Our story begins with Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. He was born in Glasgow, the third son of minor gentry; William Miller of Glenlee and Janet Hamilton. His father was a Writer to the Signet (lawyer) and should not to be confused with Sir William Miller, Lord Glenlee, who was actually Patrick’s nephew.
Patrick attended the University of Glasgow, where he decided (or it was decided for him) to take up banking as a profession. By the age of 29 he was a partner in the firm of William Ramsay of Barnton who himself was independently wealthy from money his father made in the Canongate tavern trade. Ramsay was also a merchant, and Patrick spent much time looking after the shipping business of the firm. He is said to have learned first hand the perils of the sea, sparking an insatiable interest in naval architecture.
By the age of 36, Patrick was elected to the Court of the Bank of Scotland, where he was a reformer and a pioneer – instituting the practice of accepting the promissory notes of competitor banks. Both he and the bank prospered. Miller invested his wealth wisely in the furnaces of the Scottish industrial revolution and became one of the principal shareholders in the Carron Iron Company, one of the largest iron works in Europe with a particular line in producing cannons.
Miller found himself with expendable wealth, an interest in naval matters, the industrial muscle of the Carron Company behind him and moving in the upper echelons of the Scottish scientific and engineering community. With some of this wealth he purchased in 1785 the estate of Dalswinton in Ayrshire, where he rebuilt the mansion house and had a swamp dredged out into a small loch where he could go boating. He had begun to get seriously interested in the idea of mechanical propulsion for boats and would experiment with double and triple-hulled model boats, with paddles between the hulls. His loch was perfect for testing out these models of various sizes. The trimaran model below was tested on his estate.
In the year 1786, Miller made two very formative new acquaintances. In July he was introduced to William Symington, engineer to the Wanlockhead mines, who had been working on steam engines and trying to combine the best features of James Watt’s and Thomas Newcomen’s designs. Miller was introduced to Symington when he came to Edinburgh to demonstrate a working model of a steam road carriage to the “Professors of that University and to other Learned & Scientific Gentlemen“. Miller could clearly see the application for Symington’s ideas and we can consider his interest piqued!
In December he made the acquaintance of a 27 year old Ayrshire man by the name of Robert Burns (you may have heard of him). Burns was in Edinburgh enthralling society with his first book of poetry and anyone who was anyone in town was keen to make his acquaintance. A ten pound “donation” by Symington ingratiated him with the young poet. In subsequent meetings he would invite Burns to take up a tenancy on his estate to improve one of its farms, which he eventually did in 1787, moving to Ellisland. Despite generous terms, Burns never really managed to make a go of Ellisland and he would later leave to join the Excise, but the two would remain on good terms afterwards. Burns would write later to Miller, signing off a copy of his work as “his much indebted humble servant“.
Miller had by this time started financing Symington to build him a steam engine that would be suitable for propelling one of his paddleboats. Symington patented his design in 1787 and by the following year it had been perfected and was ready for use. It was fitted into a small, twin-hulled boat of Miller’s design. This small vessel had a boiler, funnel and vertical cylinders of the engine at its centre, the engines in one hull and the boiler in the other. Between the hulls were tandem paddlewheels, driven via an endless loop of chain and ratchets that converted the rocking motion of the engine into a rotative motion.
On the 14th October 1788, the intrepid gentleman, his adventurous engineer and some acquaintances would make the first ever steam-propelled boat journey in the UK when they took the boat out for a whirl on Dalswinton Loch. It could reportedly make up to 5 miles per hour and there is every possibility that Robert Burns, farming nearby at Ellisland, was one of their first passengers.
Those present on that day included Captain Grose, author of “Antiquities of England”, Mr Robert Riddell of Glenriddell, Mr Achibald Lawson, late Magistrate of Glasgow. The Edinburgh press reported the story some 10 days later:
On the 14th a boat was put in motion by a steam-engine upon Mr. Miller of Dalwinston’s piece of water at that place. That gentleman’s improvements in naval affairs are well known to the public. For some time past his attention has been turned to the application of the steam-engine, to the purposes of navigation. He has now accomplished, and evidently shown to the world, the practicability of this, by executing it upon a small scale. A vessel, twenty-five feet long and seven broad, was, on the above date, driven with two wheels by a small engine. It answered Mr. Miller’s expectations fully, and afforded great pleasure to the spectators present. The engine used is Mr. Symington’s new patent engine.Edinburgh Advertiser, October 24th 1788
Although it was successful, the little Dalswinton Loch boat was really just a big working model. Under Miller’s continued patronage, Symington and the Carron Company would eventually go on to construct the world’s first practical, working, steam tugboat, the Charlotte Dundas. But that is another story and not the direction our thread is taking.
But Miller’s personal interest in steam was already waning; he is noted for being a highly impatient man who consistently underestimated just how long it took to get an idea from a concept to something practical. He found Symington’s engine suffered from too many losses from friction due to the chain drive system. Wanting to speed up improvements, he had suggested adapting some of James Watt’s latest developments. This resulted in a friendly but firm warning letter from Robert (later Lord) Cullen that Watt considered the idea an attempt to evade his patents. Put off steam, Miller didn’t wait around for the technological advances that would power the Charlotte Dundas; he had other, bigger ideas for his twin-hull, twin-wheel design. Much, much bigger ideas. In fact what he was thinking of was one of the biggest ships in the world.
