The landscape around St Monan's Windmill was once industrial. Today it is a beautiful coastline with the windmill acting as a visible seamark, perched on the bank just above the sea line. It takes it's name from the village it adjoins of St Monan's, named after St Monanus who is believed to have been buried in a shrine here in about 875.
Coal had been mined for many centuries from both sides of the Firth of Forth, so with the nearby coal mines and the abundance of seawater the establishment of saltpans along this coastline was a natural expansion. Before long there were few places along either bank of the River Forth where salt was not being extracted to serve the needs of industries like glass and pottery manufacture. Salt was also in demand as a food preservative, and especially as a fish preservative, allowing the growing catches of Scotland's fishing ports to be exported.
Most salt production alongside the Forth ceased after 1823, when changes in the tax regime meant rock salt from England became much cheaper. An indication of salt's value lies in the high levels of tax it attracted, the way it was stored in bonded buildings, like whisky today, and the way it was actively smuggled to avoid duties. Perhaps the most telling sign of its relative value was that it was deemed acceptable to burn eight tons of coal to produce one ton of salt.
The stump of St Monan's Windmill survived, and has been restored and re-roofed and below it you can see some of the remains for the Saltpans.
St Monan's Saltpans
In 1771 the Newark Coal and Saltworks Company was established. At St Monan's on the Scottish east coast they built 9 saltpans, probably the windmill pump, a settling tank and channel. Wagonary was used to transport coal from the surrounding area to the pans, and then took the salt as well as coal to the nearby Pittenweem Harbour for export. At the end of the 18th century salt production went on around the clock.
The Forth basin, at which St Monan's is at the mouth of, was abundant in coal supplies and perfect for the needs of the saltpans furnaces, and this part of the coastline was the main area for salt production in Scotland for some 800 years. In 1614 salt was Scotland's third most important export, after wool and fish. These saltworks became the third largest salt producer in Fife, but only lasted for about 40 years, with production coming to a halt in 1825.
Salt was always a fluctuating market and the salt produced in Scotland, suffered from using coal to power the furnaces, in that it left impurities within the extracted salt. This resulted in a drop off in demand in the 17th century. It's decline in Scotland was further impacted in 1825 when the salt duties were lifted and the Scottish market began to be flooded with cheaper imports from other parts of the world. The result was that in 1959, when the last Scottish saltworks at Prestonpans closed, salt production in Scotland was at an end.
Only the foundations of the pan houses now remain, and only one of these has any remains of the physical structure remaining, the others only being raised grass mounds. Little documented evidence of the saltpans at St Monans exists, from archeological explorations and documents from how others were made, these give an idea of what they may have looked like and worked.
How the saltpans worked
Furnaces, powered by coal, probably on iron plates below the pans fired the large 18ft x 9.5ft iron pans. The settling tank would fill with sea water which was pumped up wooden pipes, perhaps by the power of the windmill, to be distributed to the panhouses by either a surface pipe or a water cart. The small coals or panwood were dumped into shoots at each house to be used in the furnaces which heated the pans.
The salt water was then boiled off to leave the salt behind, this process could take 4 hours, and it took 3 boiling's to get enough salt out. Egg white or bulls blood was then added to help remove impurities and the remaining salt was put in either whicker baskets or sacks and left to dry. To carry out this process it took a master salter and 2 or 3 assistants for each salthouse and women and children were used to carry the coal and salt to and from the pans. It was hot and dirty work.
At one end of the row of panhouses was the 'girnel', a secure warehouse where the extracted salt was housed and weighed by salt officers who made sure the correct duties were paid.
Our visit was in May 2012 and although we got to see it from the outside we were not able to get inside to have a look around. There was however a sign on the gate that said during during July and August you can get access to the inside of the windmill, between 12noon and 4pm, via a key you can pick up in the local post office in the village.
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