The location of the Stobs Mills gunpowder works, within a deep cut glen through which the River Gore flows, was a perfect location for an enterprise brought north by two men from Surrey, William Hitchener and John Hunter. The business they sought to begin was Gun Powder manufacture – and here was a perfect spot. (In 1791 they had already been refused in their native Surrey by magistrates who felt they had chosen too dangerous a location, and their skills were perhaps lacking.)
Hunter was a Millwright, Hitchener a farmer with little knowledge of the procedures required for making gunpowder. It was in 1794 that with John Merricks (who was the only one among them who had experience of gunpowder making), they leased land from Vogrie and Arniston Estates to construct their Mill works.It recently became apparent that the presumed title for earliest Gunpowder works in Scotland was not strictly true. Peter G. Vasey in his article ‘The Canonmills Gunpowder Manufactory and a newly discovered Plan by John Adair,’ from the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club (1997) convincingly proves an earlier works in Edinburgh. Financed by Sir Alexander Hope of Kerse and dating to 1696, the venture had failed by 1706 and its assets were being sold off. An even earlier petition for licence to manufacture was received in 1690 by the Scottish Parliament from James Gordon a London Merchant, though it is uncertain this was ever established. It would be perhaps true to say, the Gorebridge Powder Mills were the first truly industrial works in Scotland, and the view of the Ordnance Survey plan from 1854 shows the extent of the works. The extensive works lose John Merricks early on, and he travels only a few miles to found the Hay and Merricks Gunpowder works in Roslin Glen. Safety at the mill is still evident on the landscape, with buildings often surrounded by large earthen banks or recessed into the deep slopes of the glen to protect surrounding buildings from being caught up in a chain reaction of explosions, should one building explode. And blow up they did, with loss of life. In one case (1803) the life of John Hunter himself is lost, along with two workers. The reports from explosions in 1825 and 1827, are useful in identifying structures within the complex. The works continue to supply an increasing demand for powder, ranging from shot for hunting, through (possibly) the military requirements of the Napoleonic Wars and beyond, to more peaceful needs in the increasing industrialisation of Britain. Coal mining, quarrying, road and canal building as well as the advent of railways in the later years all contributed to the initial success of the factory.
By 1865 all the owners and partners are dead, and the Mills appear for sale as a going concern in the Scotsman Newspaper, however, the site is never purchased, and in some respects, this is also due to the Industrial revolution, where the old fashioned Water Mills are being superseded by Steam power (as at Roslin) and the expense of converting these mills to the more modern technology may have been greater than their worth. In 1876, Robert Dundas of Arniston bought Stobmills House and the ruined mill buildings which lay around it. He had most of the buildings demolished to make way for a driveway from the gates at Stobmills through the old gunpowder works to Arniston House. Many trees were planted and some of the ruins left to create a ‘romantic atmosphere’. The land is then given to the local authorities for a new sewage works, which still stands today.For nearly 150 years the site has slowly returned to a natural environment, and the remaining structures and elements needs careful interpretation to explain their past function. However, through the existing historical examination and suggestions of further locations for further study, the fascinating history of this lost industry can live again, and provide insights for the future, covering elements ranging from Geology to industry processes and hydrology technology to environmental issues and wildlife/ecology reclamation.