: Friday, January 18, 2019

Start and finish times/admission times: 7 for 7.30 p.m. start.

Location – the full address of the event venue, including a postcode: St Mary’s RC Church Hall, Linlithgow Road, Bo’ness EH51 0DP (this is opposite the Esso petrol station at a crossroads). Map to venue here.

Admission cost: The cost to Friends’ members and guests is the same as previous years, just £10 per head. (Cost to non-members is £15, or £16 as a special offer to include a new membership subscription to the Friends of Kinneil).

Tickets: Please RSVP as soon as possible (also confirming the names of anyone accompanying you) via e-mail (to info@kinneil.org.uk) or telephone/text on 07919-927002 to our Secretary, Catherine Johnston – to whom a cheque payable to ‘The Friends of Kinneil’, to reserve the tickets (for collection at the door), can then also be sent c/o Mrs Catherine Johnston, The Friends of Kinneil Secretary, 14 Kinglass Avenue, Bo’ness, EH51 9QA.

Email for enquiries: info@kinneil.org.uk

Telephone number for enquiries: 07919-927002 (Secretary – Catherine Johnston)

Access to venue (parking/transport links/access for people with disabilities): The venue has a ramped access and a car park next to the church. Buses from Stirling, Falkirk and Edinburgh serve Bo’ness. You can also get a train to Linlithgow and then a taxi or bus to Bo’ness.

Any additional relevant information: It’s the charity’s ninth James Watt Supper.

Visit Kinneil Museum this yuletide

20180427_084046Out and about during the Christmas holidays? Pop in and visit Kinneil Museum in Bo’ness. The former 17th century coach house is the interpretative centre for the wonderful Kinneil Estate – and admission is free.

The Museum is normally open six afternoons a week (12.30 p.m. to 4 p.m) – and closed on Tuesdays.

It features hands-on exhibits and an audio visual show.


Please note that the Museum will be closed on December 25 and 26, and then re-opening on December 27. It will also be closed on January 1 and 2, 2019 for the New Year break.

There will also be 3 p.m. closures on Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24 and Hogmanay, Monday, December 31.

At other times, the normal opening hours should apply.

Visit the Falkirk Community Trust website for more info.



Discover James Watt

The year 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of inventor James Watt – who did early work to develop the steam engine here at Kinneil.

A new website www.jameswatt.scot gives more information on the man and his legacy and highlights sites to visit, including Kinneil.

It’s been supported by a number of partners including Historic Environment Scotland.


Nearly 2000 visit Kinneil House in 2018

Nearly 2000 people visited Kinneil House in 2018 – over just eight open days.

Figures collated by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) show that 1951 people went on a tour inside the building over the past year.

HES worked with The Friends of Kinneil to run the open events, which were free of charge. They ran from March to October. Volunteer guides were on hand to show people amazing renaissance wall paintings and recount the building’s rich history.

The events have now ended for the year – however, neighbouring Kinneil Museum remains open throughout the winter months.

It is normally open every afternoon from 12.30 p.m. to 4 p.m., except Tuesdays.

Please note there will be some closures over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The Arbour Room inside Kinneil House in Bo'ness

The Arbour Room inside Kinneil House in Bo’ness

Hallowe’en at Kinneil House: What you need to know

halloween2018Attending the 2018 Hallowe’en open day at Kinneil House (on Sunday, October 28)?

Here’s some essential information. You can also read our press release here.

WHEN: Open days usually take place around eight times a year. See the homepage of the Kinneil site – http://www.kinneil.org – for the 2018 dates. Normally there are no tours inside the House over the winter months (November to February) – however, the Museum IS open during throughout the year. Our Hallowe’en event is the last chance to see inside the House in 2018.

HOW: Book a timed tour of the House by visiting Kinneil Museum – the red-roofed building in front of the big mansion – on the day of the open day. Tours normally run every 15 minutes from noon, leaving from the museum and walking the short distance into the House. Last admission to the mansion is 3.30 p.m. Volunteer guides will be on hand to take the tours and to answer any questions. Additional volunteers are in the museum to help you. The Museum opens early around noon on open days (normally it opens at 12.30 p.m.).

Please note that tour tickets can get snapped up BEFORE the last timed tour at 3.30 p.m. so arrive in good time to secure a tour. The Hallowe’en event is the last open day in 2018.

SPECIAL TOURS: For Hallowe’en most of the tours will have a spooky theme, talking about the ghost said to haunt the House and local people tried for witchcraft. We also have to have some “normal” tours, usually at 12.15 p.m., 1.15 p.m., 2.15 p.m. and 3.15 p.m.

