Gunpowder, Empire and old industry…

I took a walk out into the woods with my friend Simon this afternoon. I had been wanting to explore an old overgrown collection of buildings out along Glen Lean for a while. The last time we tried, the heavens opened, but today the sun was shining- until we got there that is, but this time we decided that a little rain should not put us off.

The old buildings were part of the former Argyll Gunpowder works, which operated over 4 sites in the county from around 1840 to 1903.

There is very little information about the Glen Lean site on the web- apart from this entry on Secret Scotland. There is however a good article by Kennedy McConnell summarising the history of one of the other locations where gunpowder was manufactured in this area (near Tighnabruaich on the other side of the peninsular) here.

It tells of a time when Argyll was famous for its manufacture of fine quality gunpowder, which was exported all over the world.

Powder used to blast and shoot our way towards the creation of an Empire.

Here is a quote from McConnell’s article-

The conversion of the raw materials from Kames into gunpowder at Millhouse required ten separate processing stages, each accommodated in a specially constructed building known as a “house”. A detailed description of these processes is outwith the scope of this article, but the names used to identify the various houses were Mixing, Charging, Breaking-down, Pressing, Corning, Dusting, Glazing, Stoving, Heading-up and Packing, These processing houses were widely dispersed throughout the grounds to minimise the risk of an explosion spreading from one building to another. Trees were planted in the intervening spaces for the same reason. Horse drawn bogeys were used to convey the goods around the works, and these ran on a small gauge railway system. The production machinery was driven by water power.

It was a dangerous business. He lists a whole series of accidents and explosions in which as many as nine people died. I think we can assume a similar history in Glen Lean.

The location of these mills was no doubt chosen at least in part because of their remoteness, as well as the availability of water power and raw materials. Whole communities developed that were dependent on the mills for work, and were decimated when we found more efficient ways of blowing each other to kingdom come, and so closed the mills one after the other.

I suppose you could say that this area has continued the tradition of providing the means of causing very large explosions. The Faslane naval base, location of the nuclear submarines, is just across the water from here.

Walking round the old buildings today was a walk through our military-industrial history. They are being swallowed by the encroaching trees, like an Aztec temple in the rain forest.

There has been no attempt locally to make this part of our history known. No footpaths into the site- you will need some serious footwear to get anywhere near it- and certainly no interpretive history boards.

Soon it will all fall into the river below.

The whole thing seems to be to be a poignant visual analogy of Empire. Our former means of producing arms and ammunition have mouldered away. Obscured and forgotten in a forest of new trees.

And much of what we were, I am glad to leave behind.

And yet there is something still that pulls at me with pangs of regret. Memories of a something precious that we might also have lost. A simpler, more idealistic time, where all things seemed possible.

Or perhaps these are constructed memories, projected onto these old walls.

Old ruins like this tend to foster this kind of thinking.

8 thoughts on “Gunpowder, Empire and old industry…

  1. Sorry, but what is a “fine quality gunpowder”? Does it kill more efficiently /accurately / humanely, or is it more reliable than ordinary gunpowder?
    I think its demise in 1903 was inevitable, considering the munitions required for the WW1 killing fields. Your site there resembles a cottage industry when compared with the 10 mile long factory site on the Solway Firth.
    TV advert from 1914 – If I’m going to be killed by the Hun – I’d rather it was done with a – fine quality – gunpowder explosion produced on the wonderfully tree lined glens of the Argyll coast.

    • Hey Simon

      The site is bigger than you would think- but nowhere near a big as the former Royal Ordinance at Chorley. It was a different age.

      I think ‘fine quality’ in this instance is finely ground and packed- to give reliable fire from cannon and musket. Then Nobel and Armstrong came along with ‘gun cotton’ and ‘cordite’ etc- and as you say, the first world war slaughter was inevitable.

      However, I will ensure that the hit man who gets you uses a nice musket ball…



  2. Cheers Steve!

    Lots of people blowing themselves up then?

    I suppose the question is whether sites like this should be preserved- whether we can learn something from them.


  3. During my research into the Capitalist Classes, I once or twice had occasion to visit the Langdale Country Club! This is the remainder of the Gunpowder works there. A good piece of site history interpretation.
    Sorry but you may have to copy and paste the link. I had not considered the Gunpowder link to the slave trade before.

  4. The site was recorded by the Royal Commission in 1984, and in 2007 was measured & photographed and the history recorded. A paper on the subject is available from the Local Studies section of Argyll & Bute Council Library Service.

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