The Smithies

Every two months Ballat Smithy comes alive with sounds which would have been a daily occurrence until about the 1950s: the ancient sound of the hammer on the anvil, the roar of the forge and the hiss of red hot steel being quenched in cold water.

The difference now is that the old smithy workshops are holiday accommodation, the forge is dismantled and where previously the horses would have travelled here from the surrounding farms, today the farrier comes to the horses in his Toyota Hilux.

James T Ferrie FWCF, 3rd generation farrier.

Most farriers nowadays spend a large part of their time driving to their various clients, and most horses are shod with machine made shoes, but in living memory, and certainly when Ballat Smithy was in its prime, every horse would be brought to the forge to be shod with its own set of hand made shoes, skilfully crafted to the shape of each individual foot and kept ready in its own place over the rafters. Wet days were often busiest, because the fields couldn’t be worked and time could be taken to go to the forge.

All Clydesdale and other heavy horse shoes are still hand made today.

The local smithy (or smiddy, in Scotland) was crucial to the local economy. Working horses in their hundreds, to be shod and kept sound for work, were as vital then as the tractor, pickup, quad bike and van are today. Manufacture and repair of farm implements, tools and vehicles, gates, iron tyres for cartwheels, anything that could be forged out of iron or steel, was the daily work of the smithy. Everyone who worked there would be a blacksmith, but it’s possible only some were shoeing smiths, or farriers, shoeing horses.

The unusual double forge at Kippen Smiddy, National Trust for Scotland. The forge here at Ballat Smithy was located in what is now the cottage kitchen. The chimney pot for the fire remains in the cottage garden, alongside the flat circular stone ‘wheelbed’ used to shape iron tyres for cart wheels.

The importance of the smithy becomes clear when you begin to consider the number there were in the local area. Roughly speaking, there was one every 3 miles (5km) or so, sometimes even closer than that. Each village – Balfron, Fintry, Drymen, Killearn, Blanefield, Buchlyvie, Arnprior, Kippen and so on, would have had one, but when you begin to look there’s usually one midway between too. Ballat is one; Ballikinrain, Buchanan, and Blane Smithy are other examples. Some, like Ballikinrain, Buchanan and possibly Ballat, were part of the infrastructure of surrounding the estate. A few have gone altogether, but, being substantially built, most survive, and what’s interesting is that many retain echoes of their industrial past.

Blane Smithy has been in continuous use since it was built, probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century, and today it houses a precision engineering business; Arnprior is the one probably closest to its roots, having remained as an agricultural engineering workshop and retaining the forge, although it’s now disused. A striking feature at Arnprior is the doorstep at the entrance – a piece of solid stone originally about 6 inches (15cm) thick, worn right down to the ground by the tread of hundreds of feet over 200 years. Blanefield Smithy is now an elegant art gallery, perhaps not as noisy, but just as creative in its own way, and Ballikinrain Smithy is home to a silversmith. Before my family came to Ballat in 1988 the smithy workshops were used to manufacture jewellery and engrave glass.

As horses gave way to motorised transport, so the smithies diversified, and several, including Ballat, took to selling fuel. Until very recently Arnprior, Blane and Gargunnock were petrol stations.

This fascinating video brings to life the smithy sounds, accompanied by the reminiscences of farriers whose working lives would have been spent in places just like this.

Exploring the smithies and their stories is an imaginative and fascinating way of getting to know the area. Stay in one of them, Ballat Smithy Cottage, and discover the rest!