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"The History of Cycling in Scotland" by Dr Nicholas Oddy: Edinburgh meeting of 23 February 2016

Nicholas Oddy spoke to the Scottish Region meeting on how cycling in Scotland got off to an uncertain start that as in other countries has become shrouded in myth. When liberated from boneshakers and penny-farthings, cyclists emerged as style-conscious but showed a reluctance to engage with transport policy-makers and so went on to be marginalised by motorists. When a revival came about in modern times, it has put health and fitness above cycling as a mode of transport.

The history of cycling in Scotland follows that of everywhere else. After the patenting of a hobbyhorse by Baron von Drais in 1817, the machine experienced a brief metropolitan craze in 1819 before most were "retired" to country estates. There then followed a fallow period in which activity was continued by a few enthusiasts for three and four wheel manumotive and pedamotive machines. It is to this period that belongs Scotland"s famous contribution, Kirkpatrick Macmillan's lever-framed bicycle of 1839 - unfortunately the machine probably never existed and was much more likely to have been a three wheeler.

The next effective two-wheeler was the "velocipede bicycle" or bone-shaker. Like the hobby horse, this enjoyed a craze, from 1868-70, but velocipede makers (particularly Eugene Meyer of Paris) developed the tension, wire-spoked wheel that allowed efficient expansion of the driving wheel and therefore great increase in speed. The resulting bicycle we now call the penny-farthing and, with the Franco-Prussian War, manufacture became dominated by English companies operating in Coventry. The speed and daring riding position of the penny-farthing attracted a market of young gentlemen of means. University clubs contributed to the core of a new cycling culture with most organisations promoting competition in the form of racing, rather than as a form of every-day transport. This was to change with the setting up of the Cyclists" Touring Club, but the word "touring" still undermined the idea that cycling might be utilitarian.

In the run-up the 1888 Glasgow Exhibition the Dalziel family claimed that Gavin Dalziel had invented in 1845 a rear-lever-drive, safety bicycle, producing a wood-wormed relic which prompted Johnson's counter-claim that Thornhill blacksmith Macmillan had built one in the late 1830s. In 1888 the chain driven safety bicycle was at the point of becoming the "definitive" bicycle design, which underpinned these retrospective claims for invention. However, the only evidence was of a charge against Macmillan in 1842 of riding along the pavement and hitting a child in the Gorbals on a velocipede which sounds now more like a tricycle.

Thomas McCall had developed an improved velocipede at Kilmarnock in 1870, the time of greatest experiment in velocipede bicycle design, which he later claimed derived from the mechanism used by Macmillan and through this sort of "evidence" the claim that Macmillan had "invented" the modern bicycle became accepted fact, but at this distance we just do not know what Macmillan did. The Macmillan/Dalziel story has a retrospective quality similar to one in France where a remarkably advanced bicycle, supposedly built by Meyer working with a watchmaker Gulimet in 1870, was "discovered" in 1908. No contemporary record of such a machine exists.

Another hoax even concerned a chain driven bicycle supposedly invented by Leonardo da Vinci using, as its inspiration, sprocket lifting-chain designs in the Codex Atlanticus. The question to ask of these is - when we see a sprocket chain, we think "bicycle chain" but would Leonardo ever have done? Whatever, in 1939, the Cycling Tourists" Club decided to legitimise Macmillan's claim by venerating his birthplace with a memorial at Drumlanrig.

In the late nineteenth century the penny-farthing had become the fastest vehicle on the roads, but it was not possible to feel safe on a high-wheeled cycle and the market was dominated by male riders who were happy to trade safety for wanted speed and performance. A half-Scot John Boyd Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre, which with the wire-spoked wheel in conjunction with a wheel size of about 28 ins and gearing by a sprocket chain allowed the "safety" bicycle to outpace a high bicycle with ease. The patent became hugely important for the cycle industry, prompting the Michelin bothers to successfully challenge Dunlop's monopoly by coming up with another Scot Robert Thomson's patent of a pneumatic tyre for cart and carriage wheels taken out in 1845, that up until then had been forgotten.

Cyclists now presented themselves as less formal, no longer wearing club uniforms and presenting themselves in the manner of cavalry as was common in the period of the penny farthing to convince a wider public that they were responsible road-users. The nature of cycling was changing, with women taking up the wheel and riders adopting a more louche outlook that is often forgotten in the publicity given to the society cycling "boom" of the mid- 1890s. In Glasgow, in particular, cycling as something rather "fast" was heavily promoted.

The Hampden Cycle Company used very advanced poster design to depict a cyclist speeding with downbeat police giving chase, and cartoons from the Scottish Cyclist of the period were not adverse to show cyclists to be drunk and out for a good time. In a new world of licensing laws, locations like the Leadburn Inn on the far side of a county boundary became meeting-points because they allowed Sunday cyclists to qualify as bona-fide travellers, and cycling clubs thus often became based about a dozen miles from the cities that they served. A generation had to taught how to cycle, and Walter Hislop's cycle-riding academy was to be found in Edinburgh's Forrest Road drill-hall in 1897 before the entrepreneur moved on to other fashionable opportunities such golf and tennis.

Along with other UK cycling organisations the Scottish Cyclists' Union was keen to assert the place of cycling as part of normal road use. As part of this it contributed to the erection of the first modern road signs, "danger boards" to tell cyclists that an approaching hill was dangerous. Such signs acted to publicise the presence of cyclists on the road even when none was present, much like modern cycle lanes. Scottish roads were made the responsibility of local authorities in 1878, a decade before England overhauled its turnpike laws, and the Roads Improvement Organisation founded entirely by cyclists in 1886 lobbied for road improvements that would benefit all users not just cyclists.

However the first ever state legislated road signs, introduced in 1904 under the terms of The Motor Car Act excluded cyclists who, being placed outwith the legislation, decided not to engage with it. Thus cycling was largely excluded from the legislative process at the time of the rise of motoring. William Rees Jeffreys, first secretary of the Roads Board in 1910, was typical of a cyclist who largely forgot cycling and can be compared to Harry Inglis. Inglis, (of Gall & Inglis, the Edinburgh publisher) used his bike to survey Scotland's (and the whole of the British Isles") roads for his Contour Road Book series,but his daughter, born after the Great War, never knew her father cycled at all, let alone cycled the distances that Inglis had.

During the inter-war period, cycling became associated with a working-man"s commute on heavily made roadsters priced at about £4, with its more "glamorous" side being the same working men "touring" using expensive, hand built "light weights" the cost of which (between £10 and £20) were huge investments for their riders. In Scotland this pattern was reflected in its two significant makers, both in Glasgow, Argyle representing the former and David Rattray the latter, under the "Scot" and "Flying Scot" banner. It is important to remember that this was small scale in comparison to the English Midlands, Glasgow, that great manufacturing centre for heavy industrial products, never developed into a major centre for producing cycles or other lighter goods of their type.

By the 1930s cycling was a working-class activity and was largely utilitarian. It was dropped as soon as motoring became a financially viable option to many in the post-war era. The legacy of this has been a major problem for cycle campaigners trying to expand cycle use. Although cycling is once again fashionable, this is mainly amongst white, middle-class enthusiasts - the same demographic that tended to attract in the 19th century. For instance, many in the Scots-Asian communities still consider riding a bike to mean that you are poor. Interest in the likes of "Flying Scotsman" Graeme Obree's world velodrome speed record in 1993/4 reflects the underlying factors that underpin the current increase in cycling activity, namely its association with competitive hard riding, rather than as a convenient form of short distance transport.

Report by John Yellowlees.

 

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