Benston Limeworks

The Benston Limeworks were situated to the west of the Benston farm in the parish of New Cumnock on land owned by the Earl of Dumfries. The original limeworks sat to the south of Benston Smithy on the back road from New Cumnock to Cumnock.

Benston Farm, Benston Quarry, Benston Smithy & Benston Limeworks

Benston Quarry

In 1767 William Crichton, 5th Earl of Dumfries (and Baron Cumnock) progressed his plans for the agricultural improvements of his lands in the parishes of Old and New Cumnock by opening a limestone quarry at Benston with the kiln to be fed by coal from a newly opened pit at Garlaff (Old Cumnock). Four years later a pit at Coalburn (New Cumnock) was opened by which the time the late Earl had been succeeded by his cousin Patrick McDouall, 6th Earl of Dumfries.

Benston Quarry showing an old limekiln

John Strawhorn in ‘The New History of Old Cumnock’ [1] maps the Earl’s progress in developing the minerals on his lands. In regard to limestome he notes a reference from 1771 to ‘lime to Air with 2 horses‘ and a contract of 1773 secured with the Duke of Buccleugh to ‘supply Sanquhar 2,000 tonnes of lime yearly for 19 years‘. He also explains that William Moore had leased Garlaff and Benston Lime Quarry from the Earl in 1768 and went bankrupt in 1778 before paying of his debts three years later, by which time the coal and lime works had been sub-let. Moore turned his attention to James Boswell’s  estate in the neighbouring parish of Auchinleck ‘Mr William Moor inspected Balglauchan Coal and Gasswater Lime and Coal work’ . In further correspondence with Boswell, he is referred to as ‘Collier Moor’. [2]

Strawhorn identifies a new phase in the operations when in 1793 the Earl agreed ‘a 40 year contract with James Taylor to take over all the mineral undetakings‘ in the Dumfries estate, which now also included the wodd (graphite) mine at Craigman (New Cumnock). Taylor from Leadhills, a brilliant man who gained fame as the inventor of steam-navigation, would also establish Cumnock Pottery in the town. Things initially never went as well as planned for the minerals or the pottery, and by his death in 1803 the Earl had lost £1,000 on the latter. He was succeeded by his 10 year old grandson John Crichton-Stuart, 7th Earl of Dumfries.

The Reverend James Young’s overview of the working of lime in the parish of New Cumnock from the Old Statistical Account of the parish (1790) is given in the introductory page of Limeklins here.

In the Old (First) Statistical Account of the Parish of Old Cumnock (1793), [3] the Reverend Thomas Miller D.D. writes

There are also found in an extensive lime quarry belonging to the Earl of Dumfries, and one of its upper beds abounds with a species of coral. The lamina of lime stone in this quarry are of different qualities and the lime stone in some places being mixed with shells and spar, takes a very fine polish and would make a pretty enough blue marble. Through this quarry there runs a small vein of lead ore. This upom a late trial, being dressed and smelted at the works of Wanlockhead, was found to produce 65lb of from 100 cwt. of ore’

Benston Lime Works

James Taylor oversaw the opening a new limestone quarry at Benston, to the north of Benston Smithy at Shieldburn bridge with the majority of the limestone to be found in the parish of New Cumnock while the lime kilns were erected over the boundary in the parish of Old Cumnock. Although Taylor’s contract at Cumnock Pottery was cancelled in 1812 he continued to oversee the management of the coal and lime works until his death in 1825, aged 67 years [1]. By this time the Earl of Dumfries had succeeded to the title of 2nd Marquess of Bute.

Benston Lime Works showing the kilns over the parish boundary and the workers’ row

The Reverend Matthew Kirkland’s overview of the working of lime in the parish of New Cumnock including that of Benston from the Statistical Account of the parish (1838) is given in the introductory page of Limeklins here.

In the New (or Second) Statistical Account of the Parish of Old Cumnock (1837) [4], the Reverend Ninian Bannatyne reports –

‘The limestone is of the first quality as a cement, making the best possible binding lime. It is known by the name Benston lime, and hardens under water into the consistence of stone. Hence, it is valuable, and, consequently, much of it used in the erection of bridges and other buildings standing under water. The strata of limestone are about 7 feet in thickness. The workmen earn about 2s. a day; and the lime is sold at the quarry for 6d. per boll, Winchester measure.’

In 1843 Messrs Whitefield and Ferguson leased a number of coal workings including Garlaff and Coalburn along with the limeworks at Benston and Guelt [1], the partners presumably Joseph Whitefield, farmer of Garlaff and John Ferguson who later had a lease of Gilmillscroft pit in Old Cumnock [5].

The entries for Benston in the Ordnance Survey Name Book (1855-1857) [6] include –

  • Benston Quarry (limestone), New Cumnock: An old Quarry on Benston farm, the working of which has been discontinued
  • Benstone Limework, New Cumnock: A Quarry on Benston farm where limestone is procured by mining. The kilns are in the parish of Old Cumnock together with a portion of the work
  • Benstone Limework, Old  Cumnock: A limestone quarry with kilns and cottages adjoining ‘so called’ the property of the Marquis of Bute and occupier Mr John Nisbet

John Nisbet, occupier of the limeworks, had experience of obtaining leases to work minerals on Marquis of Bute’s properties in the parishes of both New Cumnock and Old Cumnock. John L Carvel in ‘The New Cumnock Coal-Field’ [7] records that Nisbet and his partner George Sloan, they worked the coal at Craigman and Marchburn in New Cumnock.  After this partnership dissolved in 1857 ‘Nisbet transferred his activities to Coalburn and Guelt, where he worked coal, and to Benston where he had a lime-work‘. (N.B. Nisbet, Wilson & Co. are identified as owners of the pits at Craigman and Coalburn in 1860 [8]).