COST: Admission to the House and the Museum is free of charge. Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.

ADVANCE TICKETS: Currently tour tickets are only available on the day from the museum. You can’t book tickets in advance or online. Numbers on each tour are limited for health and safety reasons.

ACCESS: The House is around 500 years old in parts – and doesn’t have a lift. Everyone can get access to the oldest section, the Tower House (albeit just to a platform inside the tower). For the Palace section, you have to go down a few stairs to reach the ground floor. There is also one flight of stairs up to the star attractions, the painted rooms. There are two further flights of stairs to displays on the top floor …. Neighbouring Kinneil Museum also has stairs; however, there is a ramped access to the ground floor and an accessible toilet. The Museum also has an iPad with images of rooms inside Kinneil House …. Key paths around the Estate are also accessible using wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

PARKING: In front of the House and museum. If in doubt, ask one of the volunteers across the site.

PHOTOGRAPHY: No flash photography is allowed in the painted rooms at Kinneil.

REFRESHMENTS: A stall selling drinks and sweet treats is normally operational during open days. If you want a meal, you can find cafes and restaurants around Bo’ness. Normally there is also a hot food van selling treats in the ground outside Kinneil House. (Sorry – but you can’t take food or drinks into Kinneil House itself!)

FANCY DRESS: We’re asking youngsters to dress up for the Hallowe’en event, with the best dressed (in our opinion) winning a book token. To make sure your child is entered, ask to leave your details at the museum and get your child photographed at the Hallowe’en event. This will help us select a winner. Please note pictures may be used on our website or social media channels. If you’d rather we didn’t do this, let us know.

OTHER THINGS TO SEE: The museum offers displays and maps about the surrounding Estate, which also boasts a Roman fortlet and the ruins of a medieval church.

DIRECTIONS: The postcode is EH51 0PR.

QUERIES: Ask volunteers at the event, or email the Friends: info@kinneil.org.uk 

** Details are correct as of August 2018

Friends chair on funding boost for Antonine Wall

kinneilfortlet850wide.jpgA £2.1 million project to raise the profile of the Roman Antonine Wall – which runs through Kinneil and across central Scotland – has secured £980,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

HLF is also giving just nearly £1.2 million to help a sister project on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

Ian Shearer, Chair of the Friends of Kinneil, said: “This is very good news for the Antonine Wall and for the areas along it as a whole. The proposed projects will give added focus to this World Heritage site, help attract more visitors and improve educational resources for the next generation to learn about the ancient Roman frontier heritage of Central Scotland.

“Since 2006 we’ve done as much as any volunteer group to promote the Wall – we started Big Roman Week, for example. The replica Bridgeness Slab was another inspirational project by dedicated Bo’ness community members. So it is inevitably discouraging that none of the main capital projects under this announcement are coming to Kinneil or Bo’ness. Across the heritage sector, the best volunteers aren’t going to feel rewarded – or that it is fair – when other places, with perhaps less voluntary commitment, have more public heritage provision laid on.

“However, we’re pleased that Falkirk Community Trust is actively seeking separate funding for a new play trail at Kinneil. We’re also committed to working constructively with the Trust, Historic Environment Scotland and other partners to seek priority for Kinneil for future investment, to raise its unique multiple layers of 2,000 years of internationally-important heritage to the full potential it fairly deserves.”

Emma McMullen, Antonine Wall HLF Project Manager, said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to support our £2.1m Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project over the next three years.  This will give us the opportunity to work with communities along the length of the Wall to better engage them with their Roman heritage, along with creating facilities that will help to promote the Antonine Wall to visitors.  The funding will also allow us to work with colleagues at Hadrian’s Wall and the German Limes to share ideas.”

Pictured above: the remains of the Roman fortlet at Kinneil Estate, Bo’ness.

Talk: What Geoff did last summer …



Join The Friends of Kinneil for a free history talk about Kinneil Estate on Wednesday, October 10.

Historian and archaeologist Geoff Bailey (pictured) from Falkirk Community Trust will tell of his summer excavation work within the Bo’ness park.

Geoff and his team found evidence of ancient structures on the dig (perhaps another castle beside Kinneil House).

Come along and find out more.

The event will be held in the hall of St. Mary’s Church, off Linlithgow Road, Bo’ness, with a 7 for 7.30 p.m. start time. The postcode is EH51 0DP.

The event has been organised for Friends of Kinneil members; however, non-members are welcome to join this free event. If you have queries, please email: info@kinneil.org.uk