FLIGHT ABOVE CARDROSS : The story of Percy Sinclair Pilcher, his workshop on Darleith Road and his attempts at flight on Wallaceton Farm, above Cardross.
ACCESS : Private land and house, but each visible from Carman Road and Darleith Road.
As with some other features on this website, it should be pointed out that the sites discussed here are today within Argyll and Bute and not West Dunbartonshire, but we can still recognise that they were within the historic boundaries of Dunbartonshire at the time in question. Also, Wallaceton Farm is on the western edge of Carman Muir and natural features know no such limitations.
https://w3w.co/blast.exclaim.series Wallacton Farm turn off from Carman Road (right opposite the gates to St Peter's Seminary grounds).
https://w3w.co/motivator.bend.hillsides Low Auchensail Farmhouse, Darleith Road.
While walking across Carman Muir or down around Cardross you will invariably become aware of planes overhead heading for or from Glasgow Airport or at least their vapour trails high above. Or perhaps the seaplane. Or helicopters - one of which may be large with silver and pink livery - the rescue helicopter heading off to the mountains beyond to aid someone who has experienced some mishap.
Spare a thought for those who turned the dreams of flight into a reality, of their inventive talents and of their spirit of adventure in this most ethereal, yet dangerous of environments, air.
And consider too that this landscape before you here had a vital role in all this.
West Dunbartonshire played other significant roles in the development of flight. Think of the Mumford Helicopter built at the Denny Shipyard index.asp?pageid=717882 and the Sunderlands built by the Blackburn Aeroplane Co Ltd in Dumbarton on the Clyde. index.asp?pageid=719281 We now turn our attention even further back in time.
Unpowered flight was already widely experimented with at the time that this specific story begins. Most people believed that it would remain that way; an excentric hobby. Something that Icarus had proved impractical and impossible, against the natural laws. But in the late 19th century with the advent of the industrial age, with better means of manufacture and design ... and even engines, the dream was reignited. What if such a flying machine could be powered by an engine?
By 1899, four years before the Wright brothers took to the skies, Percy Sinclair Pilcher had broken the world distance record for heavier-than-air flight with his glider. His first successful glider was named "Hawk", but it was here around Cardross that he built, tested and tried his more successful "Bat". With it he became the first person in the United Kingdom to make repeated flights in a contraption that was heavier than air.
In his mind, it was only a matter of time before flight could be powered.
Pilcher had been born into this exciting era of exploration and innovation. After a childhood spent in England and Germany, and a period in the Royal Navy as a cadet, Pilcher moved to Glasgow in 1887 to serve as an engineering apprenticeship with the shipbuilders Randolph, Elder & Co. of Govan. The National Museums of Scotland goes on to tell us that by 1890, Pilcher was taking classes at University College, London and publishing articles on the art of gliding. He returned to Glasgow a year later to lecture on naval architecture and engineering, although his main focus remained the pursuit of the skies. With his sister Ella, Pilcher would spend the next eight years making a detailed study of gliders and planes. During this time he corresponded with leading aviation pioneers of the day, including German hang-glider Otto Lilienthal. These exchanges inspired him to build four gliders – the Bat, the Beetle, the Gull and the Hawk.
During 1896-97, Percy and his sister Ella tested and demonstrated the Hawk in green spaces around Glasgow. It was fitted with the world's first sprung-wheeled undercarriage and this helped Pilcher to break the world distance record in 1897.
While the pair evidently worked on their gliders to some extent in Glasgow, and even demosntrated them there, at some point they were attracted out here where they found a place to set up a workshop and hills of just the right slope and orientation towards the wind. A workshop was set up at Low Auchensail farmhouse in Darleith Road just outside Cardross. They must have used the hills there, but it seems that Wallaceton Farm was considered far better for their test flights even though it meant carting their contraptions some distance.
