Wanlockhead Beam Engine is a true industrial relic. It is the only reasonably complete water-powered beam pumping machine that remains in Britain, and the only one still standing in its original location.
Wanlockhead and Leadhills are sometimes called “God’s Treasure House in Scotland” because of the rich mineral ore running beneath them. (Gold from the Leadhills Mine was used to refashion the crown of Scotland in 1540, which you can see in Edinburgh Castle.)
When the beam engine at Wanlockhead was built around 1870, it was designed and installed to pump water from the Straitsteps lead mine beneath it. The mine had originally opened in 1710 and was in commercial operation from 1793 until around 1850.
The pump is a simple but highly effective machine. The principles that enabled it to function were originally derived from attempts to create a perpetual motion machine. From a hillside water tank, water was piped into a wooden bucket on the right-hand side of the machine. The weight of the full bucket pushed it downwards, which pulled up the pump rod. When the bucket reached the bottom, it triggered a valve that caused it to empty and it would then begin to rise back up which in turn would pull the pump rod back down. Once at the top, the bucket would be refilled and the cycle would repeat.
The running costs of the beam engine were minimal, as the only “fuel” it required was the free water from the tank. The tank that provided the water no longer exists on the hillside behind the beam engine but it would have been fed by Wanlock Burn.
The beam engine was in operation for around 40 years, until 1910. Commercial mining here stopped in 1928. A working model of the engine is on display in the nearby lead mining museum. The beam engine is a special monument.
Know Before You Go
At 467 meters above sea level, Wanlockhead is the highest village in Scotland. It can be accessed by driving through the scenic Mennock Pass. There is also a lead mining museum and miner's cottages to visit while in Wanlockhead. It is free to visitors.