The site of Chapelcross – Scotland’s first nuclear power station, now abandoned

After All: A Scottish tour triggers memories of an enclosed childhood

Image credit: Christine Bohling

Our columnist experiences two (or possibly three) different types of nostalgia while visiting engineering heritage sites in Dumfries & Galloway.

For someone like me, who has spent most of his peripatetic life away from the country of his birth, there exist two distinct types of nostalgia: positive and negative. The former is a bitter-sweet longing for the happy moments of your past; the latter a somewhat darker attraction to (or even a near-obsession with) an environment similar to the one you grew up in – no matter how restrictive, or even sinister, it could have been.

My undying interest in enclosed spaces goes back to my childhood. I spent the first three years of my life in a so-called ‘closed town’ near Moscow, to which my parents, newly married graduates of Kharkiv University (Mum a chemical engineer, Dad a nuclear physicist), were dispatched to work at a top secret Soviet government facility, developing nuclear and hydrogen bombs in the early 1950s. The town of 40,000 people was both unmapped and unnamed (it was referred to as ‘Military Unit BA/48764’, or something similar). A tall concrete fence, topped with barbed wire, was built around the town’s perimeter to make sure that no one could enter or leave without a special pass.

This is probably why I often feel unexpectedly at home on isolated islands, large and small. A strong pang of that ‘negative nostalgia’, experienced during a recent campervan trip to south Scotland, also came as a surprise.

To pick up from the previous ‘After All’, my first reaction to our satnav’s strict verbal instruction to “turn left in 500 metres towards Devil’s Porridge” was that our cantankerous navigation device had somehow learned to swear. That was until I saw a road sign: ‘Devil’s Porridge’ and, propelled by curiosity, steered Alphie, my campervan, in the direction it pointed to – towards Gretna.

Driving past fields, grazing livestock and trees, I kept imagining that I was an armoured medieval knight astride a thoroughbred stallion, who had just eloped with a beautiful maiden (my wife) and was on his way to the nearby village of Gretna on the border with England, where we could quickly formalise our marital union in a special toll-house marriage office – a long-time attraction for eloping couples from both sides of the England-Scotland border.

The ‘Devil’s Porridge’ turned out to be the nickname (coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) for the peculiar product of the former HM Factory Gretna – cordite, a highly effective dry explosive, resulting from mixing nitro-glycerine and nitro-cotton and indeed resembling a kind of white and gooey porridge-like paste. As I was told by delightful Judith Hewitt, manager of the ‘Devil’s Porridge’ Museum on the site of the former factory, women mixed the toxic blend in special ‘porridge pots’, or, in engineer-speak, Thomson Nitrating Pans, often with their bare hands.

Founded in 1915, when Britain was losing the war through lack of ammunition, HM Factory Gretna, with its buildings stretching for over nine miles, was then the world’s largest enterprise of its kind. The factory employed 30,000 people, mostly the so-called ‘munitions women’, who worked under the supervision of qualified male and female engineers.

It was inside the museum that I unexpectedly received a greeting (even two greetings!) from my IET past, or to be more precise from the superb Woman Engineer journal, published by the Women’s Engineering Society since 1919, which I mentioned repeatedly in my E&T articles, and which reported from HM Factory Gretna in 1919 and in 1921. The quotes from the magazine, together with the photos, were displayed in one of the museum’s rooms and did evoke in me yet another sort of nostalgia (‘IET-lgia’?): the retiree’s quiet pining for the place where they had worked.

The similarities with the ‘closed town’ of my childhood were obvious: the factory’s workers also lived in the relatively isolated and unmapped townships of Eastriggs and Gretna Garden City. The existence of those settlements, however, was pretty much an open secret; everyone in the vicinity knew what was happening on the site. Likewise, my parents recalled that if one asked for directions in the streets of their ‘closed’ town, it was not unusual to hear in response: “Turn left, walk past the top-secret A-Bomb-making facility behind the old monastery gates, and you will see the post office you are looking for!”

The differences were also striking. Unlike in my town, the residents of both Eastriggs and Gretna Garden City were free to come and go without permits. Also, as testified by the name of the latter, the living conditions were much better, although the Soviet town had one indisputable advantage: unlike the two Scottish ‘secret’ settlements, which didn’t have a single pub between them, it was NOT alcohol-free!

To enhance my negative nostalgia, several miles away from the ‘Devil’s Porridge’, we stumbled upon the remains of Chapelcross – Scotland’s first nuclear power station, constructed specifically to churn out plutonium for the British nuclear weapons programme. To be fair, it used to generate some electricity too. Opened in 1959 and shut down in 2004, when decommissioning commenced, Chapelcross had, reportedly, contributed to changes in local background radiation levels.

I couldn’t help noticing the uncanny resemblance of the abandoned Chapelcross to Chernobyl, which I visited in 1994. Yes, Chapelcross had managed to avoid a similar catastrophe, but the sight of its rusty pillar-like rods and dead funnels was sinister enough to complement the pang of negative nostalgia I experienced after visiting the Gretna museum.

I needed some positive impressions to balance the persisting black reveries. I found them in the neighbouring town of Moffat, whose name sounded soft and fluffy, like that of some unknown Australian marsupial.

Moffat was, according to the Guinness Book of Records, also home of the world’s narrowest detached hotel, The Star, now renamed The Famous Star. Built in 1860 to be as narrow as possible for tax reasons, it measures just 20ft (6m) across.

We managed to squeeze inside and have coffee in its narrow and elongated bar. To my surprise, the hotel did not feel at all claustrophobic. It was warm, cosy and homely enough to generate some positive nostalgia for the restricted spaces I had been craving!

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