Yet, few of us have heard of the man
who put together what is generally agreed to have been the first bicycle.
He was a modest, religious Scottish blacksmith who lived, worked and died in
the tiny Scottish parish where he was born.
Kirkpatrick McMillan was born in the parish of Keir about 12 miles
northeast of Dumfies in 1813. He came from a talented family; two of his
brothers were to become quite well-known academics, but Kirkpatrick, or
"Pate" as he was known, developed his talents in a different direction.
From an early age he was always trying to find better ways of carrying out
tasks around his father's blacksmith shop or in the farm. He put together a
crank and pedal to lighten his father's work at the grindstone. Where his
brothers had applied their talents to the world of books, Pate's keen
intelligence was directed toward matters mechanical. Such was the breadth
of his interest that local folk thought him "no' quite right." They could
not understand his desire to constantly improve things; if it worked for
their fathers then it was good enough for them.
After completing his village education, Pate, like his father, became a
blacksmith. His first job was on the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, but
he was soon to set up in the fermtown of Courthill where he was to remain
for the rest of his life.
One day a local gentleman brought his "hobby horse" in for repair. The
hobby horse was similar in looks to what was to become the bicycle, but had
no pedals and the rider propelled himself along with his legs. Pate and his
fellow blacksmith were so intrigued, however, that they built a copy of it.
At first they were happy enough to wheel down the country lanes. But,
eventually, Pate was not content with the design, and, as was his wont,
decided to try to improve on it.
It took him four years of experimentation before he produced his "velocipede." No doubt earlier inventions with the crank pedal in his father's smithy put the thought into his head of applying pedal power to a hobby horse. But, in doing so, he built the world's first bicycle - no one had thought of doing such a thing before.
His "bicycle" had wooden wheels and iron tires with a frame consisting of a wooden bar, forked to carry the rear wheel. The wheels had iron band tires, fitted in place by beating. The velocipede was driven by crank on the rear wheel, turned by swinging rods operated by horizontally rocking pedals. At the front end of the steering wheel, Kirkpatrick placed the carved wooden head of a horse.
During the four years he was developing his new machine, he traveled
through the country lanes of his home district. Indeed, what may be
described as the first major bike journey was from his home to the
neighboring village of Monaive where his sister lived. Usually, however, he
would cycle along the lanes beside Courthill after he had completed a day's
work. He would return at dusk as anxious mothers scurried out to gather in
In 1842, McMillan decided to ride to Glasgow to visit his brother who was the Rector of Hutcheson's Grammar School. It was to prove a sensation. As he approached the village of Gorbals, huge crowds turned out onto the streets, having been forewarned that "the devil on wheels" was coming.
So thick was the crowd that Pate was forced to mount the pavement, where he collided with a small girl who rustled out of a close to see what all the excitement was about. The girl only grazed her leg, but she was so shocked she began to howl. Soon the hapless Pate was surrounded by an angry mob of Gorbals' citizenry. Police constables came to the rescue, but under the urging of some local bailies who were present, young Pate and his machine were taken to the local police station.
It was a highly mortified Kirkpatrick McMillan who made his appearance
in court the next morning, for he was a very religious and moral young man.
His brother was summoned to identify Pate, and a little later Kirkpatrick
stood in front of the magistrate, charged with obstructing the Queen's
Highway and with having driven a "velocipede to the danger of her lieges."
The magistrate had no idea what a velocipede was, and was told that it was a sort of hobby horse propelled by pedals and a crank. Kirkpatrick explained that he had traveled from Old Cumnock to Glasgow in five hours the day before. The magistrate plainly did not believe him, declaring that it was quite impossible for someone to travel 40 miles in that time. He fined Kirkpatrick the sum of five shillings and declared that the highways of Britain had to be kept free of speedsters of his kind. Afterwards, the magistrate mollified his opinions somewhat when he spent an hour with the young inventor examining the velocipede and discussing with him how it worked. It is reported that the magistrate was so impressed that he paid the young man's fine. The local paper, which reported the case in some detail, commented, "This invention will not supersede the railway."
It was a very humbled Kirkpatrick McMillan who made his way back to Courthill. It could have been that one of the aims of his trip to Glasgow had been to publicize his invention. If that was the case, as far as he was concerned it had all gone badly wrong. He had high moral standards, and to return with a criminal record, no matter how trivial, must have been a matter of deep shame to him.
Perhaps he thought it was God's judgment on him for being too proud.
He was, in fact, a man of remarkable modesty. He made no further effort to
capitalize on his invention, and made no objection to those people who asked
if they could make a copy of his machine. Indeed, it was this modesty and
lack of ambition which resulted in the name of Kirkpatrick McMillan being
unknown to the world at large for many years.
Until 1892, it was generally thought the first man to apply a driving
gear to two wheels was a Lesmahagow cooper named Gavin Dalzell. In that
year, the secretary of the Glasgow Cycling Club was working on a paper on
the history of the bicycle. He received a letter from the son of the
Lesmahagow cooper which stated: "As the result of the enquiries you have
made into the question of the earliest inventor of the bicycle or geared
dandy horse, I have no hesitation in frankly admitting that you have proved
that Kirkpatrick McMillan constructed his one before my father constructed
By this time, however, Kirkpatrick McMillan had been dead for 14 years. He died at the age of 65 in the parish where he had lived all his life. Although he died unknown to the world at large, Kirkpatrick McMillan was a well-known person in his own parish. He was very much a "lad o' pairts." In addition to being a skilled blacksmith, he also doubled up as a vet, he could play the harmonium and was well-known at parties for his grand "whistling and fiddling." He also pulled teeth at a time when dentists were not seen in country areas. He obviously took great pride in his dental work, for he kept every tooth he ever pulled in a jar together with the details of their ex-owners and the dates of the extraction. In addition, Kirkpatrick had a good sense of humor, read widely and had a very retentive memory.
Being six feet tall and very athletic, he was also quite popular with
the girls when he was younger. His method of courting was rather unique,
but apparently effective. One day when he was working in one of the "big
hooses" he went into the kitchen and announced to the half-dozen
maidservants who were sitting there, "Is there ony one here that'll make a
guid wife tae me?" Young Elspeth Goldie blushed and said, "I will." They
were married a few moths later. Of their six children, only two were to
survive to adulthood and Elspeth herself was to die in 1865 at the age of
32. Kirkpatrick was to remain a widower for the rest of his life.
Like all lives, his was a mixture of tragedy and fleeting happiness, of passing contentment and sometimes frustration. But, the life of Kirkpatrick McMillan is lit up for us by the extraordinary mixture of inventive genius and personal modesty. A more worldly and sophisticated person would have cashed in on his invention and made himself a household name throughout the world. I suspect, however, that he would have been well-pleased with the words of the Lord-Lieutenant of Dumfries when he unveiled a memorial to Kirkpatrick McMillan at Courthill: "Among the hundreds of cyclists around me today, all of them will agree that the bicycle has made the world a happier place to live in."
This article was taken from the May/June 1999 Highlander Magazine by way of the Clan MacMillan Arizona News Volume 3 Issue 3 May/June 1999
The Devil on Wheels, The Story of Kirkpatrick McMillan by Norrie McLeish