The 230 year-old windpump at our Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve underwent some much needed conservation work last year. Jill Harden, the RSPB’s Archaeologist for Scotland and Northern Ireland tells us more.
Since 2014 we have been exploring ways to save the 230 year-old windpump tower at our Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve. And now it’s done! And it’s all been made possible by a grant from Historic Environment Scotland (HES). It’s a Scheduled Monument, so being able to undertake these conservation repairs reflects the RSPB’s commitment to Scotland’s environment and local communities. Visitors will be able to enjoy viewing the newly repaired tower as they look out at the loch from the centre. Birds and visible history all in one view – fantastic!
The tower with its mechanism and sails was built in the 1780s to pump water out of a larger Loch of Strathbeg. Agricultural improvers wanted to increase the amount of farmland in the area. Drains were dug and sluices created to ensure that the system worked. But it was only partially successful, hence the survival of the Loch of Strathbeg today. Go westwards along the coast and some lochs have almost completely disappeared – like the once extensive Loch Spynie, north of Elgin.
The Strathbeg windpump continued pumping away until the early 20th century, although for the last 30 or 40 years it was powered by a generator rather than wind. And there’s even a story as to why the sails were taken down. A terrible accident befell a labourer working there, possibly in the 1860s. He’d had to go up to the top of the tower to fix a sail, but while up there he was caught in the moving machinery. To save him, his colleague on the ground shoved a thick wrought iron bar through the gearing to try to stop everything turning. Eventually they did. The bar is still there – twisted round the base of shaft and cog as if it were a thin strand of wire.
But what of the project? It’s been a partnership effort between reserve staff and the RSPB’s building surveyor, archaeologist and other advisers, and it’s been great to be involved. Once the HES source of funding had been identified, papers had to be prepared for submission. Reports were produced with associated plans and photos of the structure. A proposal for conservation works was drawn up and Scheduled Monument Consent was sought. Finally, with estimates for the masonry, timber and lime mortar, an application could be made for a grant towards the costs.
For me, hearing our bid had been successful was a high-point in amongst all the Covid restrictions. For the reserve the hard work began. Confirming the contractor could do the works, finding a way of getting all the equipment to the base of the tower, and many more building issues had to be sorted out. But it all came to fruition in October.
Masonry and Lime Ltd of Elgin arrived on site, erected scaffolding and got to work, raking out dirt and loose mortar and repointing with an approved lime mix. Glyn Young Associates provided technical advice for the conservation aspects of the work. For both, the challenge of securing the cast iron features at the top of the tower was extreme. We hadn’t realised just how precarious the over half-a -tonne of machinery was. Nobody had been able to get to the top of the tower before the works began – we were relying on drone photography. Now we knew that the remaining timbers were completely rotten and hardly had any load-bearing strength left.
But a solution was agreed upon and the works team used block and tackle, raised the upper cogs and shafts and then took out the paper-thin wood. They then raised the heavy oak beams and manoeuvred them into place.
There are several other designated structures on RSPB reserves across the UK that need conservation repairs. In various ways they each have more complex problems. But one down, a few more to follow, I hope.
Fascinating stuff and a reminder that more than just nature conservation is involved maintaining the RSPB’s reserves. Hope I might be be able to visit Strathbeg at some point this year when the travel rules allow.
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