Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace near Taynuilt, Argyll, is a restored ironworks that was founded in 1753. Although operations ceased in the 1870s it has since come under the management of Historic Environment Scotland and it is now a popular tourist attraction.
Visitors can explore the abandoned smelting buildings, storehouses and ironworks for a small fee.
Review of Bonawe Iron Furnace
Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace is one of those attractions you’d probably never visit if you weren’t a Historic Environment Scotland (HES) member (see the link further down the page for a bargain temporary membership offer), mainly due to the fact that it’s located pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
That’s one of the reasons why I keep renewing my HES membership each year as I get to visit loads of little hidden away gems I’d otherwise never know about – like this one nestled in the beautiful Argyll countryside near Loch Etive (south of Glen Etive).
When you visit the historic site the first thing that strikes you is how strange it is that an industrial complex was built in such a scenic setting, but it actually makes perfect sense once you dig a little deeper into Bonawe’s history.
Back in 1753 when the ironworks were built, pig iron was at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution and three ingredients were needed to make it.
The first was limestone that was found in plentiful supply in Northern Ireland and which could be easily transported to Bonawe via Loch Etive.
The second was charcoal that powered the enormous furnaces and which was found in almost unlimited quantities in the surrounding Argyll forests.
The third ingredient was iron ore, and again this was easily brought to the ironworks from Cumbria thanks to the sailing routes from the west coast of England via Loch Etive.
So that’s three materials that were needed in vast quantities, and all that were readily available in the scenic setting of Bonawe. That’s the reason why the furnace became such a success and why in its heyday it produced more than 700 tons of pig iron each and every year for well over a hundred years.
What’s left of the old industrial complex is really just a collection of empty buildings, but thanks to the efforts of HES wandering around the site really gets your imagination firing and it’s quite incredible to think that more than 600 people were once employed there.
Read on to learn what you can do at this historic attraction.
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Things to do at Bonawe Iron Furnace
As far as historic sites go this is one of the smaller ones in HES’s catalogue but it’s as interesting as any of the others the trust has in its care. Its size is a bit of a double-edged sword though as it can be difficult to find if you don’t know where you’re going.
Because Bonawe is so remote you’ll find yourself driving quite a distance from the A85 to find it, to the point where (if you’re like me) you’ll start wondering if you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.
There are signs pointing the way but they’re few and far between, so if you’re not familiar with the area you might want to enter Bonawe’s postcode (see further below) into your satnav before you head off, but as with every attraction in the Highlands you’ll make life much easier if you have an OS map with you. Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
On entering the historic attraction you’ll find a small car park next to the visitor centre and there’s a short walk on easy-access paths through the turnstile to reach the first building which is the charging house.
This is where the raw materials to make iron were loaded and it would have been a raging inferno back in the day – which is difficult to imagine now that the furnace is nothing but a hole in a wall with a chimney sticking out the top.
As always though, HES have done a top job of ensuring visitors can learn about each building during their visit thanks to a collection of very informative information panels.
Some of these panels describe the process of how pig iron was made and you’ll also learn a lot of facts about Scotland’s industrial heritage during your time at Bonawe.
As I mentioned earlier, one thing that really surprised me was the fact that at one time Bonawe employed more than 600 people – more than most industrial complexes employ today.
This was mainly due to the fact that keeping the furnace stoked with charcoal was incredibly labour intensive and required a small army of men to harvest wood from the surrounding forests, one of which – the Glen Nant National Nature Reserve – is open to visitors, so you might want to go for a walk through it after you’ve visited the old ironworks.
Moving on from the charging house will lead you on a rough grass track to the rest of the site where you can explore the iron ore sheds and the cavernous charcoal sheds which are easily accessible and offer plenty of nooks and crannies for children to explore.
There are a couple of displays in some of the buildings so it’s not just a collection of empty rooms but even so it won’t take you long to see everything the attraction has to offer and I’d plan no more than an hour for your visit.
That being said, the surrounding area is absolutely stunning and I can say with confidence you’re not going to get bored after your visit to Bonawe.
Two recommendations for nearby attractions can be found a 20-minute drive away on the A85 heading east where the Cruachan visitor centre will let you take a journey deep underground into the heart of the nearby Ben Cruachan mountain.
This is a feat of modern engineering that’s as impressive today as the old ironworks would have been in the 1700s, so if you fancy taking a closer look at the mountain you might like to read my complete guide to Ben Cruachan Dam.
My second recommendation is Kilchurn Castle which sits at the foot of Loch Awe. This ruined castle is impossibly scenic and the views across the loch are nothing short of jaw-dropping so if you can find the time you really should take a look.
Just be aware the boggy ground surrounding the castle is a haven for midges – but at least you can arm yourself beforehand by reading my guide on How to Protect Yourself from Scotland’s Midges.
- What a location! I was blown away by how pretty it is.
- Bonawe furnace is a genuinely interesting glimpse into Scotland’s industrial past.
- Kids will love exploring the nooks and crannies of the old buildings.
- Although there isn’t a café at Bonawe Iron Furnace there are bench seats on the site so take a picnic and enjoy alfresco dining with a magnificent view.
- Visit the nearby Glen Nant National Nature Reserve after you’ve been to Bonawe Iron Furnace if you’re looking for somewhere to take a good walk.
- This attraction isn’t far from Oban so you might consider taking a look around another historic place of interest that overlooks Oban harbour. Check out my guide to McCaig’s Tower for details.
Bonawe Iron Furnace,
Click the map for directions
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Bonawe Iron Furnace
- St. Conan’s Kirk. Lochawe, Dalmally PA33 1AQ. 17-minute drive. One of the most beautiful historic buildings in Scotland, in a similar vein to Rosslyn Chapel. This privately-run church is free to enter and welcomes people to view the ornate stone and woodwork carvings.
- Cruachan Visitor Centre. Cruachan Power Station Lochawe, Dalmally PA33 1AN. 12-minute drive. This attraction takes visitors deep inside the ‘hollow mountain’ to marvel at the power station built underground. The visitor centre is set in a great location next to Loch Awe and includes a gift shop and café.
- Ben Cruachan Dam. Dalmally PA33 1AN. 12-minute drive, 40-minute walk. Large man-made dam on the side of Ben Cruachan mountain that powers the Cruachan power station. The walk up the mountainside is easy thanks to the tarmac link road that runs from the A85 to the dam.
- Loch Etive. 5-minute drive. A 20-mile sea loch that exits Scotland’s west coast at Ardmucknish Bay a few miles north of Oban. Loch Etive offers pleasure cruises along its length where passengers can see seal colonies and white-tailed eagles.
- Glen Nant National Nature Reserve. Taynuilt PA35 1JG. 11-minute drive. An expansive forest with a variety of walking trails. The trails range from open woodland that offers elevated views across North Argyll to short gravelled paths suitable for wheelchair users.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- The Highland Wildlife Park – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideSitting in around 260 acres of beautifully managed parkland in the Cairngorms, the Highland Wildlife Park showcases some of the wildlife that can be found in the mountains and wilderness areas of Scotland, as well as several species that are currently endangered in mountainous regions all over the world.
- The Cairngorm Mountain Funicular – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideThe Cairngorm mountain is the UK’s sixth-highest and is well-known for being Scotland’s premier snowsports destination.
- The Glenfinnan Monument – Inverness-shire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Glenfinnan Monument sits at the north-east head of Loch Shiel where it has commanded spectacular views of the Highland landscape since its construction in 1815.
- The Complete Guide to Free Attractions in The HighlandsDiscover the best free attractions in Scotland with my list of free attractions in The Highlands