Ardeer Girls

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

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Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

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, t he 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.