Drawing definitive conclusions on the first manufactory of gunpowder (or black powder) in Scotland is laden with tantalising snippets of the lost industry. Unfortunately these remnants of evidence often prove inconclusive and leave the researcher trawling through loose and, ultimately, dead ends.
What can be ascertained with relative certainty is that which follows.
There is evidence which suggests that prior to 1630 a patent was granted to manufacture the substance to a largely unknown source as, in that year, a petition to government dealing with the issue outlined that ‘the persone to whome the gift was givin may ather convenientlie and tymnouslie take vpon him the dew performance or otherwayes that this patent be recalled.’ This would seem to suggest that a mill was under producing and that demand was outstripping supply. Further documentary evidence of this work does seem to be unascertainable at this stage.
One anonymous researcher, who the author can in no way verify, suggests that this may have been the Earl of Linlithgow, who in 1628 was granted a patent to manufacture saltpetre – whether he also manufactured powder itself cannot be determined, however his mills were compensated in 1641 when his monopoly of saltpetre was abolished.
Such early conjecture begins to become replaced with more concrete evidence of gunpowder manufacture towards the end of the seventeenth century. On 14th May 1690, a Mr James Gordon, London Merchant, applied to parliament to begin producing gunpowder in the country. In doing so, he petitioned the council for a monopoly on all manufacture and the right to build on any area in the country whereupon it was found that saltpetre was present (in 1638 it had already been concluded that it did not exist in the country).
Come June, Parliament compiled an ‘Act in favour of Mr James Gordon for a Gunpowder Manufactory.’ This Act stated:
‘The committee for controverted elections, having taken into the considerations a memorial in relation to a manufactory of gunpowder remitted to them by parliament, with the proposals given by Mr. Gordon, do approve of the design regard that it will tend to the advantage of the Kingdom.’
The act continues that to safeguard his monopoly, all manufactured barrels would bear his family mark, so as to safeguard against illicit manufacture (which may suggest that such illegal activities were prevalent in Scotland at the time – highlighting gunpowder manufacture that the current day researcher has little way of uncovering). Other positives highlighted by the committee were the employment of the destitute, the potential for export, and the need for the industry within the scope of Scotland’s wider ambitions.
Preserved amongst the warrants of parliament, this would seem to conclusively suggest that Mr. Gordon was at the forefront of manufacture in the country. However, no authoritative signatures are present upon the document, which casts serious doubt as to whether the act was actually passed. Furthermore, as will become evident shortly, no gunpowder mills were considered to exist in the country just 5 years later meaning that either the enterprise started, and failed, or that it failed to begin at all.
If, then, uncertainty surrounds James Gordon’s patent and the conclusion of his appeal, what is certain is the petition, Act and construction of a mill for Sir Alexander Hope of Kerse in 1695. Researchers Whatley, Patrick et al take up the narrative:
‘In 1695, Sir Alexander Hope of Kerse and his partners were granted a nineteen year monopoly of gunpowder production in Scotland [meaning that Gordon either never had or hadn’t still had his own monopoly] – and, for a few years at least, the works appear to have provided for the country’s needs of this once scarce material.’
The Act of 1695 was agreed on July 5th, and, it stipulates, that Hope and his partners ‘…received the privilege of a manufacture with the amplification thereof granted to the Newmills and Linen Companies.’ Alongside the manufacture of gunpowder, alum, an equally scarce commodity, would also be produced. The team, heavily financed by the Edinburgh merchant class, was ordered to be constructed within 2 years.
‘The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish and Irish joint-stock companies to 1720’ provides a further insight into the success and running of the company. Not only was Hope (and his partner James Balfour – leader of the ill-fated Darien Scheme) given a monopoly within Scotland, but foreign import of gunpowder was also prohibited. This, presumably amongst other factors, led to the company cementing a substantial and profitable reputation. In 1702 it was even suggested that ‘the making of powder had been brought to that perfection that no other nation doth exceed it.’ It should therefore be presumed, that the manufacture was not only on a large scale, but that it had developed a recognition nationally and beyond.
Where does this then leave the Stobsmill works? It is with confidence that we can assert that the Gorebridge works were not the first, or probably even the second works in Scotland. It seems likely that local manufacture was widespread – including through illicit channels. However, the examples mention above, while evident to some extent in documentary evidence, lack any physical remnants. Works that do still exist in material form; including Rosslyn and Argyle, are pre-dated by the Stobs powder mills and it could therefore be concluded, with relative confidence, that while not Scotland’s first gunpowder works, or possibly even the first industrial scale gunpowder works, they are the earliest known surviving example of powder manufacture in Scotland.