The New Rector


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The new Rector Mr Mackie and his love of blowing things up.

As the schools have been closed for over a month now and also wanting to keep things light-hearted I thought I would write about a rather strange story I discovered in the newspapers about Mr Mackie, the Rector of Tain Royal Academy who loved to blow things up.
Mr Mackie became rector late in 1843 after the academy had been closed for over a year due to lack of funds, only reopening after receiving generous donations of money from around the world, including substantial sums of money and help from Sir James Matheson of Achany, who made his fortune selling opium but that is another story!

Sir Matheson’s donation also allowed the school to buy new equipment but with the lack of money still, a serious issue, Mr Mackie, offers to raise money for books for the school by giving three public lectures on “Voltaic Electricity”, which the board readily approved.

Erratic Behaviour

One of these lectures is reported in great detail in the Inverness Courier in November of 1844.
At the lecture hall of the academy, Mr Mackie demonstrated how to construct a battery that would create electricity and how it could be used for the “new art of blasting”. After the lecture, he arranged two practical demonstrations at the High Mills. Word in town had got around and a great crowd gathered to watch as Mr Mackie first impressively blasted in two, a giant granite boulder estimated to weigh 41 tons. The second part of the demonstration, the ‘submarine’ blast, did not quite go to plan. Kids looking for a bit more of a display put rocks on top of the explosives as Mr Mackie returned to set the charge. Things didn’t quite go to plan. “A tremendous explosion took place, a cloud of spray and smoke arose, and several of the large stones were thrown into the air, one of them fully the size of a man’s head, spinning toward a crowd of people who thought they were at a safe distance. The rock landed a few feet from two ladies, who like most of the crowd were fleeing in panic, it embedded itself a full eight inches into the ground”. Luckily no one was hurt and the article finishes by congratulated Mr Mackie on “instructing the young gentlemen on this highly interesting and important application of ‘Voltaic Electricity”.

Balintore Harbour

One of the spectators at the lecture, Hugh Rose Ross of Calrossie, was so impressed that the following summer he hired Mr Mackie during his holidays, to help him with the “widening and deepening of a fine natural harbour at Balintore”. He wanted to widen the entrance and remove several ledges of rocks that were hidden even at low tide. Boreholes for explosives were drilled in sets of three to six over 120 square feet of rock and with the use of a large galvanic battery the explosive charges were set off simultaneously.
At one point thirty-two charges were exploded together successfully splitting the rocks vertically.
A crowd of people had gathered to watch the spectacle, as the “numerous successive splashes of the descending fragments of rocks, as they reached the water, produced a striking effect”.
With only a few bores still to explode the tide came in too far for them to continue. It seems from the article the project was not a total success as it states; “the most formidable portion of the work remains to be executed”.

The Foundry Story

The final explosive story involving Mr Mackie appears in the newspapers in November 1848 and was all I initially intended to write about before researching the story and discovering that it was not an isolated incident. The manager at the Tain Foundry approached Mr Mackie for advice on blasting a large piece of iron, too big to be melted down. It was described as being “in the form of a cylinder, fully seven feet long, and fifteen inches in diameter, with a bore of two-and-a-half inches diameter. One end plugged up with iron so that it formed a large gun of about six inches in thickness and very small calibre”

For safety, the piece of iron was carted to a field a quarter of a mile to the west of Tain and placed behind a large dung heap to prevent the fragments from exploding in the direction of the town. The bore was filled with first gunpowder, then a charge, followed by more gun powder and about three foot of dry sand. Mr Mackie sheltered behind a stone dyke sixty feet away before making the circuit.
“Upon his drawing the cord, the circuit was completed, and the most terrific explosion instantly took place, the iron being shattered into numerous pieces, some of which were projected, to incredible distances. One piece weighing about 4cwt hit the dry stone dyke which was being used as a barricade. A piece weighing 2cwt was carried almost a mile from the point of explosion landing close to the beach”.
They estimated they only lost just over one tonnes of iron from the original twelve tonnes and luckily, again, no one was hurt. I have not found any other explosive incidents in the newspapers but it would not surprise me to find more. Mr Mackie retired as Rector around 1850 and as far as we know it had nothing to do with him blowing anyone up!