A visit to the old Kames Gunpowder Works and Tramway

Mark Bartlett

I had thought that a family holiday in Tighnabruaich would be a railway free week but a conversation with Malcolm Chattwood pointed me towards the nearby site of the Kames Gunpowder Works (and its associated tramway), which is actually in the hamlet of Millhouse.

The works started operation in 1839 and the site was developed around the Craignafeoch Burn on two sites, bisected by what is now the B8000 road, known as the High and Low Mills. Initially water powered steam was later used to supplement this on the site. The various buildings within the sites were mainly connected by numerous spurs from a horse drawn tramway. The wagons used on this are believed to have had brass wheels to prevent sparks. After many years of high quality gunpowder production the works closed in 1921. It has slowly gone back to nature but there is still much to see.

This article is not intended to give a detailed history of the Gunpowder Works, but it is fascinating and there are a number of links below to websites that will provide much more information. The intention is more to describe what is to be seen today at the site and the experience of exploring it.

Ninety seven years after closure has obviously seen much of the site reverting to nature but many of the buildings within the works were built to contain explosions, or at least direct the blast upwards, and so the substantial side walls of many are almost intact. Additionally, the workers cottages and the roadside offices are still in use as private homes and so are in good order.

I actually made two visits to the site but the first was without a map or plan and it was difficult to interpret the physical remains. However, a second visit the following day with extracts from the 1895 6-inch series map was much more productive.

Kames Mills north site

The High Mills site, to the north of the road, is not particularly overgrown but most of it is fenced off and inaccessible. However, just inside the gate the tramway ran northwards and two wooden sleepers are still embedded in the old trackbed.

A single tramline linked the High and Low sites via a level crossing over the road.

The Lower Mills

An open area in the middle of the south site now contains the local cemetery but most of the rest of this area is untouched and the widely separated (for safety purposes) buildings are dotted about the trees. Good footwear is needed to go exploring and there are plenty of trip hazards around so be careful.

At the point where the tramway from the High Mills entered it almost immediately crossed the burn on a stone bridge, the abutments of which are still in place.

Beyond the bridge it climbed gently south eastwards to the point where the cemetery access road is now and then curved downhill to stream level.

Several spur lines went off to buildings (which still survive) at various points, and some of these lines can still be made out. However, what appears to be a trackbed dropping down the hill to the watermill is shown by the map to be the old mill race and not a tramway.

The mill itself can be viewed from the cemetery above. One leg of the tramway ran in front of the mill but then doubled back across the burn to access further buildings.

The low area alongside the stream contains several visible trackbed remains, including a small embankment alongside the Craignafeoch Burn

, and also probably the most interesting piece of infrastructure, namely the metal supports of a tramway bridge over the water

On the map, and on the ground, a lot of the tramways seem to intersect at right angles and so were probably connected by turntables rather than points but nothing of those remain.

This little area of wilderness is very peaceful today, but that belies the dangerous industrial site that operated here. Exact records were not kept but it is believed that between thirty and forty workers died here in various incidents and there is a memorial to them at the cemetery entrance, where other artefacts are also displayed.

Also worthy of mention are the piers at nearby Kames on the western Kyle of Bute.

Output from the Gunpowder works was taken by road to Kames for onward shipping. In between the piers was a Saltpetre works. The piers and works are now in private ownership but can be viewed from nearby roads.

A visit to this old site is well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time if they are in the Tighnabruaich area.

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