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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 22, 2022


Ardeer Girls

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I ask members of the public who are leaving the public gallery to do so quietly, because we are about to start the next item of business. Thank you very much indeed.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-04642, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on Ardeer girls take centre stage. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates Cartridge Girls for staging the play, Girls of Cartridge Hut No.7; understands that the play was written by Jack Dickson and directed by Mary McCluskey, with musical direction and arrangement by Hilary Brooks; notes that this ensemble drama charts the history of Nobel / ICI at Ardeer, Stevenston, through the eyes of four girls killed on the site in an industrial accident in 1884; understands that the story is based at Nobels (later ICI) at Ardeer, which first opened in 1872, and employed almost 13,000 people at its peak, and that the story focuses on the young women workers who manufactured sticks of dynamite, beginning with the 1884 explosion that killed 10 women, the youngest being 14; further understands that four of the victims were the women working in Cartridge Hut No.7, Mary and Annie Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachel Allison, who were all blamed for the explosion; congratulates the cast and creative crew for their success in making history come alive, and wishes them all the very best for future productions.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I am honoured to bring this debate to the chamber today, in order—I hope—to continue the good work of playwright Jack Dickson in highlighting the injustice as told in “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7”. I thank colleagues from across the chamber who supported the motion, thereby allowing us to take the girls’ story to the floor of the Scottish Parliament, as well as members who are contributing to the debate today. It is a great pleasure to welcome Jack to the chamber, along with Graeme and Saorsa Cobb, the great-great-nephew and great-great-niece of Mary and Annie Brannan.

If you take a walk around Ardeer peninsula today, you can find yourself surrounded by nature. The western fringe of the peninsula is dominated by 3km of crumbling seawall. The area is well vegetated and supports all manner of plant species. It is peaceful—a place where people walk their dogs, take their children to explore and generally enjoy the outdoors.

However, in 1884, among the sand dunes and natural beauty was the largest explosive manufacturing plant in the world—Nobel’s Explosives Company—which was built by the inventor of dynamite and, latterly, of the peace prize, Alfred Nobel. It is also where the story begins and ends for four young girls who would be wrongly blamed not only for their own deaths but for those of six other colleagues—sisters Anne and Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachel Allison. Those four girls were part of the exclusively young and female group of workers who manufactured the sticks of dynamite at the plant, and whose ages started at 14 years old.

After learning about the tragedy, Jack Dickson was inspired to create the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7” to right a wrong and get some justice for the girls. The storytelling—along with the dramatic displays by the cast, help from the girls’ descendants and local people, the hard work of the crew and funding from Playwrights Studio Scotland and Creative Scotland—gave voices to those four young girls.

What happened? On 9 May 1884, the day after the event, the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald reported the explosion as follows:

“Yesterday morning the works at Stevenston of the Nobels Explosive Co was the scene of a distressing and fatal occurrence. At about twenty minutes to nine o’clock No 7 Cartridge hut blew up. As many of our readers are aware the huts in which the cartridges are made up are scattered among the sand hills a mile or so to the west of the town of Stevenston and a short distance from the beach between Stevenston burn and Irvine harbour. ...

There are usually four girls employed in each of these huts and Mr McRoberts the manager states that yesterday morning fifteen girls in all were employed in them. In No 7 hut, that in which the explosion occurred, the young women employed were; Ann Brannan, Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachael Allison. The last named resided with her parents in Kilwinning and the others were”

residents of Stevenston.

“The force of the explosion was terrific as well may be imagined when it is stated that the huts were supposed to contain two and a half cwt of dynamite each”—

that is 127kg.

“Not a vestige of the hut remains to indicate its former presence and parts of the body of one of the girls was found over the boundary palisade towards the shore and probably not less than 150 yards from the scene of the explosion. ...

In Hut No 5 two girls lost their lives, Mary Ann Peters aged 19, Main St Stevenston and Martha McAllister of Ardeer Square.

In Hut No 6 the killed were Elizabeth Love and Martha Haggerty.

In Hut No 8 two were also burnt to death; Isabella Longridge of Stevenston and Isabella McCall of New Square. In each case death was probably instantaneous, for the huts were not more than 15 feet square.

The injured are Sarah Ann McKane, Jessie Craig, Mary Banks, and Rose Ann Murphy.”

The newspaper report went on:

“The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained. It is just possible that there may have been some larking around amongst the girls and it is probable that some irregularity or other amongst them was committed.”

