Kames Gunpowder Mill

I first stumbled upon the existence of the Kames Gunpowder Works quite by accident. During my third year at university, I had the opportunity to spend some time with friends who had recently moved from their tenement flat in Glasgow to a waterfront bungalow at Port Driseach. At the time, I was struggling to come up with a topic for my undergraduate dissertation on the economic history of Scotland and thought the fresh air and long walks Cowal’s secret coast could offer would help me clear my mind and allow me to focus on the task at hand.

My studies had touched on the Highland Clearances and emigration and the industrialisation of the Lowlands, particularly the growth of heavy industries on the Clyde, and I knew I wanted to find, research and write about a rural Highland community that bucked the trend because I believed that interest lies in differences: as Malcolm Muggeridge once famously said: “Only dead fish swim with the stream”. The challenge I faced, though, was finding a suitable community.

Now, I was never a stranger to Kilfinan and the Kyles of Bute. I am from Rothesay myself, and I spent a lot of time during school holidays sitting in my dad’s dark green Post Office Telephones van as he made his way up and around the narrow roads tracking down and repairing faults in underground and overhead cables. During these excursions, I developed an appreciation for the part of Kilfinan known as Kerry, which now includes the settlements of Millhouse, Kames, Auchenlochan, Tighnabruaich and Port Driseach. I was enchanted by the brooding calm of the Cowal coast with its green and blue views across the Kyles to the north end of Bute, the imponent Victorian villas of Tighnabruaich and the more modest houses and cottages of Auchenlochan and Kames with its sloping shinty field, and the desolate brown moorland separating the coast from Millhouse, which seems to stand sentinel over the wildlands beyond towards Portavadie and Meldalloch.

Sitting in my friend’s bungalow one evening, we poured ourselves some whisky and pored over Ordnance Survey maps to decide where to explore the next day. We read about an abandoned fermtoun buried deep in the bracken past the ancient Atlantic oak forest at Glenan and the probably apocryphal account of Glenan’s last resident hanging himself from a tree rather than being forced to leave the only home he had ever known. Wheels started turning in my head: I wanted to tell a tale of a community that “swam against the stream”, and it suddenly dawned on me I was sitting in just such a place. Kilfinan was a Highland parish that experienced the same depopulation pressures as other Highland parishes. Yet, during the 19th century, it was transformed with the raising of large stone villas along the coast and the erection of steamer piers to establish a direct link with the industrial lowlands.

Once I returned to Glasgow, I set about researching, which was when I first found out about the Kames Gunpowder Mill. During the early 19th century, the local landowners were struggling to make any money out of their largely marginal properties, placing pressure on the communities that lived there as they sought to introduce agricultural improvements. In the late 1830s, two businessmen approached Archibald James Lamont of Lamont and pitched him an idea that was to transform Kerry of Kilfinan. The two businessmen were Thomas Gray Buchanan of Glasgow and John Macallum, who had been born at Auchrossan Farm in 1800. What they wanted from Lamont was a lease for the moorland that stretched between Auchgoyle Farm and Millhouse and for some land at the shore at Kames, upon which they proposed to erect buildings and construct a steamer quay. A deal was struck, and in 1839 the Kames Gunpowder Company began production.

Kames

The powder mill was set up in Kerry for a number of reasons, the main ones being its remoteness, the availability of cheap unskilled labour, a reliable water supply, low rents and its ready access to the sea from where raw materials and finished goods could be transported. The fact that Macallum was a native of the parish, with the local knowledge that implies, will also certainly have figured in the decision.

While negotiations over the mill were being conducted, the road trustees debated where best to build a quay and how best to link it with the main road from Kilfinan to Ardlamont. The main protagonist in this debate seems to have been Lamont, who in 1838 took out an interdict preventing the road trustees from building on his land. However, in 1839, once the establishment of the powder mill was certain, Lamont completed what became known as the “Black Road” himself, providing the missing link from Kames Farm to the shore. As a result, the trustees confirmed their decision of July 1832 to build a stone quay at Kames, which Lamont insisted be available to his tenants. The powder mill set about building a quay of its own, the “Black Quay”, to load and unload saltpetre and the finished gunpowder and the buildings required for storing and processing the raw material.

The land on which the mill was constructed was little more than moor and thus of little agricultural value. There is also no record of the initial duration of the lease agreed between the company and Lamont. Nevertheless, the mill quickly established itself as a producer of quality powder, which led its owners to purchase feudal possession of the land in 1850, with the property purchased including an “area occupied by reservoirs on the lands of Craignafioch”, thereby ensuring a ready supply of water to power the machinery.

Given the volatile nature of the product and the need for regular tests of the explosive, it was important for it to be relatively remote. However, this did not negate the essential requirement for a labour force, transportation links and an abundant source of power. Kerry met all these requirements. It had a widely dispersed population and a ready workforce attracted to the idea of a regular wage. It had proven steamer links with the industrial heartland of Scotland and a fairly good connection between the mill and the quay, which was improved with the construction of the new road in 1857, almost half of which was paid for by the mill. Finally, by utilising Craignafioch Burn, it had access to the waters of Asgog Loch and, later, to the reservoir constructed just to the south of Meldalloch Loch.

Not only was the gunpowder mill the largest single industry in Kerry, employing 142 people in 1861 and more than 200 by 1870, but it was also by this latter date the largest gunpowder mill in the whole of Scotland and was largely responsible for the relatively large-scale migration of industrial workers and their families to the area. A substantial minority of those who described themselves as powder workers in 1861 were from England: there were also mechanics, engine smiths and coopers from the Glasgow area. However, migration notwithstanding, the great majority of mill employees were natives of Kilfinan who worked a 57-hour week for regular pay that allowed them to loosen their traditional attachment to the land, thereby enabling the landowners greater scope in their land improvement policies.