The Low Auchensail farmhouse still stands. It is listed "C" because of its historic associations with Pilcher. A very interesting collection of old farm equipment and wagons stood outside until quite recently when the owners decided to clear the grounds. It is not known if this existed there at the time as working equipment or was collected later. Perhaps it inspired Pilcher and offered him a range of tools and materials.
The Listing text notes that the method of launching was to run downhill against the wind and take short jumps. Low Auchensail?s prominent location made this possible. These slopes face westwards into the predominant winds which come across the Firth of Clyde and the Gareloch, but a chasm to one side, dry stane dykes and trees formed impediments. Wallaceton Farm has similar westwards facing slopes, but they offered far better options of wider inimpeded spaces and better slopes. It is some distance between the two to take the flying contraption.
Being able to fly his contraptions under their own power was his ultimate ambition and he was keen to demonstrate such a craft to the world.
But it was never to be. He had built a triplane and had fitted an engine to it. This was to be demonstrated to onlookers and sponsors near Stanford Hall in 1899. However due to engine failure he instead chose to show off his unpowered Hawk. The weather had been bad, but seemed to eventually clear. Something went wrong while in the air and he fell some 10 metres. He died shortly afterwards.
This website is intended to focus mainly on the places more than the events. For more on this interesting man and his sister who supported him so closely in this important part of aviation history, you are referred to the websites and other sources listed below.
This picture shows Percy Pilcher with his sister posing with one of their flyig machines in the front garden of Low Achensail in what is now upper Darleith Road. Picture from Donald Fullarton's article on the Helensburgh Heritage Trust website.
Compare that to what it looks like now and much as Pilcher would have known it.
There is a replica of his craft the Bat, built in 1895, in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.
The following two maps were taken from a survey of 1860 so predate Pilcher's experiments, but nevertheless show the locations and terrain much as he would have got to know it.
Low Auchensail farmhouse is shown here in red. To the bottom left is the dwelling section facing south west. A larger farmhouse was built up to the right so that became Upper Auchensail and the original streading became Lower Auchensail. This looks much like a typical cottage when approached from up Darleith Road which you see here running up the hill from Cardross and passing close to the buildings. The farm buildings themselves stretch out at right angles to it. Some of that is now gone, but much remains and is listed "C". This rear section must have been where Pilcher had his workshop. The front garden of the cottage is almost triangular. Compare that to the short bit of it visible in the photo above. NLS ©
At some distance to the east of Low Auchensail is Wallaceton Farm shown here centre right. Pilcher may well have first tested his contraptions at or close to Low Auchensail, but it did not offer the terrain as here on the fields sloping down to towards the south and west and we know that he successfully flew his glider here. The road seen running roughly south to north is Carman Road from Cardross which becomes Cardross Road as it runs over the muir and thence to Renton. That is Auchenfroe to the left. Even the older Kilmahew House around which St Peter's Seminary would later encircle had not yet been built. Wallaceton is also spelt Wallacetoun and Wallacetown on some maps. NLS ©
This photograph was taken some years ago and shows just some of the many farm implements collected and displayed on the premises; carts, wagons, ploughs and other items. These have now all been removed.
BBC Percy Pilcher's Flying Machine. https://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/percypilchertrans.shtml
CANMORE : https://canmore.org.uk/site/264369/auchensail-farm-farmsteading
HELENSBURGH HERITAGE TRUST - A Pioneer of Flight by Donald Fullarton: http://helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php/latest-news/617:a-pioneer-of-flight
NATIONAL LIBRAY OF SCOTLAND maps : The extracts from the map used here come from that entitled "Dumbartonshire XVII.16 (Cardross). Survey date: 1860, Publication date: 1862.
LISTED BUILDINGS : http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB42908
NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF SCOTLAND : https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/made-in-scotland-changing-the-world/scottish-science-innovations/percy-pilchers-hawk-glider/
RIVERSIDE MUSEUM, GLASGOW : Replica of The Bat.
There are also a number of books on him. And extraordinary as it may seem, even some film footage, although it hardly lasts a few seconds. This can be found on YouTube.