That explosion was one of the worst industrial accidents to happen at Nobel’s Explosives Company and the girls were getting blamed for it.

The accident investigator’s report, published several months later, concluded that the explosion was actually caused by faulty equipment. The report, buried under other relevant news of the day, details that a handle of one of the machines fell into a box of dynamite causing the accident.

The incident affected not only the families and descendants of those involved but the whole of Stevenston and the surrounding communities, who for generations had, until its closure in 1990, been tied to a single, huge industrial plant. People still remember the extraordinarily large chimneys and yellow smoke, and speak of family members and friends who tell stories of working in the plant.

The memories live on and so should the memory of our four cartridge girls: Anne Brannan, Mary Brannan, Mary McAdam and Rachel Allison. May they rest in power.


Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

I congratulate Ruth Maguire on bringing the debate to the chamber and drawing our attention to Jack Dickson’s play, “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7”. I did not know anything about the cartridge girls, but the play has put a spotlight on them and it is great that that spotlight is being amplified in the Scottish Parliament.

Young women risked their lives every day manufacturing dangerous deadly dynamite. Telling the story of the explosion in 1884 that killed the 10 women and of the terrible injustice of four of those girls being blamed in death for the accident, the play—and the film that went before it, which I found on YouTube—speaks to two issues that interest me greatly: the lack of attention to women’s voices in history and the importance of art in providing a platform for those voices and drawing attention to past injustices.

Having now learned more about the cartridge girls, I thank Ruth Maguire for inviting Graeme and Saorsa to join us in a spirit of commemorating their two great-grand-aunties whose voices were lost—Mary and Annie. I also extend my thanks to Jack Dickson for writing a play that gives a voice to them and an opportunity for the present community to understand their past.

When we talk of dynamite, of course we know about Alfred Nobel the inventor, the Titan of industry, but how often have the people who worked with his dangerous invention ever really been mentioned? They have not been at the forefront of our memory, and history is told by the big figures, striding on stilts over the many stories that can either disappear or be conveniently ignored to avoid the moral questions that they raise.

It could be asked whether the stories of the 10 women who died that day belonged to that latter category. As Ms Maguire has mentioned, Nobel’s Explosives Company had a 100-acre site for its factory in Ardeer, and the only people who were producing sticks of dynamite in those 30 huts were very young women, some of whom were as young as 14—children, in effect.

Again as Ms Maguire mentioned, how the newspaper of the day recorded the tragedy of the 10 deaths was heavily influenced by the trust put in a factory manager’s buck passing and finger pointing. Those four girls had just died, and they could not tell their own story. If we had only written history and no oral history at all, we would have only that short, skewed account of the event—the one that painted the girls in hut number 7 effectively as villains. What was the manager’s suggestion that there had been “larking around” if not deflection and buck passing? It certainly has a great deal of moral dubiety around it.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

I share the member’s commending of Jack Dickson and everyone involved in creating this fantastic play. The point that she is making is important: class exploitation is very much still alive in our present economy. Does she agree that the stories of our forefathers and foremothers that are likely described and articulated in this play can teach us a valuable lesson and make us aware of class exploitation in the current economy?

Gillian Martin

I absolutely agree. When I looked at this particular event, it made me think about all the other industrial accidents that we have had—even in more recent times—in which people have tried to blame others. What happened with Piper Alpha, in my area, is a classic example of people initially being blamed until the truth came out.

The play is about an industry that affected thousands of working women and which was such an integral part of the region’s social fabric. As Paul Sweeney has alluded to, it is a story that anyone can relate to, regardless of where they are from. The stories of working women—and working-class women—and their lives, be they in the fish markets of Aberdeen, the textile mills of Bute and Dundee or the munitions factory of Clydebank all need to be told.

I am not from the area that Ruth Maguire has been talking about—Ardeer and the Irvine area—but I am pleased to have joined everyone today and to have this opportunity to talk about the importance of working women’s history and the theatre as a way of shining a light on it. Thank you very much for telling the story of the cartridge girls.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this members’ business debate to the chamber. It is a real privilege and a pleasure to contribute to it, especially with members of the community in the public gallery.

I also thank Ms Maguire for raising awareness of two things: the event itself, given the time that has passed since the tragedy; and, more important, the telling of the story through the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7”. Interestingly, it is described as a play with songs rather than just a play or indeed a musical. Although it details a tragic event from 1884—the explosion hitherto mentioned, which tragically killed 10 young women—the play, I think, actually does a number of things that I will develop in my comments.

