Did you know that Dumfries and Galloway is the birthplace of the bicycle? Stuart Paterson tells us the story of the man behind the invention: Galloway-born blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan.
In Dumfries and Galloway, there are many beautiful villages and parishes with beautiful and unusual names. Kirkpatrick Durham, Kirkpatrick Irongray, Kirkpatrick Fleming and Kirkpatrick Juxta are all worth visiting and getting to know. And more than anywhere else, the village of Keir Mill. “Keir Mill? Hold the bus, that’s not a Kirkpatrick!” I hear your fingers immediately reply. And you’re absolutely right. It’s a lovely village 14 miles north-west of Dumfries which sits prettily on the banks of the River Scaur. And it’s the birthplace and resting place of our most famous Kirkpatrick of all. Kirkpatrick MacMillan – local man, blacksmith and inventor of the modern 2-wheel bicycle.
MacMillan was born in 1812 and grew up in Keir Mill, apprenticed at the age of 12 to his dad Robert, the local blacksmith. He spent the rest of his life living and working at the smiddie in Keir Mill and is buried in the local kirkyard there. A kirkyard? Scots word for a churchyard. A smiddie? Scots word for a blacksmith’s. MacMillan was soon known to be much more than a typical village blacksmith. In his late 20s, having seen locals around the Dumfries area using hobbyhorses to travel using their feet on the ground to propel it forward, he decided to produce a vehicle which would mean both feet leaving the ground to propel said vehicle. And he did. So, what exactly did he make and how did it work?
MacMillan made a pedal-driven bicycle of wood with iron-rimmed wooden wheels, a steerable wheel in front and a larger wheel at the back. Using connecting rods, he linked the back wheel to the pedals. His first machine in 1839 meant he, the rider, had to make a serious physical effort – it was propelled forward by a horizontal reciprocating movement when rider put foot on pedal. Connecting rods helped the rear wheels to move ahead by transmitting the movement to the cranks on the rear wheel. It operated similar to the rods connecting the wheels on a steam locomotive. And MacMillan soon began cycling it regularly down the back country roads to the biggest local town, Dumfries, 14 miles which took him less than an hour.
First Dumfries and then Glasgow! In 1842, the bold blacksmith decided to spend a couple of days travelling to the biggest city in Scotland on his bipedal velocipede. 68 miles on board a weird vehicle seen by nobody before except a few Dumfriesshire locals occasionally being passed by this strange new machine on back country roads. And he did it, arriving in the big city two days later, “a gentleman from Dumfries-shire bestride a velocipede of ingenious design” as reported in a Glasgow newspaper. And then? He accidentally committed the first ever crime by a cyclist! While travelling through the famous Gorbals area, he knocked over a little girl and was stopped and ordered to appear in court before a local magistrate to pay a fine of 5 shillings. But this was a mind-boggling new invention! The magistrate was so amazed by it that he paid the fine himself for MacMillan, as long as MacMillan gave him a demonstration of the bicycle, which Kirkpatrick gladly did before cycling the 68 miles back home to Kier Mill.
Courthill Smithy in Keir Mill is still there, a lovely sign above the doorway saying of MacMillan that He builded better than he ever knew. For it took almost a century before he was rightly credited with being the actual inventor of the bicycle, this extremely modest local worker who never once patented what he built. Now we’ve an entire three-day festival to credit Kirkpatrick, what he built for all of us and exactly what he knew better than anyone before him.
Stuart A Paterson
Stuart, one of Scotland’s best-known poets of the past 30 years, lives by the beautiful Solway Coast in Galloway. BBC Scotland’s Poet in Residence 2017-18, he has written and broadcast many TV & radio programmes about the area, its stunning landscapes and its vital place in the country’s past and present. Stuart has published many well-known books about Galloway and writes both in English and his own Scots language. In 2020 he was publicly voted Scotland’s Scots Writer of the Year and this year has written acclaimed national advertising poems for Scottish Water and Lidl, as well as being a special guest on BBC Radio 4 Today. We are proud to say he will be Raiders Gravel’s Festival Poet.