Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Cycling Into Fame

Looking Back

Image: archives-pic_cropped.jpg

Looking Back Sept 1939 - Cycling Into Fame

In 1939 we ran this fascinating story about the inventor of the bicycle - a Scottish blacksmith based in Nithsdale.

Cycling Into Fame

The Story of Kirkpatrick Macmillan

By J. Gordon Irving

“Also the above KIRKPATRICK MACMILLAN, who died at Courthill Keir, 26th January 1878, aged 65 years. Inventor of the Bicycle. Also ELIZABETH GORDON GOLDIE, his wife, who died 28th July 1865, aged 32 years.”

Such  is the simple inscription you will see today if you visit Old Keir Churchyard, near Penpont, Dumfriesshire. It commemorates a humble Scots blacksmith, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who constructed and rode the first pedal propelled bicycle exactly one hundred years ago this year.

The First Bicycle

As a young boy, we are told, Macmillan became greatly interested in the work of his father’s smiddy. After a few years’ apprenticeship, he secured a situation in the employment of the Duke of Buccleuch on the neighbouring Drumlanrig estate. It was while working here that Kirkpatrick got the idea to build a new type of velocipede.

Hitherto the only machine in use was the dandy or hobby horse, which the rider propelled by pushing with his feet on the ground. It was necessary, however, to dismount and walk up hills, and the only rests were obtained by free-wheeling down.

Kirkpatrick thought over his plans for several months. There was some way, he felt sure, whereby the dandy horse could be propelled more easily. Then, quite suddenly, an idea came to him. He had already fixed a pedal and crank to his father’s grindstone. Deciding to experiment with this on the dandy horse, Macmillan found it an instant success. He had thus solved the hitherto impossible problem of balancing and propelling a bicycle without touching the ground with his feet.

A Ride To Glasgow

In June 1842, Macmillan made a pioneer trip to Glasgow on his velocipede. Leaving the Courthill smithy in the evening, he reached Old Cumnock just before nightfall. It seems that he knocked at the door of a wayside cottage and asked the woman who answered it for a drink of milk. Thinking him a scissors-to-grind man, she shooed him away, but when she saw him mounting his machine, she called him back. He spent the night with the woman and her husband. Next day he continued his journey to Glasgow. All along the road folk fled in terror when they saw Macmillan and his wooden-iron steed in the distance. The news spread that the Prince of Darkness himself was approaching, and when Kirkpatrick reached Glasgow a large crowd had gathered to see the strange arrival. As he rode into the Gorbals, however, Macmillan had the ill-luck to knock down a small child.

The result was that a few days later, “a gentleman who stated he came from Thornhill in Dumfriesshire, was placed at the Gorbals public bar, charged with riding a velocipede to the obstruction of the passage, and with having, by doing so, thrown over a child. It appeared from his statement that he had on the day previous come all the way from Old Cumnock, a distance of forty miles, bestriding the velocipede, and that he performed the journey in the space of five hours. On reaching the Barony of Gorbals he had gone upon the pavement, and was soon surrounded by a large crowd, attracted by the novelty of the machine. The child who was thrown down had not sustained any injury, and under the circumstances the offender was fined only 5s.”


After this exciting trip to the city Macmillan cycled back home, where he appears to have lived quietly until his death in 1878. A tall, well-built, handsome looking man, the blacksmith-inventor was much respected far and wide. He was always willing to show his bicycle to anyone or to help neighbours construct one of their own. Apparently he practised dentistry in his spare time, for there is one old Dumfriesshire lady still alive who remembers how her mother went to Kirkpatrick Macmillan after a sleepless night of toothache and had the tooth out. It was the custom, she recalls, for everyone in the district to have their teeth drawn at the local smiddy.

In the Disruption of 1843 Macmillan went over to the side of the seceders and worshipped in the Free Church at Virginhall. Today he lies in the family grave in Old Keir Churchyard, in the heart of lovely Nithsdale, while a simple tablet on the wall of the Courthill smithy records that here “the first bicycle was built by the Inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillan, about the year 1840.”

Previous: The Symbol from Amsterdam

Looking Back menu