What struck me the most is that, despite the cause of the explosion not being immediately clear at the time, a particular narrative was painted very quickly in the days after. The Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald—a newspaper that, I am glad to say, still exists and in which I have a column—expressed the matter in concerning ways. It said:

“The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained. It is just possible that there may have been some larking around amongst the girls and it is probable that some irregularity”—

whatever that means—

“or other amongst them was committed.”

That really pins the blame on these poor young women—indeed, children, as Gillian Martin pointed out. I would like to think that, these days, the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald would not report things in that way and jump to such conclusions, but it is clear that the false accusations coming from the factory’s management were completely an effort to deflect blame. Indeed, the matter was put to bed by the accident investigator’s report, which later revealed the real cause of the explosion to be faulty equipment. That sort of thing can be put down to a number of factors but, as is often the case, when something is said in public, it is believed and it is then very hard to rewrite history.

The names of the young victims had never really been cleared, which is why Jack Dickson wanted to restore the reputations of the young women and give them a voice. They died tragically, through no fault of their own, and have no voice to defend themselves. However, their voice has been restored, which has been done so well. We should commend Jack for that, and not just for that. Putting on such a play is not easy at the best of times but, as with so many events in the theatre and arts over the past two years, it had to be postponed because of the pandemic. It has not been easy to produce anything. However, despite all the hurdles, Jack finally had the chance to put on his play at Ardeer community centre earlier this year.

The play had to have two components. First, the story of the victims had to be told, with a particular focus on their personalities and their lives before the accident. People are often defined by the tragedies with which their names are associated, and it is easy to forget that they were individuals who had lives up until that point.

Secondly, the play had to be firmly rooted in the local community. The Nobel factory, which later became ICI, was a major part of local life, employing 13,000 people at its peak, and was a fundamental part of the community’s economic development and daily routine for generations. The community still lives in the shadow of the business. By hosting the play in Ardeer community centre and performing it in local schools, the memory of ICI has been reawakened or brought alive to a whole new generation of young people in Ayrshire.

Reviews of the play have been really positive. The Irvine Herald reported that the production team

“put on a brilliant show with well-timed mood lighting and spine tingling sound effects”.

The best review that I found was from local resident Doris Robertson, who said:

“Very professional and totally absorbing storytelling of these remarkable girls.”

“Remarkable” is certainly the word to use, and that is a ringing endorsement if ever there was one.

I am sorry that I did not see the play, but I am sure that members will all agree that the hard work of writer Jack Dickson, director Mary McCluskey, and composer Hilary Brooks, as well as the amazing and dedicated cast and team of volunteers, has brought to life this important story. We congratulate them on their success and thank them for their work. I hope that these young girls have had their voice fully restored and have been exonerated today in the Scottish Parliament.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing the debate and to congratulate and thank Jack Dickson, who I understand is a good comrade, for the research that has been involved in what is a chronicling of working-class history, for bringing the story to the Parliament and documenting the exploitative working conditions that existed in the plant and, unfortunately, in many workplaces throughout Ayrshire and Scotland where there was brutal and grinding poverty. The health and safety concerns that existed then are, thankfully, more serious than those that exist today but, as members have said, health and safety remains a significant problem in many workplaces.

As Jamie Greene said, it was very much a case of guilty until proved innocent. I imagine that the work that has been done through the play has been welcomed by families and local communities, and I am pleased that some family members have been able to come to the Parliament today. It is important that we remember the tragic story of the deaths of these girls and women.

We must understand the important role that the Ardeer factory had in the North Ayrshire community. As has been said, it was reputed to be the largest explosives factory in the world and, at its height, 13,000 people were employed there. Many people in North Ayrshire either are former employees or know people who were. It is very much something that is still spoken about.

There has been an impact on the community, not just in the three towns but all over North Ayrshire, where works buses travelled in, bringing workers to the site. There are now only a few hundred workers at the Chemring site, which still produces ammunition, and there is no doubt that the loss of the workplace is still being felt in the three towns and beyond. Indeed, the closure of other large employers such as the Glengarnock steel plant, and the closure of the mines in the 1980s are still being felt throughout Ayrshire.

Working-class communities have a mixed story to tell. Massive employers that brought much wealth—not necessarily to the individual workers, but to Scotland as a whole—have gone, and that has created massive challenges. It is important that we remember and understand the brutal conditions in which people worked. The conditions at Ardeer and in many places of employment in the 1880s were appalling. It was only through the struggle of working-class communities and the creation of the trade union movement that that began to change.

