IT was in this week in 1625 that Sir George Bruce of Carnock died. Fans of Outlander will probably not know his name, but they will recognise the setting for numerous scenes in the hit series, namely Culross in Fife, which became Bruce’s home town where he built the remarkable Culross Palace that has been voted one of the favourite locations used in Outlander, the town doubling as Cranesmuir in the series.

Bruce was a true Renaissance Man, or as we call them in Scotland “a lad o’ pairts”. He was an innovative engineer, a financier, an international merchant, owner of salt pans and coal mines, a wine importer, an MP and Privy Councillor, a lover of art and a brilliant designer of a house that was far ahead of its time with stunning painted ceilings that delight tourists to this day.

Culross Palace is his most extraordinary legacy to Scotland, but his main claim to global fame is the fact that he pioneered coal mining under the sea – the world’s first undersea mine was created by him at Moat Pit by Culross.

Bruce was born at Carnock around 1550, the third son of Edward Bruce of Blairhall. His cousin Alexander Colville took control of Culross Abbey and its lands after the Reformation of 1560, and in 1575 he granted the lease of the disused Culross Abbey colliery to Bruce, who was already a noted student of mechanical matters hailed “for his great knowledge and skill in machinery such like as no other man has in these days; and for his being the likeliest person to re-establish again the Colliery of Culross”.

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Bruce not only got the colliery working again, but brought his engineering skills to bear on the local salt-producing industry so that within a few years he had created an international trade of salt to England and Germany, as well as founding a fishing fleet that went as far north as Iceland to fish.

At Culross colliery the problem was that the main coal seam, the Castlehill Shaft, extended out under the Firth of Forth, and it took the genius of Bruce to devise a way of getting to the coal without endangering miners. He built an artificial island in the Forth, sank a concrete-lined shaft 40ft down and connected what became known as Moat Pit to Castlehill Shaft with another shaft emptying water to the shore by means of an ingenious “Egyptian wheel” with 36 buckets working round the clock. It was the first such mine in Britain and mining engineers flocked to see it. So, too, did royalty.

On his only visit to Scotland after he became King James I of England, in 1617 King James VI twice visited Culross during his royal progress that saw him go via Edinburgh as far north as Dundee and as far west as Glasgow and Paisley. During one of those visits to Culross, Bruce invited the king to inspect his mine and when he saw that the pit’s shaft was surrounded by water, the ever-paranoid King James thought Bruce was trying to kill him. He even accused Bruce of treason until the pit owner pointed out that there was a rowing boat moored at the top of the shaft, and James calmed down – he still insisted in being rowed ashore, however.

Perhaps it was the royal visit that inspired a succession of celebrities to come and view the pit, including the teenaged Robert Moray who would later be knighted and help found the Royal Society, the playwright Ben Johnson and the poet John Taylor (1578–1653) the self-proclaimed Water Poet.

Taylor penned a glowing tribute to the mine which he called “a wonder”, adding “for myself neither in any travels that I have been in, nor any history that I have read, or any discourse that I have heard, did never see, read, or hear of any work of man that might parallel or be equivalent with this unfellowed and unmatchable work”.

Taylor then wrote a full description of the pit as he encountered it: “The mine hath two ways into it, the one by sea and the other by land; but a man may go into it by land, and return the same way if he please, and so he may enter into it by sea, and by sea he may come forth of it: but I for variety’s sake went in by sea, and out by land.

“Now men may object, how can a man go into a mine, the entrance of it being into the sea, but that the sea will follow him, and so drown the mine? To which objection thus I answer, that at low water mark, the sea being ebbed away, and a great part of the sand bare; upon this same sand (being mixed with rocks and crags) did the master of this great work build a round circular frame of stone, very thick, strong, and joined together with glutinous or bituminous matter, so high withal that the sea at the highest flood, or the greatest rage of storm or tempest, can neither dissolve the stones so well compacted in the building or yet overflow the height of it.”

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Taylor got that last bit wrong, for Moat Pit was engulfed in a massive “once-in-a-century” storm on March 30, 1625, and had to be abandoned. Perhaps broken-hearted, Bruce died just five weeks later on May 6, 1625, and was buried in Culross Abbey where his effigy and that of his wife Margaret plus their eight children can be seen.

It was in 2015 that Bruce was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of James Watt and Thomas Telford.

He is the earliest of the inductees by more than a century and his entry on the hall of fame website states: “Sir George Bruce’s application of technical ingenuity on a large scale to release the embedded value of natural resources was the mark of a true engineer.

“All the more astonishing given that his industrial complex demonstrated skills in civil, mechanical and mining engineering some 150 years before the Industrial Revolution.”