“Picture to yourself everlasting bleak. Sand dunes with no buildings..it is a sand desert where the wind always blows, often howls, filling the ears with sand. Between us and America, there is nothing but water …a sea whose mighty waves are always raging and foaming. Now you will have some idea of the place where I am living. Without work the place would be intolerable.”
Alfred Nobel, ‘The Merchant of Death’, Ardeer, Scotland, 1871
Ardeer Island on the West Coast of Scotland is one of many lost over the centuries to the endlessly shifting and changing course of rivers and sand.
The River Garnock, which once separated the island from the mainland, has changed its path to the sea many times. Local folklore tells of a curse placed on the river by the 7th century St Winning, whose monks could not take fish from the river. The river avoided the curse by turning inland, and by the 19th century, Ardeer Island had become a peninsula.
Remote, but with direct access to the sea, the site was the perfect location for what would become the largest explosives factory in the world, the British Dynamite Factory. Opened in 1871 by Alfred Nobel, the site occupied 100 acres of land, producing dynamite as well as blasting explosives for the mining industry.
During the First and Second World Wars the site produced explosives used by the UK Military to fight Germany, its workforce growing at one point to 13,000 people. In hundreds of bunkers, and in two shifts, the factory workers, largely women, toiled in difficult and dangerous conditions to produce nitroglycerine. Hundreds would die in violent explosions, but the trains kept bringing workers to the site to continue the work. By wars end, the site had its own community with a bank, dentist, shops, as well as weapons test facilities, explosive laboratories, power stations, a train station, and a harbour for merchant ships.
Post-war the fortunes of the site declined rapidly in a world that had developed new, much deadlier weapons. The local community felt the effects of large-scale unemployment.
Today the site is largely abandoned, with hundreds of concrete buildings slowly collapsing into the sand, or completely overgrown by trees in Black Powder Forest. The Ardeer has become a wilderness, home to roe deer, countless species of rare insects and birds, and as nature reclaims it, has become a haven for wildlife.
This project is an attempt made over a decade to document the site, a place I explored as a teenager, and subsequently got to know well as an adult. It once employed my grandfather as a joiner, and generations of friends families spent their working lives within ‘The Factory’ or ‘The Dynamite’ as it was known by locals. – Alex Boyd, June 2020
Find out more about Alex Boyd here.