The story is one of individuals involved in struggle and having to face exploitation. The story of the explosion, which killed 10 women, one of whom was only 14, would not have been heard if it was not for those who did the research, documented the evidence, listened to the oral stories that still exist, and put together the piece of work that we are discussing.

I congratulate all involved in the production. Those stories need to be heard. We need to learn the lessons of the past, recognise what we have been through, and understand what that means for us today in respect of the values of our society and what kind of society we want to live in. We must recognise the changes that have been made, which mean, I hope, that disasters on such a scale will not happen again, and we must recognise that the only way in which we will ensure that that happens is through understanding our history and fighting to ensure that we listen to the lessons and value the lives of all in society. For that reason, I am pleased to have contributed to the debate and to congratulate all those who have brought the issue before us.


The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

I congratulate my colleague Ruth Maguire on lodging the motion, securing the debate this afternoon, setting out so vividly the tragedy and injustice that the play is based on and supporting her community in bringing the issue to life. I also thank the speakers—Gillian Martin, Jamie Greene, Katy Clark and Paul Sweeney via an intervention—for their valuable and interesting contributions.

Today, we commemorate 150 years of the Nobel’s Explosives Company on the Ardeer peninsula at Stevenston in North Ayrshire. We also celebrate the power of the performing arts to bring to life important and largely forgotten historical events for modern audiences.

Alfred Nobel established the British dynamite factory at Ardeer in 1871. It was the first factory of that type in the United Kingdom, and it became the largest explosives factory in the world. It was believed to have employed around 13,000 people from the local area at its peak, which made it the largest employer. Its success contributed to the increased fortunes of the Ayrshire towns of Stevenston, Irvine, Saltcoats and Ardrossan. The factory developed a wide range of high explosives that revolutionised the mining and engineering industries, provided essential minerals and raw materials, and assisted in the development of harbours, canals, railways, roads and water and electricity supplies.

By the 1990s, Ardeer’s fortunes had declined, accelerated by the demise of the British deep-coal mining industry. Changing patterns in international trade and competition led to the closure of most of the factory. Today, little—if anything—remains of the original 1871 factory.

This debate celebrates the play “The Girls of Cartridge Hut No 7” by Cartridge Girls, which shines a light on an industrial accident at the Nobel explosives factory in Ardeer in 1884. That tragic event took the lives of 10 young women and girls, one of whom was as young as 14 years of age. They were involved in making dynamite cartridges for blasting purposes. The play focuses on the four girls in cartridge hut number 7 who were killed.

Today, we honour the ultimate sacrifices that Mary McAdam, Rachel Allison and sisters Mary and Annie Brannan made while working at Nobel’s factory so many years ago, as well as the sacrifices that were made by the others who Ruth Maguire mentioned in her speech. Mary Brannan and Rachel Allison were 18; Annie Brannan and Mary McAdam were 20. That was the age at which many girls at that time were likely to marry, at which time they would be required to leave the factory.

Young unmarried girls and women were employed in preference to men and boys, apparently due to their speed in learning the job and for their manual dexterity in handling such volatile materials. It is on the record from that time that—incredibly—they apparently asked for lower wages than men and boys. They were paid at piece-work rates and a good full-time female worker could earn 15 shillings a week in the 1880s.

No such devastating workplace accident of the type had ever happened before in Scotland or the United Kingdom. Protecting the safety and wellbeing of staff at work and closing the gender pay gap clearly remain priorities for us and for employers today.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I beg members’ indulgence as I am about to make a long intervention.

I was not a cartridge hut girl, but I worked in Ardeer. I was there for a year as part of my degree and I worked at the Nobel site. I remember it well. I have been sitting here thinking about all the things that I could not take into the workplace, such as phones, hair clasps and jewellery. I had to change almost my entire appearance before walking into the site. The health and safety message was very strong at that time.

I have been absolutely enthralled by the debate, and I thank Jack Dickson for his work.

I also remember that one of the final innovations at Ardeer was on safety detonators, which would have made mining much safer because they would have prevented some accidental detonations. I was struck at the time by the fact that that product did not really take off because, in areas of the world outside the UK, workers’ safety was not considered to be a priority in mining. Although we know that things have improved here, we have a sense of international solidarity and cannot fail to recognise that safety in other parts of the world is as bad as, if not worse than, some of the conditions that we had here.

