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Gunpowder and Guy Fawkes - Millhouse's explosive past

Gunpowder and Guy Fawkes - Millhouse's explosive past
Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot! We all know those famous lines, but did you know that Argyll was once famous for high grade black gunpowder and that Millhouse was home to a thriving gunpowder mill?

It’s a fascinating story. Production at Millhouse started in 1839 and ran until 1921, influencing the lives of several generations of local families. At its peak, the Mill comprised around 40 buildings in total, divided by the Craignafeaoch Burn into the High and Low Mills. And can you guess why the mill was located in such a lovely wooded glen? So the trees would provide protection from a blast, absorbing some of the explosion. The gable ends of the workers’ cottages didn’t have any windows for the same reason.

The essential ingredients of gunpowder are saltpetre, charcoal and Sulphur, all of which had to be brought in by sea. The Mill had its own pier at Kames where supplies were brought in, initially by sailing ships and then by puffers with names such as Moonlight, Starlight, Skylight and Twilight. The conversion of these raw materials into gunpowder required ten separate processing stages each accommodated in specially constructed buildings that were dispersed around the grounds to minimize the risk of explosion spreading from one building to another. Trees were planted between the buildings for further protection.

Goods were ferried around the works by horse-drawn cart using a small gauge railway system, evidence of which can still be see in the woods today. Craignafeoch Burn provided the water for the High Mills and was dammed 3km to the north creating two artificial lochs. Water for Low Mills was drawn from nearby Loch Ascog. Steam power was also used in the mills, with references to the use of steam recorded as early as 1855.

The Mill Road was lined with cottages, many of which are renovated today, and a clock was mounted in the gable end of the manager's cottage next to to the timekeeping bell. This was known as the Dolphin Bell, as it was mounted in a cast iron frame made in the form of two dolphins. The bell has been restored and re-erected at the cemetery as a memorial to the workers killed in explosions at the works. It was a risky business, and it’s estimated that 40 people lost their lives working at the Gunpowder Mill.

Much of the gunpowder manufactured was exported to New Zealand on deep sea sailing vessels. These ships anchored near the Bute shore and smaller boats had to ferry the gunpowder out to them. One steamer, owned by the Gunpowder works, was aptly named Guy Fawkes!

So this Bonfire Night, before heading to the Kames Hotel for fireworks, why visit Millhouse and find out more about this fascinating piece of gunpowder history her eon Argyll’s Secret Coast.

Much of this information was taking from Kennedy J McConnell’s account ‘The People of the Powder Mill’.

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