West Calder's Gunpowder Plot 

Article in the Konect Directory, West Calder edition, December 2009

As you wander through the woods near Harburn, it’s hard to imagine that this peaceful spot, nestled in a low-lying area next to Camilty water, used to be a busy  and siginificant gunpowder works, with employees and vehicles coming and going - not to mention frequent explosions!

Camilty Gunpowder Works supplied the coal and shale mining industries with gunpowder from around 1890 to 1930.  Shale in particular is very hard, too hard to be mined with picks, so gunpowder was essential. The Camilty works was originally owned by the Midlothian Gunpowder Company, and the site changed hands several times over the years, eventually ending up in the hands of ICI until being shut down in 1930.

The site was converted from a corn mill, and was ideally suited for a gunpowder works for several reasons:  its isolated position meant that there was no settlement nearby to be harmed by explosions; the steep banks would absorb the force of explosions and provide a higher area for office buildings; and Camilty Water was close by in case of fire.  The company also built six houses for employees at Park View, but other employees had to walk from West Calder.

Explosions were not unusual and people in the area were used to hearing them.  It was not unlike living in an earthquake zone in some ways! An explosion in June 1909, for example, shook furniture and windows in West Calder, and the concussion was felt as far away as Cartairs in the West and Currie in the East.  There was just one fatal accident, in 1921, where two employees lost their lives in an explosion.

The ingredients for the gunpower were mixed and ground in ‘‘danger buildings’’ - a series of bays with walls 2ft thick, surrounded by earthern mounds as high as the eaves and with flimsy wooden roofs, so that any explosion would be contained within one compartment and the roof blown out.  Remains of various works buildings can be seen at the site today.

All information for this article is taken from the book ‘‘Camilty Gunpower Works’’ by Sybil Cavanagh, published by the West Lothian Local History Library.  The book contains many more details and pictures, and copies are available for £2 from the library.