Speakers’ Corner – The Sanctuary of Powdermills

The Sanctuary of Powdermills, Furnace, Argyll

‘You’re so lucky, having a garden like this, so large, so wild.’ 

That’s a statement I’ve heard many times.  If I had £5 for every occasion it has been hurled at me, I’d be rich.  Firstly, it’s not a garden.  It is a protected historical industrial monument with grounds, and we have a house in its shadow.  We own the ten acres of land but have no right to build or develop the property.  If we had, I fear I’d call in the bulldozers and create a housing estate in a moment of madness. Then, I’d be wealthy.

I don’t feel fortunate, and it’s wild because I struggle to maintain it.  Cutting the five acres of grass every other day during the summer is a chore I could do without.  There’s always something that needs to be done: chop this down, cut that back.  The ‘garden’ consumes my day.  Then, don’t get me on about the weeds. In Argyll, they are like Triffids, and I have nightmares stopping them from overrunning the road, paths, and the house.  Two or three days in the spring and summer, I don a pack straight out of an Apollo mission with a suffocating plastic mask and haul 30 litres of organic weed killer to ward off the creeping lurgy.  I stagger, pumping the lever so a spray sprinkles every nook and cranny.  

Lucky, I don’t think so.

I’ve considered letting it go, ‘au naturel’, so to speak.  But my inner demon of wanting order and angular neatness overcomes me.  I like the lawn at the front to resemble Lord’s Cricket Ground.  It’s an indulgence.  I can’t help myself. I’m like a junkie.  I finish a mowing session, and I stand and admire the contrasting stripes of green, planning my next cutting expedition.  My latest fad is creating a circular pattern, which seems to last longer and be more visible from my study. The work can be exhausting, and I’m challenged daily by the compromises of managing the environment as opposed to maintaining a garden.  I wrestle with the ethical question of whether to use weed killer on gravel paths and roadways.  I’ve concluded that there isn’t a monastic nirvana but a circuitous route to the way forward.

Not intervening in the landscape and letting the grounds grow as nature intends is the option I favour.  And, to a certain extent, I’ve allowed this to happen.  When a tree is blown over, it’s left in situ to create a habitat for animals, homes for insects and a haven for hives for Wasps and Bees.  I do cut and maintain grass pathways but leave the rest to grow as it pleases.  However, I’ve had to cut back Brambles this year, as they had started to overrun and browbeat other plants. The ruins of the Gunpowder mill cannot be interfered with in any way.  That’s why trees and bushes are springing out of their vast foundations.  Historic Environment Scotland visits every seven years to ensure this monument to Victorian capitalism remains dilapidated.  To think that’s someone’s job.    Mind you, we haven’t seen someone in five years, so they must have more important things to do. 

Gunpowder was first manufactured here in the 1840s and had all the elements of the Industrial Revolution.  Water was brought from the river Leacainn via a lade into a reservoir that fed into a water wheel, which in turn would have powered the giant mill stones in four chambers, grinding the gunpowder to the correct grist size.  In its heyday, it was an impressive use of natural resources.  At least the gunpowder wasn’t used for weapons. It was used in the local quarries to blast the granite from Ben Leacainn.  The mountain is diminishing every day. Travelling up the A83 from Lochgilphead, I turn away at the sight of the gash that has been extracted out of the mountain, only three-quarters of it to go.  I wonder how many roads and houses must be built until the mountain disappears.

The landscape in Argyll has been exploited and defaced for centuries, and our rather quaint historical relic was, in part, the cause.  Three ingredients were required for making gunpowder: saltpetre, charcoal, and sulphur.  Glasgow needed pavements and houses, and Furnace, Argyll was accessible by sea via Loch Fyne.  It had vast forests of indigenous Oak trees, which were felled at a furious rate to make the Charcoal needed in the process. 

Profits were made, and the local community grew.  However, most locals didn’t share that wealth.  In the 1880s, poverty was evident throughout the Highlands and Islands, no more so than in the crofting communities of nearby Auchindrain.  There had been many unheeded warnings about the safety of storing the volatile explosive close to the village for years.  Then, the inevitable and predictable explosion occurred in 1883.  The Mill Manager was killed by a boulder thrown over 100 yards.  The Mill never re-opened; in any case, TNT had been invented.  Ah, the symmetry of the market. 

