Eleanor Thomson recalls happy hours spent at her local smithy

Forging Sparks On A Grey Day

Happy childhood memories are often shot through with visions of long hot summers: but one of the fondest I have of Alexandria, the small Dunbartonshire town where I was brought up in the 1950s, has a quite different backdrop of grey clouds reflected in rain-splattered puddles, of hearing the loud clang of metal and of watching hot sparks fizzing into the air like fireworks.

BLacksmithFor on cold, wet days during the school holidays (those long ago times were not always sunny, despite the rose tinted spectacles of recollections), our wee gang often gravitated along to the local smithy's yard where there was shelter and warmth in the forge and where we could watch the mighty blacksmith himself, fashioning unwieldy iron by his strength and skill into anything from gates and fences to horseshoes.

He was called Jimmy Rogers, an amiable character who allowed our gawping group of six, seven and eight-year-olds to watch him -provided, of course, we remained at a safe distance. If one of the more adventurous of our band did edge too close then his customary grin disappeared to be replaced with a stern frown and the growl, "Back now or you'll get hurt!"

His forge was dark and dingy, lit only by bare electric bulbs, a cobwebbed cave full of the weird, shadowy shapes of silhouetted metal objects that were both exciting and scary. When the smithy grabbed the handles of his bellows at the side of the furnace, pumping them at a furious rate, there would be a sighing and a roaring that made us step quickly backwards, our faces lit brightly with the warmth from the glowing coke embers.

We watched, entranced, as this wizard rammed a long, gleaming bar of metal amongst the glowing coals; then waited, expectant, for his next move.

After a few minutes, he would grab the end of the metal bar and extract it, using long metal tongs, then check how hot it had become from its colour before pushing it deep into the embers once again.
We waited patiently as these actions were repeated again and again.

Only when the bar had metamorphosed from a red heat to a white heat did he remove it completely, swinging it to the accompaniment of our excited screams in a fizzing and sparking arc onto his anvil.
Then, still gripping the rapidly cooling metal, he lifted his hammer and, with great skill and control, began to shape it by hitting it - clang! -on the hot metal, then - cling! - a light tap on the anvil to balance the hammer for the next blow, then - clang! - on the hot metal again, and so on.

When he had finished fashioning the metal, he plunged it hissing like a live thing into a tub of cold water.
Outside this alchemist's corner, there were other fascinating artefacts, for the forge had been built inside a yard piled high with what I came to regard as 'dead cars'.

In this chaotic scrapyard the rusted carcasses of dozens of cars and other metal relics lay in tiers, piled to a height well above the walls of the yard so that we could see their strange twisted shapes from miles away like a dinosaurs' graveyard.

Often, while the smithy was busy inside and we had become eventually and inevitably bored (as children do) with his metal bending feats, we would creep about this rather risky place, touching the damp surfaces of oxidised metal, our hands turning reddish brown in the process. Then we would tentatively explore with sticks the contents of metal drums filled with black oil saved from the car engines.

My most vivid memory, however, is of the drizzly grey day when we arrived at the gates of the smithy's yard and were drawn up short by the sight of a huge chestnut cart horse, standing docile but with a tower of bulging muscles rippling under its gleaming coat. It stood just inside the workshop door, the harness clenched in the hands of the smithy's mate. We quickly overcame our fear of the huge beast and manoeuvred our way past horse and men, creeping into a dark corner to watch the proceedings.

The smithy had fashioned a horseshoe and was in the act of punching holes in the glowing hot metal.
We watched, wide-eyed, feeling a bit uncomfortable at the sight of this beautiful creature standing so close to hot metal. The smithy plunged the horseshoe back in the hot coals and approached the horse, smoothing its muzzle and murmuring gently to it. The horse quietly shifted and tossed its head.

The smithy then ran his hand down the horse's leg until he reached the fetlock. With one smooth movement he had the horses hoof gripped tightly between his knees on top of his heavy leather apron.
He then began prising off the worn shoe with pliers. Our eyes grew wider when we realised to our horror that the horse had nails in its foot to hold the shoe in place.

Worse was to come.

When he had removed the shoe, he attacked the hoof with a sharp knife, paring away the useless and uneven pieces of fibrous tissue before moving over to the forge and taking the white hot horseshoe in his tongs. We began to fidget nervously, worried about what might happen next, watching the still quiet horse for signs of fright.

The smithy deftly picked up his heavy hammer and took the shoe to the anvil, fashioning it further with a few well aimed blows. By the time he was happy with its shape, the shoe had cooled a little but was still glowing darkly when he lifted the horse's hoof. He forced on the shoe and there was a frazzling sound as smoke rose in busy spirals into the rafters, followed by a pungent stench of burning animal tissue.

We looked at each other in alarm. But by the time he had secured the shoe solidly onto the hoof with half a dozen nails, we were less scared than puzzled. Why was the horse still docile? After all, it had just had its foot burned and nails hammered into it. Surely it must be suffering. I could contain myself no longer.

Blacksmith at workMr. Rogers glanced up, surprised at the sound of my shrilly indignant voice as I blurted out, "Does that no' hurt the poor horse? It looks awfu' sore."

He straightened up slowly and patiently and patted the great docile creature. "Does it look like its sore?" he asked me. "Ye see, the horse disnae feel it at all. It's a lot sorer for the horse if it doesnae get new shoes. Anyway, it's time you lot were away hame!"

Unconvinced, we straggled home to breathlessly tell our parents. And it was a long time afterwards before I believed the smithy.


Note: You can watch this process at another Vale of Leven smithy, Arthur Millar's in Burn Street Bonhill. This is in the form of a short film at the Scottish Screen archive, which was filmed during the same era.



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