Keir Mill, Dumfries & Galloway

Kirkpatrick Macmillan's grave, Keir Mill

Keir Mill, near Thornhill in Dumfries and Galloway is a fairly unremarkable wee place. Describing it as a hamlet is overegging things slightly. But great oaks from little acorns grow, or in this case, great inventions as Keir Mill is the birthplace of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who gave the world the pedal-driven bicycle.

Born here in 1812, he was the local blacksmith. When he saw someone clamber past on a ‘hobby horse’ (a bike without pedals) he thought there must be a better means of self-propulsion and began to experiment. He came up with the ‘Kirkpatrick’ rear wheel pedal-driven bicycle which had wooden wheels, iron tyres and a weight of 57lb. There is a replica nearby in Drumlanrig Cycle Museum. It’s hard to imagine it going anywhere, but in 1842, he took it 68 miles over bumpy roads to visit his brothers in Glasgow.

Legend has it that the locals heard tell of a ‘Devil on Wheels’ and thronged to meet him. No one had ever seen such a thing, and in the ensuing stramash Macmillan knocked down a young onlooker, and was called to the Gorbals Public Bar to pay a fine of 5 Scots shillings. The magistrate was so impressed that he let him off, provided he did a turn on his bicycle in the courtyard.

The Dumfries Courier reported the incident, saying, “This invention will not supersede the railway.” How little they knew. Instead it was as exciting as the jet pack. However, with that sort of reception, Macmillan’s bicycle did not become popular and he didn’t take it any further. Others had similar ideas and in Paris in 1861, Michaux’s boneshaker, with cranks and a front-wheel pedal became popular. This paved the way for the Penny Farthing in the 1870s and the rear wheel driven “safety” bicycle of the 1880s.

Kirkpatrick Macmillan died on 26 January 1878 aged 65 and is buried in the village churchyard. While he’s not exactly a household name, cyclists come from all over the world to pay homage. On a crowded family gravestone, his name is at the bottom, almost like an afterthought. His relatives all died early, many as children. Kirkpatrick was lucky to lead a long and productive life. As the National Committee on Cycling plaque on his smithy home reads 'He builded better than he knew'.

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