Jack Dickson’s play and the work that has been done in the community show that we can never take safety for granted. The Piper Alpha disaster has been mentioned. We must never take for granted the strides that have been taken to make workplaces safer. I am the convener of the cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness and I would not want to say anything other than how important it is to value workers’ safety and to strive to make workplaces safer. [Applause.]

Neil Gray

It is entirely appropriate that that intervention was given the applause that we just heard from the gallery. Thank you for your indulgence, Presiding Officer, which allowed us to hear a fantastic insight into work at the factory and also allowed us to compare and contrast the environment that the girls were sadly forced to endure with more modern practices. I commend Clare Adamson for her work on health and safety. She is right in saying that we should not take those practices for granted but must continue to ensure that we do all that we can to make employment as safe as possible.

The play draws on historical sources from the time, as well as on more recent consultation with the community. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Explosives from that time states that the work by the girls and women in the cartridge huts was much sought after in the neighbourhood and that the

“occupation is a healthy … and clean”


Like the other first-hand testimony that has been quoted today, that should make us at least raise an eyebrow as we think of the more modern view of workers’ rights and gender equality.

The inspector went on to say:

“Nitro-glycerine is poisonous, a person handling it for the first time is likely to have severe headaches with violent sickness, but after the system has become saturated with the poison it may be handled without any apparent ill effects. Indeed, the girls employed in the factory have better complexions and are more healthy generally than those in the district who are not so employed.”


He also said:

“as a matter of fact, the girls employed in the huts were in the habit of ‘skylarking’ when the foreman’s back was turned, and that it was found very difficult to prevent this practice”.

The report recommended improved supervision of the girls and absolved the employers of any culpability for the explosion, thereby compounding the injustice and tragedy by scapegoating of the girls. The report went on to say:

“Whether the fall of a machine, or the fracture and fall of a lever-handle, or (as I consider improbable) some other cause, such as a temporary defect in the working of a machine, be the real explanation of this disaster it does not appear that any blame can be attached to Nobel’s Explosives Company”

It continued:

“How far one of the girls was to blame for the present accident from the rough or improper use of her machine is a matter for conjecture only, and as all in the hut were killed it is unnecessary for me to pursue further that part of the question. ”

During the development of the play, women who worked at the factory long after the tragedy of 1884 reported on the youthful exuberance and camaraderie of the girls and women at the factory. They revelled in singing along to the radio at high volume on night shifts, while also handling high-risk materials. Therefore, it is fitting that the play uses theatre and music to bring to life in technicolour and song the realities of those people’s hazardous working lives.

The oral testimony of our economic, industrial and social history is invaluable. It brings stories that need to be told to new generations and audiences. Written by Jack Dickson and directed by Mary McCluskey, with musical direction and arrangement by Hilary Brooks, the play features a cast of professional and amateur actors. I pay tribute to the strong community involvement at the heart of this production.

I am pleased that Creative Scotland provided support for the development of the production in consultation with, for and in the local community. The play was performed in May in the Ardeer community centre to enthusiastic audiences and excellent reviews. Audience members have commented on the professionalism of the cast and how moving and well researched the play is. About 2,000 people attended the 10 performances, which took place over five days.

More recently, Jack Dickson took part in an event at North Ayrshire’s annual book festival, Tidelines, in Irvine. At the event last week, he spoke about what inspired him to write the play, why local stories of that kind matter to him and why capturing the stories is so critical.

While researching the play, Jack Dickson realised that there was a large interest among the local communities and people from further afield who had a connection to the area. Jack also produced a very popular video called “Shifting Sands”, which examined the past, present and future of the Ardeer peninsula. It has been viewed more than 10,000 times.

Such was the reach of the play, family members of the young girls at the centre of the play contacted Jack Dickson to share what they knew of their ancestors. They agreed to have their stories recorded, and those recordings are now deposited in North Ayrshire Council’s heritage archive, where they will be preserved for future generations. I very much welcome the living descendants of the girls, Graeme and Saorsa, who are here today, along with Jack Dickson and others from the Ardeer community.

I extend my warmest congratulations to everyone who was involved in the production for creating and staging this pivotal story. I also thank everyone who has taken part in today’s debate. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, minister. I am very pleased—as I am sure that we all are—to see our guests in the gallery, but I need to say that, as a matter of form, you are not allowed to clap. However, the deed has been done. That concludes the debate.

13:23 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—