Scotland business

'Even the kitchen sink is going'

HMS Victory Image copyright PA
Image caption The Carron cannons played a significant role in the Battle of Trafalgar from the decks of the HMS Victory

The closure of the Carron works in Falkirk can be seen as a metaphor for Scottish manufacturing. Even the kitchen sink is going.

It takes nearly 200 jobs with it, which is a harsh reality for the workforce. But this is symbolic as well as for real, and it goes much further than sink-manufacturing being sunk.

The Carron works have been described as the single biggest contributor to the Industrial Revolution as it took hold in Scotland. And of course, that meant it was one of the most important in the world.

Consider its pedigree - founded in 1759 by John Roebuck, a scientist and Samuel Garbett, an entrepreneur, both from England, and a merchant trader from East Lothian, William Cadell.

It's a line-up that might look familiar to those engaged in is a modern-day technology start-up, covering the technology know-how, the business drive and the finance.

By the standards of the 1700s, what these three built near Falkirk was the industrial equivalent of a global technology giant.

James Watt's experiments

They had spotted the opportunity of nearby coal from the Kinnaird field, iron ore from Bo'ness, coke to replace expensive charcoal and the Carron water to provide power.

Canals were being sunk nearby, linking to Glasgow, Edinburgh, all points in between, and the Forth ports.

That meant quick access to urban Scotland's fast-growing markets for consumer goods. And by shipping out from the Forth, there would eventually be a wharf in London dedicated to Carron Works produce.

Image caption In the 20th Century, Carron developed a near monopoly in making phone booths

The company cast the iron used in James Watt's experiments with steam engines, and soon after embraced the new technology.

The Carron Works was a pioneer of industrial integration. It owned the coal fields and employed the miners. It smelted, it forged, and it did the distribution.

At its peak, 2,000 people were employed by the company. It threw up a fiery red glow, visible and admired from across central Scotland.

The company's influence was also felt in its innovative products. The "carronade" was a short-range cannon which packed a fierce punch - ideal for defence of shipping.

Sugar plantations

The weapon became a standard presence on merchant shipping during the American Revolutionary Wars. Developed at least 20 years ahead of its French counterpart, it helped provide the security for Britain's dominance of sea-going trade.

The Royal Navy was slower to adopt it. Naval historians note that the Admiralty did not like dealing with the Carron company. Its cannons and its business were seen at the turn of the 19th Century as unreliable.

However, by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, it was playing a significant role from the decks of the flagship HMS Victory.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Carron Works manufacturing expertise contributed to the development of oil refining that now dominates the area's economy at Grangemouth

Household goods from Carron led with stoves, grates, bathtubs, sinks, pots and nails. This is where they cast the big wide pans bound for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

By 1814, the Carron Works was the biggest iron manufacturing plant in Europe.

It was a survivor through 19th Century downturns that wiped out some of its rivals. But the industry was under-invested. Reports from the mid-century were of a factory that had seen much better days.

It diversified, but perhaps too much, into a dizzying array of metal products. It built canal boats, tried bigger boat-building, and manufactured one of the world's first marine engines.

In the 20th Century, it developed a near monopoly in making phone booths, and remained a big producer of the iron postbox - probably the two most recognised icons of Britain's street life.

Rose from the ashes

Its manufacturing expertise contributed to the development of nearby plants specialising in chemicals, drawing on the work of James "Paraffin" Young in exploiting the nearby shale deposits of West Lothian.

As that declined in the early 20th Century, it developed, in turn, into the petro-chemical processing and oil refining that dominates the area's economy now, at Grangemouth.

The Carron company had re-invested in the 1890s with furnaces that were finally extinguished in 1963.

That underlines the failure of Scottish heavy industry to invest and innovate through the 20th Century. The plant was closed in 1982.

Image caption The closure of the plant will take place over the next 18 to 20 months

Carron Phoenix rose from the ashes, finding a niche in high-quality sinks, both from steel and from composites.

It soon gained as much as a third of the UK market, and was bought by the Franke Group of Switzerland.

That company now employs 9,000 people in 39 countries, selling kitchens, bathrooms, food service equipment and coffee makers, and it has kept the Forth Valley factory going for quarter of a century.

Its closure in the next 20 months is not because of failure or its market having disappeared. It needs another round of investment.

Franke reckons that it is cheaper to close three plants - in Scotland, the Netherlands and Slovakia - and to build a new one on a greenfield Slovakian site.

The Swiss managers said they looked at re-investing in the Falkirk works, but the high cost did not make for a sustainable business.

That underlines the message that keeps coming through from all the evidence about the Scottish economy - that a lot of manufacturing is struggling, and particularly where the industrial revolution began, forged in metal.

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