Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Slezer View of CulrossSlezer's View of Culross from Theatrum Scotiae, 1693. Bruce's Moat Pit lies to the left of this view, just west of the village.

George BruceSir George Bruce (c1550-1625), pioneering engineer who created a sophisticated offshore mining enterprise in the 16th Century.

Engineering achievements

After the Reformation of 1560, the lands and properties of Culross Abbey passed to the Colville family. George Bruce's cousin, Alexander Colville, was appointed as Commendator of the Abbey. In 1575, he granted the 25 year-old George Bruce a lease to restore and operate the colliery at Culross, which by this time had fallen into disuse. Bruce was ostensibly chosen 'for his great knowledge and skill in machinery such like as no other man has in these days; and for his being the likeliest person to re-establish again the Colliery of Culross.'

It proved to be an inspired and benevolent act of nepotism! Bruce applied technology and know-how to undertake developments, at what became known as the Moat Pit, that were far in advance of anything else found in the UK at the time. The existing Castlehill Shaft stood on the coast a short distance to the west of Culross. The problem was that the coal seam it was exploiting led out under the River Forth. Bruce's solution was revolutionary. He constructed an artificial island in the River Forth to a height of well above the high water mark, and within its confines sank a shaft to a depth of 40ft. The new Moat Pit was connected underground with the existing Castlehill Shaft, and between them, probably on the foreshore, was a third shaft, from which water was drained.

Bruce hit upon the idea of draining the mine by the Egyptian wheel system. He fitted an Egyptian wheel and chain of buckets. The wheel was driven by three horses and consisted of an endless chain of 36 buckets. As 18 full buckets ascended, 18 empty buckets descended. The experiment was a complete success.

The three shafts made ventilation much better than was the norm at the time, and the Moat Pit's location in the river meant that ships could tie up alongside and be loaded with coal direct from the mouth of the shaft. In addition, he ran salt works which burned coal to evaporate sea water. In their day, Bruce's mines and salt works were probably the largest and certainly the most technically advanced such enterprise in Scotland.

Mining authorities flocked to Culross from all parts of the UK to inspect George Bruce's great undertakings, and wheels on the same model were erected at many collieries.

King James VI visited the works in 1617 and Sir George Bruce invited the King to visit one of his mines which tunnelled down beneath the sea bed. King James ventured into the tunnel and found himself at a shaft where the coal was loaded onto ships. Alarmed to find himself surrounded by water at the top of the shaft, James accused Sir George of an attempt on his life and declared that the whole affair was an act of treason. It was only after Sir George pointed out the rowing boat and explained that one could either use that or return by the tunnel that James relaxed again - and took the option of the boat journey.

Bruce built a mansion house in Culross, using materials from his foreign trading. This building has subsequently become known as Culross Palace. He lavishly decorated the palace and the stunning painted ceilings, ornate features and panelling can still be seen today.

The Moat Pit continued to produce coal until the River Forth was struck by a major storm on 30 March 1625. This badly damaged most of the estuary's ports and salt pans, and engulfed the Moat Pit. George Bruce died 5 weeks later. It proved impossible to drain the complex of the sea water which had filled it, and the Moat Pit and Castlehill Pits were both abandoned.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born in Blairhall, Fife, third son of Sir Edward Bruce of Blairhall and Alison Reid of Aitkenhead c1550
25 Granted lease of former monastic coalworks at Culross 1575
Married Margaret Primrose, daughter of Archibald Primrose of Burnbrae
38 Culross became a Royal Burgh 1588
43 Member of Scottish Parliament for Culross and Privy Councillor 1593
47 Began the construction of his mansion, the 'great lodging' in Culross 1597
52 Acquired additional lands in Carnock, Fife 1602
60 Knighted 1610
67 Hosted visit of King James VI to the Moat Pit 1617
68 Moat Pit visited by John Taylor, the 'Water Poet' who pens an epic poem in tribute 1618
73 Moat pit visited by Sir Robert Moray (1608-1673) later to be a founder of the Royal Society (some sources cite him as its first President) 1623
75 Major storm on River Forth on 30 March engulfed the Moat Pit 1625
75 Died in May and buried in Culross 1625

His Legacy

Sir George Bruce's application of technical ingenuity on a large scale to release the embedded value of natural resources was the mark of a true engineer. All the more astonishing given that his industrial complex demonstrated skills in civil, mechanical and mining engineering some 150 years before the Industrial Revolution. His grandson Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine (1629-1681), friend and correspondent of Sir Robert Moray, was another one of the thirteen founders of the Royal Society in 1660.

More Information

A Coal Mine in the Sea; Culross and the Moat Pit Donald Adamson, Scottish Archaeology Journal, Volume 30, Issue 1-2, page 161-199, 2008. Paper made available for free download by kind permission of Edinburgh University Press and Glasgow Archaeological Society
Before 1700: towards the age of coal In The history of the British coal industry J Hatcher, 1993, Vol. 1
Romantic Culross, Torryburn, Carnock, Cairneyhill, Saline and Pitfirrane Andrew S Cunningham, 1902
Papers on Mining in Scotland Archives Hub
How the Moat Pit was formed and the shaft sunk N. Woods, unpublished 2007 (quoted by Adamson)
The Moat Pit Colliery - Culross N Woods. unpublished 2007 (quoted by Adamson) .
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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