It is hard to believe that a quiet tourist resort like Rothesay was once a centre of industry. However, in 1855, over 1200 people were employed in the cotton industry in the town. Rothesay was ideally placed for the spinning of cotton, the raw materials arrived straight from America and the damp climate of the west of Scotland meant that the spun thread didn’t break easily and that there was plenty of water to drive the machinery.
The first cotton mill in Rothesay was established in 1779 (Penicuik beating Rothesay to the title of first cotton mill in Scotland by a year). It was established in a former flax mill situated adjacent to the lade.
Robert Thom acquired two mills in 1812 when the previous owners went bankrupt after shifting to expensive coal-powered production. Thom returned the mills to waterpower and constructed 9 miles of water cuts to collect water from throughout the island to boost the power produced. Sections of these cuts and the attractive little bridges over them can be at various points on the island, the easiest section to visit is by the viewing platform at Scalpsie.
Powered weaving looms were added to the spinning looms and by 1855 there were 43000 spindles and over 1,000 looms in production. There was a cotton mill society formed in 1792 and the mills produced tokens which could only be spent in the mill-owned shop. Children were employed in the mills and their education began only after their working day had finished. The island industry gradually declined in the face of competition from Renfrewshire and the west of England and by 1880 it was gone.