Geoff Bailey, Heritage Engagement Officer at Falkirk Community Trust, looks at the sites that were around when James Watt worked in Bo’ness in the late 18th century . . . .

What amazes me is the number of buildings in Bo’ness that would have been there when James Watt was working in the area – from the small tollbooth in South Street to the numerous large tobacco warehouses.

The Toolbooth in Bo'ness - now a sandwich shop - was around during James Watt's time in Bo'ness
The Tollbooth in South, Street, Bo’ness – now a sandwich shop – was around during James Watt’s time in Bo’ness. The town is steeped in history.

Did James Watt slip into the West Pier Tavern for a pint? It is now known better as the library.

Even the cylinder from the steam engine at the Schoolyard Pit that he worked on survives. The engine was literally in the schoolyard and pupils complained about the smoke coming in through the windows. The cylinder now stands adjacent to the workshop specifically built for Watt in the grounds of Kinneil House by Dr Roebuck.

The workshop is mentioned in Watt’s letter to Roebuck of 9 November 1768: “On considering the engine to be erected with you, I think the best place will be to erect a small house in the glen behind Kinneil.”

Today it is known as Watt’s Cottage, though Watt himself stayed in the big house with Roebuck. And I love the fact that after Watt’s time this hallowed building was used as a common washhouse!

Watt’s workshop at Kinneil, Bo’ness. It was latterly used as a washhouse.

That pleasant green containing the washhouse is still enclosed by Kinneil House, the 17th century walled garden and the valley of the Gil Burn.

The water from the stream was essential for turning a water wheel to open and close valves on Watt’s experimental engine. It is hard to imagine the clamour of noise as the workmen strove to correct the distortion on the experimental cylinder with machinery spread out all around them.

For a few fateful months this quiet backwater was the centre of the world and what happened here would echoes down the decades many times over. Nor was it a coincidence that in October 1769 Joseph Hately visited Addison’s Brewery in Bo’ness and gave himself the opportunity to see Watt’s experiments.

Kinneil House, Bo’ness – home to Watt’s supporter and business partner, John Roebuck.

Somehow he ended up in the attic of Kinneil House – industrial espionage! Watt had been experimenting with steam jackets to retain the heat in the boiler and suddenly Hately also started to do the same, though Watt realised he’d made a mistake.

However, how many people realise that once Watt despaired of making money through his patent he spent much time on surveying jobs on engineering projects and that he was one of the main surveyors for the Bo’ness Canal in 1771? The canal would have taken traffic from the end of the Forth and Clyde Canal to the harbour at Bo’ness.

Watt proposed a wooden trough as an aqueduct for the canal to cross the River Avon. He wrote: “I have preferred this wooden fabric, to one of stone, principally on account of the expense, which will be much less particularly, in such precarious foundations as the Kerse lands afford.”

Even the Canal Company realised that was not a good idea and the stone aqueduct that they built in its stead still takes the main road from Grangemouth to Bo’ness, though again how many drivers realise that they are on a canal?