In the spring of 2012, I visited an abandoned brickworks.  The firm which ran it had already passed out of existence: I strode across tussocks of grass beaten flat by the winter storms, then over a flooded hardstanding which stank of gas oil.

Inside, the brick-making machines had already been dismantled – their gear wheels, guards and bed plates were strewn around inside – but everything else appeared intact.  The walls were coated in decades’ worth of shale dust, and the floors were hidden under standing water.

I guess it’s no surprise to discover that an architect is interested in bricks, and grows a wee bit pious and sentimental when a firm whose products he has specified passes from existence.  Perhaps bricks don’t mean much to the general public.  After all, people overestimate the significance of their own field – this bias is known as the “deformation professionelle” – but the brick is a universal material.

The previous day, I had finished reading a book about Playfair.

The Playfair we’re most familiar with is William, who was born in 1790 and designed classical buildings in the New Town, and Scotland’s Shame on Calton Hill.  What I learned about Playfair the architect encouraged me to read about the rest of his family.  William came from a talented family, and the uncle after whom he was named was perhaps the most talented.  His story goes far beyond the narrow concerns of architecture to touch many aspects of how the modern world works.

The elder William was born in Dundee, the fourth son of the minister of Liff and Benvie, James Playfair.  William was a lad o’ pairts, as they say here, and over the course of his life, his flexible mind and good Scots tongue enabled him to become a millwright, engineer, draughtsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, editor, blackmailer and journalist…

Perhaps he never became a brickmaker, but Playfair grew up during the Scottish Enlightenment and after an apprenticeship with Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine, at 18 years of age, he became assistant to James Watt.  William’s greatest achievement is the so-called Playfair cycle, which presciently looked forward to how capitalism works:

Wealth and power have never been long permanent in any place.
They travel over the face of the earth, something like a caravan of merchants.
On their arrival, every thing is found green and fresh; while they remain all is bustle and abundance, and, when gone, all is left trampled down, barren, and bare.

Playfair summed up the never-ending drive for efficiency, and anticipated the nature of manufacturing.  It’s now cheaper to build and equip a new greenfield factory, than to renovate and run an old one.  It’s even cheaper to shift the entire operation offshore, which is what has happened to so many multinational companies.  Companies are constantly being destroyed, even during the good times.  This brick-making firm was one of them.

This brickworks had little romance or nobility – especially in winter, caught between the freezing sheds and roasting heat of the kilns.  It offered workers nothing but hard, dirty, back-breaking work.  Yet, just like the blast furnaces at Ravenscraig and shipyards of the Upper Clyde, it bred a skilled trade with a long tradition.  After the final artic load of Scotch Commons departed, the legacy of the Scottish colliery brickworks was dead.  Similarly, the pan mills and the breaker were built by Mitchells of Cambuslang, so the death of the Scottish brick-making industry also killed its brick machinery makers. 

Once this capacity has gone, it won’t be replaced – unless a miracle happens, as it did 25 years ago.  In 1988, L.A.W. Holdings opened a brand new brick factory at Tannochside, in Uddingston on the south-eastern side of Glasgow.  The firm was headed up by opencast mining entrepreneurs Ian Liddell and John Weir and in the best traditions of the Carron Company and NCB, they used coal mining’s by-products for brick manufacture.

A miracle, perhaps.  One comment chalked on a door – “We will survive!” and underneath it a reply in a different hand, “No you fuckin won’t.”  As I stood on a Lionweld stair overlooking the space where the brickworks’ pan mills once sat, a man around my own age walked in through a hole from which a large door had been knocked off its hinges.  Despite the sea of mud around the buildings, he wore a pair of pristine white trainers. 

We started talking: he’d worked here until the brickworks closed, and had come back for a last look.  He explained that the owners of Scotland’s one remaining brickworks had bought up the equipment and trademarks, perhaps to ensure that no-one could buy the dead company out of administration and start production again. 

As I packed my camera away, he took a final look at the devastation then turned to me.  His parting words were, “I’m going to get away up the road afore I start cryin…”

Text and photos all copyright Mark Chalmers.

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