The Campbeltown and Machrihanish Coal Canal

In 1773 James Watt, the renowned Scottish engineer and inventor, surveyed a canal to connect Machrihanish/Drumlemble to Campbeltown. The Campbeltown and Machrihanish Canal was opened in 1794. The canal was level so had no locks and was about 3 miles long. It was built to transport coal in flat bottomed barges from the coal mine at West Drumlemble to Campbeltown. The barges were drawn by horses. It eventually fell into disrepair and was abandoned by 1856. The canal was mostly filled in although there is still a small section evident on the eastern marches of Hillside Farm and this can be seen on your right hand side, as you approach Campbeltown from the A83.

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James Watt. Illustration: Jan Nimmo ©

The canal ran eastwards from West Drumlemble, to Dalivaddy Farm, to the Lintmill and then crossed Chiskan Waters and continued through Tonrioch and Knockrioch farms, the Moy and onwards to the Gortan and Hillside Farm. It terminated at the coal depot or ree that was once near the Albyn Distillery, which was situated on The Roading, Campbeltown and which became the site of the Jaeger factory, (known locally as The Clothing Factory), until that closed in 2001.

The Argyll Coal and Canal  Company took over the running of the pit at Kilkivan and built a light railway in 1876 to transport coal to Campbeltown. The railway followed the same route as the canal until it it reached the town where the line ended at the quay.

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A plan of the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Canal based on an 18th century plan from the Duncan Colville papers. (Argyll & Bute Council Archives). Image courtesy of Campbeltown Heritage Centre.

The following poem which highlighted to me by by ex-collier, George McMillan, Campbeltown. The poem is by Archibald Munro and was written in 1888. (Thanks to Cameron McLellan of Machrihanish Online for the information about the poem).

The Old Drumlemble Canal

“Leaves but a rack behind”.
One gibly descants on the beauty of streams
Or the floods that from precipice fall;
Another on Torrents in ecstasy dreams –
My subject’s the ancient canal.

My fancy yet awakes with delights
As Memory its windings review;
Mid the scenes of the past it lies smiling and bright,
And it banks with fresh verdor renews.

By it’s hoof trodden brink, with satchel in hand,
I saunter’d or skipped to the school;
But, truth to confess, too long I would stand,
To scan the contents of the pool.

Let tropical regions their produce display;
And botanist dote on their forms;
Let palms and bananas the tourist repay
For his travels in quest of their charms.

The pliant, slim sedges that bow’d to the wind –
Create, I fancy, for boys –
Had virtues more precious – at least to my mind –
And wakened much livier joys.

From their supple materials, moulded with skill,
A tiny flotilla launch’d on the wave
I doubt if such rapture Lord Nelson did fill
As he marshall’d his fleet and admonish’d the brave.

The type of the the crocodile cleaving the Nile,
‘Mid lilies and bulrushes tall,
Small lizards and asp would your leisure beguile
By the brink of the ancient canal.

The crazy old gaabert sail’d slowly along
With her cargo of timber and coal;
What volumes of blessings (!) left many a tongue
At her sluggish approach to the goal.

The slower the better for truants like me –
How nimbly I sprang from the bank,
And leapt on her beams with boisterous glee,
While the pilot got fierce at my prank!

Kind pilot; thought oft a bit of coal he would raise,
They might menace with “Courts” and a jail;
But though we got shakings and troublesome starts,
The breeze never rose to a gale.

When winter beleaguered the drumly old pool,
And its surface as firm as a floor,
The truant and student abandoned the school,
More welcome achievement to score

From morning till ev’ning – and often beyond –
Oblivious of books and of care,
Like eagles we sped o’er the crust of the pond,
To parents’ and teachers’ despair.

No water more clearly reflected the skies,
The outline of clouds and their hue;
No glass to my features more truly replies –
My photo seems hardly so true.

Huge gudgeons and perches the angler allured
From villages, mountains and glens;
The luck of his rod the fisher secured
The vigour that exercise lends.

Here friendships for life were cemented in youth
And sweetened as seasons revolved;
And though we’re apart as the north from the south,
No space can our union dissolve.

Yet sad were the thoughts in the emigrant’s breast
Were he to revisit the lake
Where in summer he’d wade to the wrens tiny nest,
Or the duck from its slumbering wake.

The waters have fled, like the mists of the morn,
Deserting their time honoured bed;
No longer their windings the landscape adorn,
Nor moisture o’er neighbourhood shed.

Like the spirit unbound, what was flowing and free
Has pass’d from its “motionless” coil;
Now it sparkles on roses, or rolls to the sea,
And now it refreshes the soil.

But the channel is buried in rubbish and reeds –
At once its own carcase and grave –
The refuse of adders and vagrant seeds,
Unsightly to saint and to knave.

Yet, though now repulsive thy trenches appear,
Thy graces I fondly recall;
To my bosom thy features will ever be dear,
Smooth, torturous, placid canal.

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One thought on “The Campbeltown and Machrihanish Coal Canal

  1. Pingback: The Campbeltown to Machrihanish Light Railway. | The Road to Drumleman

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