A further consequence of the mill’s establishment was an element of internal migration from the traditional centre of the parish, Kilfinan, to Kerry. Perhaps this migration was merely an augmentation of many other factors that contributed to Kerry becoming the most populated part of the parish by 1851. For the first time, Kilfinan had at least two recognisable villages where goods and services could be obtained: Millhouse and Kames, which in 1841 had a combined population of 221, rising to 697 by 1871.

The quay at Kames

While for most of its lifetime the mill was able to produce high-quality powder without much incident, there were occasions when disaster struck – often fatal, sometimes catastrophic and always appalling. It was the nature of the business in the days when safety was rarely a consideration and when people worked very long hours in dreadful conditions, often without breaks while hungry and tired.

Tragedy was no stranger to the mill at Kames. The first recorded fatal accident was in 1842 when two men were killed in an explosion. On 5 August 1846, the powder in the corning house, where the powder was sieved, suddenly exploded, killing seven men, whose “mutilated remains were found scattered at a great distance”, with the explosion being heard as far away as Inveraray. Three years later, the powder mill’s steamer, the appropriately named Guy Fawkes, struck the Paddle Steamer Marquis of Stafford near Gourock, resulting in the death of Archibald Maclachlan, a crewman on the Guy Fawkes. More tragedy struck on 20 April 1854 when two men were killed in an explosion in the mixing room, with the added tragedy that it was but “a few years since a similar explosion took place here when the father of the person who was killed outright on this occasion was blown to pieces”. More fatal accidents happened: on New Year’s Day 1857, four men died in an explosion, then on 25 May 1858, five men and one boy lost their lives. On 3 December 1863, the corning house was struck by lightning, causing it and several other buildings to explode, costing the lives of seven men. It is said this explosion was heard in Rothesay and Dunoon.

The most notable tragedy at the mill, however, took place on the morning of Friday 11 March 1870 when the half-ton of powder stored in the wooden press house exploded, shattering the building to pieces and destroying two neighbouring grinding mills and igniting the powder inside them, killing four men and a 14-year-old boy who was standing outside the door to the press house loading tubs onto a cart to be transported to the Black Quay. The bodies of the four men – Alex McGlashan, John Carswell, Duncan McPherson and Hugh Stewart – the boy – George Smith – and the cart horse were blown to some distance and their limbs scattered far and wide. The driver of the cart had a miraculous escape, as he had left the cart to run an errand elsewhere in the works, only returning to his post after the explosion. Contemporary newspaper reports describe the discovery and condition of the bodies in visceral detail, explaining the difficulty faced in identifying the remains. The explosion was described as being so powerful that 20-inch square beams and rock were sent careering through the air for hundreds of yards, with one projectile landing in a field next to a ploughman, creating a six-inch deep furrow that extended for a length of 20 feet. Houses for miles around were shaken and damaged, and the explosion was heard in Rothesay, to where the West Highland mail steamer, the Pioneer, was dispatched with all haste to seek help.

However, this was not the end of the matter. In a rather unexpected development in August 1870, Duncan Macullich, procurator fiscal for Argyllshire, prosecuted the mill’s owner, John Macallum, and manager, William Sealy, for storing 455lb more powder than legally permitted in the press house. The court found the defendants guilty and fined them £20 each with £3 7s. 6d. costs and declared the excess gunpowder forfeit. The defendants immediately appealed, with the case appearing before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh on 31 October 1870, where the Lord Justice General, the Justice Clerk and Lords Cowan, Dens, Ardmillan, Neaves and Jerviswood upheld the ruling of the lower court.

Kames Gunpowder Works
Kames Gunpowder Works

While the mill continued manufacturing gunpowder during the First World War, falling demand led its new owners, the Nobel Gunpowder Company, to close it down in 1921. However, in a ghastly final twist of fate, John McGilp, who was dismantling machinery in the mill, was killed when a spark from his hammer ignited powder that had accumulated under the floor.

In 1926, a fish curing company from Aberdeen was so impressed by the success of the herring fishing on nearby Loch Fyne that it purchased the former saltpetre works on the shore at Kames with the intention of establishing a curing station there. Unfortunately, little is known of this project, which may perhaps reveal yet another part of the history of Argyll’s secret coast.

And what about the remains of the mill today? Well, while a lot of the site is now overgrown, its physical mark on the countryside is there for all to see. From the Black Road linking Kames to the heart of the parish at Kilfinan and the road that continues along the shore, past the shinty field and on towards Caladh, past the piers that brought the wealthy tourists and homeowners to this northern shore of the Kyles of Bute. The mill owner’s lodge, saltpetre stores and the Black Quay are still there and used for other purposes. In the hollow across the road from the Mill Cottages, many of which are now available as holiday lets on Airbnb, one can find the skeletons of many of the buildings in which the saltpetre was turned into black powder, there you can also see the remains of the tramlines along which the product was moved through the mill as it completed its journey on the manufacturing process. One can also see the channel along which water flowed from the Craignafioch Burn to power the machinery and in which men cowered for their lives during the occasional explosions. The most instantly recognisable remnant and a reminder of the significance of the tragic and fortunate legacy of this important site is perhaps not the road, the quay or the roofless and overgrown remains of buildings and tramways, but the more prosaic symbols of the mill bell, known as the Dolphin Bell, which stands ready to call time at the entrance to Millhouse Cemetery, the small rusted mortar that was used to test the power of the explosives and, most important of all, the plaque containing the names of all those whose lives were cut short while working at the mill.

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