After All: Scottish tour awakens memories of closed childhood
Our columnist experiences two (or maybe three) different types of nostalgia while visiting technical heritage sites in Dumfries & Galloway.
For someone like me, who has spent most of their traveling life away from their country of birth, there are two distinct types of nostalgia: the positive and the negative. The first is a bittersweet desire for the happy times from your past; the latter is 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 that might have been.
My unwavering interest in confined spaces dates back to my childhood. I spent the first three years of my life in a “closed city” near Moscow, where my parents, newlyweds graduating from Kharkiv University (mum chemical engineer, dad nuclear physicist), were sent to work in a top secret Soviet government facility developing nuclear and hydrogen bombs in the early 1950s. The city of 40,000 was both unmapped and unnamed (it was called “BA / 48764 military unit”, or something similar). A high concrete fence, topped with barbed wire, was built around the perimeter of the city to ensure that no one could enter or exit without a special pass.
This is probably why I often feel unexpectedly at home on isolated islands large and small. A strong sense of ‘negative nostalgia’ felt on a recent motorhome trip to the south of Scotland was also a surprise.
To use the previous “After all,” my first reaction to our navigation system’s strict verbal instruction to “turn left in 500 yards to 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, driven by curiosity, I steered Alphie, my motorhome, in the direction it was pointing – towards Gretna.
Passing past fields, grazing cattle and trees, I kept imagining I was a medieval knight in armor riding on a thoroughbred stallion, who had just run away with a beautiful maiden (my wife) and was heading to the nearby village of Gretna on the border with England, where we were able to quickly formalize our marital union at a special toll marriages office – a long-standing attraction for couples on the run from two sides of the border between England and Scotland.
‘Devil’s Porridge’ turned out to be the nickname (coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) for the particular product of the former HM Gretna factory – cordite, a highly effective dry explosive, resulting from the mixture of nitro-glycerin and nitro-cotton and indeed resembling a sort of paste like white, gooey porridge. As the lovely Judith Hewitt, director of the âDevil’s Porridgeâ museum on the site of the old factory told me, the women mixed the toxic mixture into special âporridge potsâ, or, in engineering terms, Thomson nitration pans, often with their bare hands.
Founded in 1915, when Britain was losing the war for lack of ammunition, HM Factory Gretna, with its buildings stretching over 15 kilometers, was then the largest company of its kind in the world. The factory employed 30,000 people, most of them “women with ammunition,” who worked under the supervision of trained male and female engineers.
It was inside the museum that I unexpectedly received a greeting (even two greetings!) From my past IET, or to be more precise from the superb female engineer journal, published by the Women’s Engineering Society since 1919, which I have mentioned several times in my E&T articles, and which reported from HM Factory Gretna in 1919 and 1921. Quotes from the magazine, as well as photos, have been displayed in one of the rooms of the museum and evoked in me yet another kind of nostalgia (âIET-lgiaâ?): the quiet yearning of the retiree for the place where he had worked.
The similarities to the âclosed cityâ of my childhood were obvious: Factory workers also lived in the relatively isolated and unmapped townships of Eastriggs and Gretna Garden City. The existence of these colonies, however, was pretty much an open secret; everyone in the area knew what was going on at the site. Likewise, my parents remembered that if someone asked for directions in the streets of their “closed” town, it was not uncommon to hear a response: “Turn left, pass by the top secret installation of manufacture A bombs behind the old monastery doors, and you will see the post office you are looking for!
The differences were also striking. Unlike my town, residents of Eastriggs and Gretna Garden City were free to come and go without a permit. Also, as evidenced by the name of the latter, living conditions were much better, even if the Soviet city had an indisputable advantage: unlike the two Scottish “secret” colonies, which did not have a single pub between them, this was NOT alcohol free!
To reinforce my negative nostalgia, several miles from ‘Devil’s Porridge’ we came across the remains of Chapelcross – Scotland’s first nuclear power plant, built specifically to produce plutonium for the British nuclear weapons program. To be fair, it also produced electricity. Opened in 1959 and closed in 2004, when decommissioning began, Chapelcross is believed to have contributed to changes in local background radiation levels.
I couldn’t help but notice the eerie resemblance of the abandoned Chapelcross to Chernobyl, which I visited in 1994. Yes, Chapelcross had managed to avert a similar catastrophe, but the sight of its rusty pillar-shaped stems and of its dead funnels was grim enough to complement the pinch of negative nostalgia I felt after visiting the Gretna Museum.
I needed a few positive impressions to balance the lingering dark reveries. I found them in the nearby town of Moffat, whose name sounded soft and fluffy, like that of an unknown Australian marsupial.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Moffat was also home to the world’s narrowest independent hotel, The Star, now renamed The Famous Star. Built in 1860 to be as narrow as possible for tax reasons, it is only 20 feet (6 m) in diameter.
We managed to sneak inside and grab a coffee in its narrow, elongated bar. To my surprise, the hotel didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. It was warm, comfortable and simple enough to generate some positive nostalgia for the tight spaces I wanted!
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