There was no replanting scheme for the landscape to replace the tens of thousands of acres of Oaks ravaged from the hillsides of Argyll.  Instead, the calling card was a bald and barren vista.  That was until commercial forestry invaded Argyll in the twentieth century.  Vast, managed woods of Pines were planted.  Not the pines native to these shores but the fast-growing type.  A better investment.  During the 1960s and 1970s, tax breaks were given that encouraged the super-rich to be owners of swathes of unnatural forests throughout Scotland.  This further entrenched the shame that 80% of the land in Scotland is owned by 10% of the population. 

The consequence of developing the timber trade was that, once again, the natural habitat, flora, fauna, and wildlife were disrupted and altered.  As a result, the forests disappear every fifteen to twenty years, and the lunar landscapes emerge, only interrupted by a solitary tree forgotten, left as if abandoned.  They resemble a photograph of the terrain from the Battle of the Somme.  Moreover, these ravaged grounds are susceptible to landslides, as the ongoing saga of the slipping road at ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ is a testament.  However, I prefer to think it’s nature’s way of protesting, of fighting back the only way it can.  Of course, the timber companies counter with the assertion that they plant more trees than they harvest, but that isn’t an altruistic endeavour; it’s for ever-increasing profit.  This consumer cycle never ends, and the natural ecosystem of Argyll is harmed.  How much computer paper, tissues or toilet rolls do we need? 

I climb the steep slope to the vantage point that overlooks Furnace, Loch Fyne, and the Mull of Kintyre in the distance.  I rest and breathe in the curves, colours, and sounds that contrast with the ever-changing cloud cover.  It’s a view that has changed dramatically over the last few centuries.  Now white helicopters dot the skyline promising greener consumption, and fish farms blot the Loch, boats scuttling to and fro harvesting the next salmon for an aperitif for a house in Kensington.  The packing will say ‘Produce of Scotland’, but it’s as natural as Tam O’ Shanters with ginger wigs.  Of course, there must be industry and income, and Argyll has precious little employment apart from tourism, but there must be another way.  This summer, Powdermills experienced its hottest June on record. The grass and plants were scorched brown.  July and August were the wettest on record.  However, we don’t need statistics for evidence. Lived experience tells us we all must change how we live and exploit our planet.

As I gaze out down to the loch, a sea eagle circles, no doubt searching for an escapee from the fish farm in Furnace, and I realise that my cloistered Powdermills are more natural than the view. The main reason is that the previous owners built the house and constructed the grounds around the ruins.  Their vision has matured with age.  They planted over three hundred Oaks and as many Birches, creating an arboretum that nods to indigenous trees but celebrates the eclectic.  The Scots Pine sits beside the Eucalyptus, alongside a Chilean Fire Tree, next to a Willow and an Acer.

The Powdermills landscape has its ecosystem.  From a bog that offers fertility for wildflowers to respite for newts and frogs to a pond that sustains the resident Heron, whom I call vicariously Harriet or Harry, knowing it doesn’t matter if they enjoy freedom, seclusion, and privacy.  There are undoubtedly Deer, Red Squirrels, Pine Martins, Badgers, Foxes, and perhaps Sea Otters, but the dogs ensure I’m kept in the dark.  And that’s the way I like it.  

The birds are more user-friendly, whether it’s their birdsong that wakes in the morning or the nocturnal hoots from the Barn Owls, the rhythmic tapping of woodpeckers, or the playful flights of the swallows entertaining themselves at the expense of the dogs, we’re consumed by the understanding of sentient animal life.  It warms and forces smiles and recognition of something other than us destructive humans.

  It’s time to be politically active, challenge the vested interests, demand changes to our land management, and use the Scottish Parliament to enact laws that guarantee our future.  And if that means we must go it alone, so be it.  Powdermills may be small and insignificant, but it’s unique.  It’s an eco-sanctuary, and I view my job as a landscape guardian. That must be the role of my generation, protectors of the environment and the over-exploitation of the planet.  Perhaps Powdermills shows that change will come if enough individual acts are taken.

As I stated at the outset, I’m not lucky – I’m blessed.