Eastriggs
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon

THEMES & PERSONALITIES

Introduction

Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford


Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

Eastriggs

Eastriggs did not exist until the First World War when a new 'township' was quickly built to house thousands of incoming workers for the vast explosives-making complex known as HM Factory Gretna. The cordite paste that they manufactured was memorably described by the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as 'the Devil's porridge', a phrase adopted as the name for a permanent historical exhibition that is now Eastriggs' sole tourist attraction.


The building of the manufacturing facility and the necessary housing began in 1916. The whole campus was nine miles long, stretching from Dornock in the west to Mossband near Longtown in Cumberland to the east. It had its own internal railway system and was powered by a dedicated electricity generating station. The various stages of production were kept apart to minimise the risk of accidental explosion. Thirty thousand workers descended on the area. 'One of the miracles of present day Britain', Conan Doyle called it, adding that 'only a little more than a year ago...it was a lonely peat bog fringing the sea, with a hinterland of desolate plain, over which the gulls swooped and screamed.'


In many cases alcohol was the only release the workers had from the stress of a hard and dangerous working regime. Prime Minister Lloyd George claimed that drunkenness did more damage to the country than 'all the German submarines put together' and introduced state management of the local and nearby pubs, under which the opening hours were restricted, the potency of the beer was reduced and, in accordance with a 'no treating policy', the buying of rounds was banned.

Another outlet for the workforce was humour. A plant bard wrote the 'Gretna Victory Recipe':

Little drops of solvent,
Little bags of paste,
Little tins of jelly,
Twenty pounds of waste.

Mix it all together,
Press it through a die,
Truck it to a stove bay,
Leave it there to die.

Take it out and blend it,
Send it to the guns,
Pull the blooming trigger,
Strafe the blasted Huns!

Though undertaken with the speed of an emergency (since the country was rapidly running out of ammunition), the housing scheme was properly architected. The government brought in as chief designer Raymond Unwin who had been involved with creating Britain's first 'garden city' at Letchworth in Hertfordshire and with Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. Names from British colonies around the world were used for Eastriggs' new streets and public spaces: Melbourne, Pretoria, Vancouver and so on. Eastriggs now proclaims itself, post-imperially, as the 'Commonwealth Village'.


With the men required for frontline duties, the factory's workforce was composed overwhelmingly of women. This attracted the attention of feminists and suffragettes. The writer Rebecca West visited and recorded her hauntingly vivid impressions in 'The Cordite Makers':

The girls who stand round the great drums in the hut with walls and floor awash look like millers in their caps and dresses of white waterproof, and the bags containing a white substance that lie in the dry ante-room might be sacks of flour. But, in fact, they are filling the drum with gun-cotton to be dried by hot air. And in the next hut, where girls stand round great vats in which steel hands mix the gun-cotton with mineral jelly, might be part of a steam-bakery.
The brown cordite paste itself looks as if it might turn into very pleasant honey-cakes, an inviting appearance that has brought gastritis to more than one unwise worker.
This, in all the world, must be the place where war and grace are closest linked. Without, a strip of garden runs beside the huts, gay with shrubs and formal with a sundial. Within there is a group of girls that composes into so beautiful a picture that one remembers that the most glorious painting in the world, Velasquez's The Weavers, shows women working just like this.

The war effort over, in 1921 the whole of HM Factory Gretna was put up for sale as a single lot. But when World War II came along the Eastriggs facility had to be reactivated as an explosives storage depot. Today that function continues, surrounded by the usual secrecy. In the Scottish Parliament in 2007 an MSP, asking uncontroversially what representations there had been concerning a mooted rail halt for Eastriggs, was given a terse official response: 'One from Dumfries and Galloway Council; the other did not give permission for their response to be made public.'

PLACES

Ae
Amisfield
Annan
Auldgirth
Bankend
Beattock
Bentpath
Brydekirk
Canonbie
Carronbridge
Carrurtherstown
Chapelknowe
Clarencefield
Closeburn
Collin
Cummertrees
Dalswinton
Dalton
Dornock
Dumfries
Duncow
Dunscore
Durisdeer
Eaglesfield
Eastriggs
Ecclefechan
Eskdalemuir
Glencaple
Gretna
Hightae
Holywood
Johnstonebridge
Kettleholm
Kirkconnel
Kirkpatrick Fleming
Kirkton
Kirtlebridge
Langholm
Lochmaben
Lockerbie
Middlebie
Moffat
Moniaive
Mouswald
Newton Wamphray
Parkgate
Penpont
Powfoot
Ruthwell
Sanquhar
Templand
Thornhill
Tinwald
Torthorwald
Tynron
Wanlockhead
Waterbeck

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