Carvel continues ‘At Coalburn, Nisbet was followed by another partnership consisting of Richmond and Clarkson, and, in turn, they handed over to J.M.Nicol, who worked coal at Coalburn and Auchincross, limestone at Benston and clay for tiles at Wellhill, adjoining Benston; he also conducted the Cumnock Pottery Company.

James McGavin Nicol had been appointed manager of the Cumnock Pottery in 1852  and remained so until his death in 1885 at which time the post was taken up by his step-son David Robert Dunsmore and he remained in that position until 1820 when he closed the pottery [9]. During this period Cumnock Pottery Company were identified in the Valuation Rolls (1865-1920) as the tenants of Benston Limeworks [10]. It should be noted that Coalburn pit had been leased to Lanemark Coal Company as early as 1875 before being leased to William Nicol and Co. Ltd., headed by William Nicol the son of James McGavin Nicol [7].

In the 1925 Valuation Roll the proprietor of Benston Limeworks is given as Mountjoy Ltd , per A.Y. Hendrie, Dumfries Estate Office, Cumnock.  Mountjoy Ltd. was a private family company taking its name from another Bute title, i.e. Viscount Mountjoy. There were no tenants of the limeworks nor again in the Valuation Roll of five years later.

Fatalities at Benston Limeworks

Miller Brothers

The hazards of working the mineral deposits in the parish are illustrated by this account in The Scots Magazine Vol 77, 1815 [10]

On Monday 3d April, a melancholy accident at Benston Lime Works in the neighbourhood of Cumnock. When the men had begun to work in the morning a lump of earth fell, which killed one man on the spot, broke both legs of another, and slightly hurt a third: what is remarkable in this case is that, John Miller, brother to Matthew Miller, the man who was unfortunately killed, was also killed at the same work, about ten weeks before, by an accident of the same kind. Both were stout able workmen, in the prime of life, and John has left a widow and two children to deplore his loss

John Baird

The Champion Newspaper, London [11] ran an article on August 1838 taken from an unnamed Glasgow Paper about the shocking death of 62 year old John Baird at Benston Limeworks, some of which is too graphic to be repeated in full below.

MAN BURNED ALIVE – A more shocking accident than we are about to relate it has seldom been out painful duty to record. The unfortunate subject of it was John Baird, aged 62 years, who on Saturday last was burned alive at Benston Limeworks near Cumnock, where had been employed for upward of 40 years. About nine o’clock of the morning mentioned he was breaking stones on the kilnhead, and incautiously stepped with one foot upon the kiln to break a stone which had rolled upon it when the kiln being run and hollow below, the burning gave way under his weight and the unfortunately man, instantaneously disappeared, the kiln being 20 feet deep, and the burning limestones on the surface closing over him. A fellow workman standing at his side was witness to his fate and instantly giving the alarm, the other workmen hastened to the spot but all human aid was unavailing. They, however betook themselves to emptying the kiln by the eye, when they discovered the body of their ill-fated companion in the very heart of the flames, in the centre of the kiln, from which it was withdrawn by hooks . The remains were interred the same evening. The deceased was a married man but without a family. – Glasgow Paper

The inscription on his headstone in Cumnock Old Cemetery reads [12]

Erected Elizabeth Baird.
In memory of husband John.
Killed by fire at Benston Lime Works
21st July 1838 aged 61years.
Now at his labour. In a moment gone. To all a warning. Who behold this stone.

[John Baird, may have been a relative of the Baird family that were tenants in the nearby farm of Polquhap.]

 Census Information

  • 1841 – John Reid (40), Benston Lime Works – Cooper
  • 1841 – Michael Kirk (35), Benston Lime Works – Coal Miner
  • 1841 – George Anderson (35), Polquhap – Lime Stone Miner
  • 1841 – Robert Muir (20), Glaisnock Lotts – Lime Miner
  • 1841 – Matthew Sharpe (30), Glaisnock Lotts – Lime Miner
  • 1841 – James Connell (25), Refuge Cottage – Lime Miner
  • 1841 – Andrew Ronald (30), Taiglim Lotts – Limestone Miner
  • 1841 – William McGill (35), Benston Quarry – Agricultural Labourer
  • 1861 – James Aird (48), Pighall – Lime Burner
  • 1861 – Nicholas Devance (38), Benstone Lime Kilns – Agricultural Labourer

First in the list is New Cumnock born John Reid who worked as a cooper at the Benston Lime Works until his death in 1879, aged 78 years. He is buried at Barrhill Cemetery, Cumnock alongside his wife  Elizabeth Sloan who died 10 years later at nearby Refuge Cottage, Benston Schoolhouse. His grandson Matthew Steele who worked as stonebreaker at Benston Quarr is also buried in the family plot.

Canmore (RCAHMS)

The Canmore entry contains four excellent images of the lime-kilns.

  • The remains of two 3-draw limekilns, with brick-arched draw holes and rubble bodies
  • The Industrial Archaeology of Scotland 1. The Lowlands and Borders (1976) John R. Hume
  • Benston Lime Works



Flooded quarry, north


Flooded quarry, south


No sign of ‘old limekiln’ shown on the map but possibly located in these workings


BENSTON LIMEWORKS (Old Cumnock and New Cumnock)

Site of Workers’ Row between Shiel Burn and Limekilns

Site of Workers Row with Limekilns at the road junction ahead

Site of outbuildings across the road from limekilns
















Odds and Ends




Scotland’s People

  • Census Records
  • Valuations Rolls
  • Births, Marriages and Deaths

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical and Monuments of Scotland

The RCAHMS Canmore entry contains four images of the limekilns.