In 2019 Thurso Players launched an exciting new project – the restoration of the Thurso Foundry. The Foundry is an iconic building nestling within the Millbank complex, other parts of which have been rejuvenated as The Mill Theatre, the home of the Players, and the Thurso Youth Club.
History of the Foundry
In the early 1800s Sir John Sinclair moved the Old Mill from a location near Ormlie to its current site at Millbank. The relocation involved the installation of a half-mile lade (a channel constructed to carry the swift current of water that drives a mill wheel), and this renewable energy source meant that the site became an industrial centre for Thurso for over a century.
Between 1827 and 1836 the production of iron increased significantly in Scotland and with the expansion of the railways there was an industrial boom. This boom led to a foundry being constructed in Pultneytown, Wick and the Millbank Foundry in 1841. The main role of these foundries was to convert pig iron into malleable iron to suit local needs. The Foundry was owned and run by the MacKidd family, who were responsible for the design of agricultural machinery, including a patented drill scarifier. The availability of water energy meant that the Foundry was expanded to include lathes and drilling machines, which supported the development of the tools. James MacKidd was an accomplished and successful businessman who ran the business from the 1840s until 1910, and the success of the business could be evidenced by expansion on the site. Following James’s death in 1910 the Foundry began to decline until it ceased trading in 1912.
In 1913 the Foundry was re-launched as The Thurso Engineering and Foundry Company by William Hutchinson. This company expanded upon the services provided by the agricultural business, providing additional services to support the emerging electrical distribution industry. Later in the century Hutchinson also branched out into other areas, with a coal yard at Scrabster, and the purchase (from Thurso Electrical Power Station) and movement of an ice-making plant onto the Millbank site.
Engineering work on the site continued until the 1950s when a new industry delivered a killer blow to this business. This was the start of the nuclear industry at Dounreay, where the high wages offered to those building the new site enticed the workforce to leave Millbank.
In December 1958, the Foundry was acquired by Mr Bruce who supplied industrial gases and engineering components for all types of machines and motor cars. The business ceased to operate in 2003 and no other organisation or business has made use of the site since this date.
Current state of the building
The Foundry complex has been eroding over the years, and now only one major T-shaped building remains. Much of the roof has collapsed into the structure and some of the first-floor wood is rotting as it becomes exposed to the Caithness weather. Without urgent action the whole of this iconic structure will be lost; the building needs to be quickly made weathertight if it is not be lost to the community.
Players and the Foundry
The level of activity currently within Thurso Players, 3–4 plays a year, the production of the annual pantomime and the activities of the Thurso Juniors programme, means that the society is bursting at the seams within The Mill Theatre. The Mill is being used to rehearse plays, build and paint sets, run the Friday night Junior sessions, store props and run a comprehensive wardrobe. Additionally, a large volume of sets are dispersed in garages across Thurso, adding to the running costs of the society.
While all this has been happening at the Mill, Thurso Players observed with some sorrow the slow deterioration of the Foundry and began considering what could be done to help. So in 2018 Thurso Players took the decision to look at the possibility of purchasing the Foundry to provide much needed space for the society, and reduce costs by removing the need for using storage elsewhere in the town. The intention when purchasing the building was to produce a design that provides storage and work areas for sets, wardrobe and props, and additional rehearsal space that would support both adult and Junior programmes. After working hard with the previous owners, in early 2019 Thurso Players completed the purchase of the Foundry building and a small amount of land around it, so the next stage of development now needs to begin.
Throughout 2019 Thurso Players started actively working with Highland Council, our architects, local building firms, and the community, to save the building. The size of the project means that it will proceed in multiple phases to both save the building and meet the requirements of the Thurso Players.
The first phase of the project aims to maintain the integrity of the building. This process will involve making the building weathertight, removing the currently unstable roof, and replacing it with a roof acceptable to the council in a cost-effective manner, and replacing the faulty windows with suitable replacements. To do this will require a significant fundraising programme while we aim to fix/make safe as much of the building’s structure as possible.
Thurso Players will also work with the architects to design a new internal layout for the building that will meet the needs of this vibrant drama society.
The perilous state of the building means that Thurso Players urgently invite help from anyone in the community and beyond, whether it is technical, financial or any other manner of support to help us deliver this project.