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Bruce, Sir Georgelocked

(c. 1550–1625)
  • R. A. Houston

Bruce, Sir George (c. 1550–1625), mining industrialist and landowner, was probably born about 1550, the youngest of the three sons of Sir Edward Bruce (1505–1565) of Blairhall near Culross, in Perthshire, and Alison Reid of Aitkenhead, a sister of the bishop of Orkney. Sometimes described in documents as a 'merchant' or 'burgess of Culross', Bruce came from an established and well-connected landed family. His brother Edward Bruce was a senior figure in the Scottish legal and political establishment, ennobled as Lord Kinloss for his part in securing the throne of England for James VI in 1603. Both brothers were privy councillors. George himself filled a number of important offices, including member of the Scottish parliament for Culross from 1593. He married Margaret, daughter of Archibald Primrose, of Burnbrae, and Margaret Blaw, and they had three sons and five daughters.

In 1575 Bruce was allowed to become the lessee of the former monastic coalworks at Culross on the shore of the Firth of Forth, west of Dunfermline, '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' (Cunningham, 53). Bruce used innovative mechanical drainage, ventilation, and haulage techniques—notably an ‘Egyptian wheel’—to solve the problems of exploiting deep and under-sea coalmines. In addition he ran saltworks which burned coal to evaporate sea water. In their day, Bruce's mines and saltworks were a tourist attraction, probably the largest and certainly the most technically advanced such enterprise in Scotland. John Taylor, 'the water poet', penned an epic poem about their operation in 1618. James VI knighted Bruce, probably in 1610, and visited his house and industrial businesses in 1617. Bruce's house or 'great lodging', and several other buildings in the picturesque burgh of Culross, were subsequently acquired by the National Trust for Scotland and opened to the public.

While no commercial records survive, Bruce's business was clearly profitable, to judge from his sprawling, attractive mansion (built in stages between 1597 and 1611) and from the impressive tomb in the Culross Abbey church: testaments to the benefits enjoyed by a successful industrialist even in an age when most wealth came from agriculture. George Bruce was also a shipowner and merchant, as well as a substantial landowner or ‘laird’. His principal lands, purchased in 1602, were at nearby Carnock. With Bruce's help Culross became an important trading community and was elevated to the status of a royal burgh in 1588. Shortly before his death there in 1625 Bruce's showpiece enterprise was largely destroyed by a great storm, but Culross enjoyed commercial and industrial significance for a further century before the baton of economic development passed elsewhere in Scotland.

Sources

Likenesses

  • effigy, 1625 (with family), Culross Abbey church
J. B. Paul, ed., , 9 vols. (1904–14)