Even before the Dalswinton voyage had been undertaken, Miller engaged another acquaintance – non other than Scotland’s most prominent landscape painter, Alexander Naysmith* – to help him draw up plans in Edinburgh for a 246 feet long, 63 feet wide, triple decker, 5 masted, twin-hulled warship that was to be armed with 144 guns. Again it would have paddlewheels between the hulls so that it could move against the wind, but these were not to be turned by steam but by good, old-fashioned elbow grease. Each paddle was connected via gears to a capstan, and each capstan would be turned by a team of 30 sailors. These human engines would turn the capstan until exhausted, when another team would takeover. By Miller’s calculations they would be able to move the ship at about 4-5 knots.
(* = Miller had been an early patron of Naysmith and they had formed a long-lasting friendship, the pair having a mutual interest in and fascination with mechanics.)
To prove his concept, Miller had engaged the timber yard of Messrs. Allan and Steuart of South Leith to construct for him a 2/5 scale model of his megaship, the Experiment of Leith. 105 feet long, displacing 150 tons burthen and with the same twin hulls, 5 masts and hand-cranked paddle drive as the full size design. (Her place of construction alone probably makes her unique as the only sizeable vessel ever built in that parish; North Leith was where Leith ships were built.) The ship was launched on Monday 11th August 1788, getting stuck in the process and having to be released with levers before coming to a rest on the Leith Sands, where she was floated off at high tide and sailed around to the harbour. A visitor aboard noted “the prow was ornamented with fanciful ornaments and her cabin tastefully fitted up“.
The Experiment immediately undertook trials in the Firth of Forth. The newspapers reported:
She went out of the Harbour about Mid-day and was at first moved along by the wheels with considerable velocity. When she had got a little without the pier head, they hoisted their stay-sails and square sails, and stood to the westward. But her masts and sails being disproportionate to the weight of the hull, she did not go through the water so fast as was expected. Another thing that impeded her progress considerably was a netting across the bows, for the purpose of preventing loose wreck from getting amongst the wheels, and the steering machine between the two rudders was found to be of little use.Derby Mercury, 18th September 1788
Miller’s intent was to offer the vessel to the navy of Denmark, where he felt her shallow draught and ability to move independently (albeit slowly) against the wind would be of use in the confines of the Baltic, where Denmark and her ally Russia was at war with Sweden. Pitt’s government in London refused to finance the scheme but he was undeterred – those bow and stern ornaments and “tastefully fitted” cabin were intended for King Christian VII of Denmark. The Danes however sensibly said “Nej tak” and the Experiment was laid up at Burntisland.
Casting around for an alternative customer, Miller turned to the Dane’s enemy, Sweden, who had suffered reverses in their war. He wrote personally to King Gustav III in June 1790, enclosing the plans of the full-scale mega warship and offering to built it. Rather than wait for an answer, Miller had already confidently refitted the Experiment and sent her on ahead towards the Baltic under a Captain Robertson, hoping that the demonstration model would seal the deal.
On June 21st 1790 the Caledonian Mercury reported news that the Experiment was approaching Gothenburg, and that the Norwegians had sent out boats to her aid assuming that the curious vessel, laboriously approaching their coast, was in some distress. News arrived in Edinburgh on August 19th that the Experiment had arrived in Stockholm “in the same good order she left the Firth” and that “the master and crew are now entirely reconciled to her, as they do not apprehend the least danger of her separating, which, from her singular construction, they were afraid of before this complete trial was made“.
But it was already too late! On the 9th and 10th of July, the Swedish Navy won a crushing victory over the Russian Baltic fleet at Svensksund in the largest naval battle ever fought in that sea. This brought Russia to the negotiating table and ended the war on August 14th, just 3 days before Experiment would arrive.
Nevertheless, King Gustav III gave the prospectus from Miller to his chief naval architect and scientific advisor, Fredrik Henrik of Chapman, to cast his eyes across.
Chapman quickly realised that Miller’s proposed vessel was far too large to support its own weight and would probably break in 2 when launched. The twin hulls and paddle system would make sailing against the wind almost impossible and he derided it as “the English (sic) Sea-Spook“. The Swedes tried her out for themselves and found that using the paddlewheels quickly exhausted her crew, so sensibly tied her up. This caused a potentially embarrassing situation; the King had been presented with a sizeable vessel for which he now had no practical use and that he was advised against using. Not wishing to upset Miller’s generosity, he arranged for a suitable gift to be sent by way of thanks and compensation.
The King sent Miller a golden snuffbox, on which was painted a miniature of the Experiment, proudly flying Swedish colours and anchored in Stockholm by the military stronghold of Skeppsholmen. But this wasn’t just any old snuff box, in a twist worthy of Jack in the Beanstalk, the King had included a little surprise in the box! For Gustav knew that Miller’s other passion in life was agricultural improvement so wrapped up in the box was a small packet of magic beans and a note to the effect of “plant me”.
Miller duly planted the magic beans back on his estate at Dalswinton and in 1791 he made the first recorded harvest in the British Isles of the Rutabaga. Those magic beans were the seeds of the Swedish turnip; which would be adopted as something of a national stable by Scotland as the neep! The word neep is not a contraction of Turnip; it’s from the old English næp from the latin napus for… turnip! (the white kind.) Also known in parts of Lowland Scotland as the bagie – from rutabaga – it became the best thing going since the potato was introduced (this was the time before sliced bread) and was a runaway success. It grew well on poor soils and in the Scottish climate, it stored well and it was sweet! All the gentlemen farmers wanted in on the action and it soon became a dinner table favourite.
Miller’s old tenant, Robert Burns, who died in 1796, would have lived long enough to have tasted neeps but they weren’t popularised in Burns’ suppers until the late 19th. century. Patrick Miller lived out his days as deputy governor of the Bank of Scotland, dying in 1815. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Of the Experiment, she was badly strained in a storm and was finally abandoned off St. Petersburg; the Swedes were probably quietly very glad to have gotten rid of her.
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