Ardeer Girls

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd September 2022.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

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” one.

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. [