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22 Sept 2022

Doors Open Days at Kippen Smiddy

At the end of August we ran several Conservation in Action days for volunteers at Kippen Smiddy, to conserve the building and collections to allow it to reopen to the general public for our Doors Open Days this month.

Kippen Smiddy was gifted to the Trust in 1982 by Andrew Rennie, sixth-generation blacksmith whose family had owned the Smiddy since the 1770s. The building offers a unique insight into Scottish agri-industrial heritage.

The two-storey building is not typical of the long low type of building associated with a Smiddy design, as it was built on to the home of the Rennie family. Its location – bounded on the west by the former main Stirling-Dumbarton road, village graveyard to the east, and dwellings (of the Rennie family) to the north – meant the Smiddy could not be modified to increase workshop space, and therefore remains an unusual survivor, remaining unmodernised with tools unchanged.

Thanks to the dedicated work of our volunteers, Kippen Smiddy will re-open for Doors Open Days on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 September. The Rennie family form a key part of the history of Kippen, and thanks to the conservation work undertaken to the property and its remaining collections, the Smiddy continues to offer a unique insight into the craft of blacksmithing.

The Conservation in Action team outside Kippen Smiddy

Unfortunately, the building has suffered with ongoing issues of damp that have been exacerbated by the closure of the property during Covid. The high ground level of the graveyard to the east has meant damp has penetrated into the fabric of the building, leading to vegetation growth and development of mould. The team of staff and volunteers undertook works to improve the environment within the building and conserved items to help protect the collection. It afforded the opportunity to further investigate one of the Trust’s ‘hidden gems’.

Inside Kippen Smiddy

The interior of the Smiddy is dominated by the rare surviving double hearth or forge. Clearing the build-up of debris from the chimney was one of the first jobs tackled by staff and volunteers. This seemed appropriate given that Andrew Rennie recalled that each day, his first job as an apprentice to his father would be to clear the hearth of ashes and ‘danders’ (lumps of residue formed when the smiddy coal coalesced in burning). He would also have cleared the hearth of any excess flux – the Rennie’s used fine sand scattered on the metal to protect it from the fire, keeping the temperature high during the welding process and giving the weld a better finish. This was sometimes obtained from the graveyard beside the Smiddy.

In front of the hearth are the two anvils, strategically placed to allow the smith to reach them simply by turning around from the fire with the hot metal, enabling him to ‘strike while the iron was hot’. The steadiness of the anvil was crucial to the outcome of the work and therefore dependent on the mounting block. Kippen Smiddy has two anvils: one mounted on wood, the other iron. The team removed rust from the anvils, and will now continue to check the condition of the wood as it naturally begins to crack and decay over time.

On either side of the hearth sit two sets of bellows. The older, tear-shaped or long bellows are of a traditional design, and are set into a wooden frame on the eastern wall. They would also have been subject to a regular maintenance routine – as an apprentice, another job completed by Andrew Rennie at least twice a year would be to oil the leather of the bellows with caster-oil to prevent them from cracking in the cold weather. The bellows also retain some interesting details: the handle is worn down at the end from use, and they still display the small marks on the surface that were made when the smith tested new ‘sheep-marks’ (used to brand numbers of identifying marks on the horns of sheep) by burning them into the wood.

‘Sheep-marks’ on the bellows’ handle

Trust staff presence on site allowed for ventilation of the Smiddy, which coupled with the warm weather helped reduce the mould on the older set of bellows that had developed due to proximity to the damp eastern wall. A damaging build up of dirt and dust on the surface of the wood was also cleaned off to allow for further drying out and the removal of mould spores, and will prevent staining and loss of detailing.

The interior of the Smiddy and other in-situ collections, such as the foot-operated lathe (for turning iron or wood and drilling holes), were also carefully conserved. However the largest task, tackled by our volunteers, was cleaning the array of metal tools used for holding metal both whilst in the hearth fire and when being hammered. These included the various pairs of tongs, special quarryman’s tools, flat metal, and round bars in the hearth fire.

Other tools on display on the Smiddy walls requiring conservation included files, for widening holes and for finishing off a piece of work. These ‘bores’ or ‘heading tools’ were used for making different shapes and sizes of bolts. The volunteers also helped to clean chisels for cutting grooves on hot and cold metal, as well as general purpose hammers and ‘hardies’, used in cutting the heels of horseshoes for laying plough socks and for putting clips on horse shoes.

In addition to the remaining tools, other items left by Andrew Rennie in Kippen Smiddy reveal much about the craft of a blacksmith. The team discovered Andrew Rennie’s diary from the 1950s, detailing his work and commitments. This, along with the remaining earlier accounts from Kippen Smiddy, reveal how the trade of smithing changed very little from 1750 to the 1950s. The majority of the work was making or mending tools and shoeing of horses, and Andrew Rennie carried on shoeing until quite late in his career.

There were, however, references to Andrew Rennie’s move to diversify into ornamental ironwork in the mid-20th century. As horses became less common due to the increased use of tractors and other machinery, Andrew Rennie concentrated on wrought-iron work, which included making gates and ornaments such as candlesticks, candelabras and fire screens. One of our volunteers recalled Andrew Rennie giving her an ornate candlestick as a wedding gift and many of his works are still visible throughout the village of Kippen.

We highly recommend a visit this month to discover more!

Kippen Smiddy will re-open for Doors Open Days 2022 on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 September, 2–5pm.

Getting here: Rennie’s Loan, Kippen, Stirling FK8 3DX

Find out more about Doors Open Days