Invergordon Places - Industrial Work

Invergordon Community Collage

Invergordon Smelter

Cruise Liners 
The Cromarty Firth port of Invergordon began its connection as a cruise liner destination in 1978 when the first visitor was the MV Kungsholm, a 26,678 tonne vessel owned by the Swedish America Line, carrying 730 passengers.
Moving on to August 2016 the 1000th liner to dock at the port was the MS Koningsdam, of 99,836 tonnes, newly launched by Holland America's Line and capable of carrying 2,606 passengers.
During 2016 a total of 63 cruise ships called at Invergordon with, in all, some 97,813m passengers.  A "first" was the visit of the Disney Magic which is expected back in 2017, as is the Koningsdam.
Much of the success of Invergordon as a cruise liner destination is due to Captain Iain Dunderdale who joined the Port Authority in 1981 as assistant harbour master, then base manager, then deputy harbour master.  In his involvement with Cruise Europe he worked to encourage American liners to come to Europe, and he has worked with the marketing body Cruise Scotland.
The Cromarty Firth Port Authority has plans for a £25m quay expansion, with a new berth and passenger facilities to cope with vessels carrying 5,000 passengers, each visit contributing to an estimated £500,000 to the local economy.


The Aluminium Smelter


The story of the Invergordon aluminium smelter is interesting not only as business history but also as an illustration of the difficulties of doing business with government and a state-owned electricity industry. Central to the story is how a major new technology - nuclear power - failed to live up to the experts' predictions.

In 1965 the future for nuclear power looked good. The Magnox stations had been a success technically, reliable in operation, and with an excellent safety record. They were, however, relatively small and the high capital cost per megawatt (mw) meant that the cost of electricity was not competitive with the latest coal-fired stations. However, they were the first type to be installed commercially, and new designs, capable of much larger capacity, were coming forward in the UK and USA. The estimated cost of power was lower than any alternative available, except hydro-electric. Given the rate of technical progress, and the promise of the experimental fast breeder reactor, it was not fanciful to look forward to the day when nuclear power would be competitive with the ever-increasing cost of new hydro schemes in ever more remote locations.

In 1965, the mining group Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ), in partnership with Kaiser Aluminium of the USA, BICC and the Atomic Energy Authority, made a proposal to build a new AGR atomic power station and an aluminium smelter in a development area.

The Government turned down the proposal. While the reasons have never been made public officially, it seems probable that the scheme was seen as a threat to the Central Energy Generating Board.

Smelter developments based on atomic power were being proposed in the USA and Germany. For the Labour Government there were many attractions. It would be a prime example of Harold Wilson's 'white heat of the technological revolution'.

During the first half of 1967 extensive discussions were taking place within Government and the CEGB, and with the aluminium companies. By the middle of the year the essentials of a scheme had emerged and the CEGB was producing cost estimates and the outline of a contract.

The Principles of the Power Contract

The problem was to devise a scheme which would enable an aluminium smelter to obtain the lowest cost power from an AGR without making it available to all industrial users, while at the same time having regard to the CEGB's statutory duty not to give 'undue preference' to any customer. It had also to be defensible against any international complaints of subsidy, and any complaints in Parliament that other users were being forced to subsidise the aluminium smelters. The solution was to invite the aluminium company to make a capital contribution equal to that proportion (not confer ownership) of the AGR, but would give the right to obtain that quantity of power at operating cost only.

In October 1967 the Prime Minister announced the availability of the special electricity contract and aluminium companies were invited to make proposals for two aluminium smelters of 120,000 tons each to begin operation in 1971 and 1974.

The Struggle for Selection and for Sites

The major companies all had strong reasons for wanting a UK smelter, if one was to be built. RTZ had started the whole exercise and was keen to expand from its Australian base; BA's reasons were compelling to its management and shareholders. But only two smelters were proposed and one was to be built three years before the other. The competition for the first would be intense.

The selection of sites was also likely to be competitive. It had to be in a development area; at least a hundred acres of flat building land must be adjacent to a deep water harbour for bulk alumina supplies; proximity to the national grid would minimise connection costs. BA identified five possible sites and, to ensure that it would not be excluded by an arbitrary political decision, declared its willingness to use any of them, but with a preference for Invergordon. This site met all the key requirements and had some additional advantages. BA had been a major employer in the Highlands since the beginning of the century and felt it could rely on political support in Scotland.

It was also felt that the Scottish generating boards might show more flexibility in supporting a major industrial development than could be expected from the CEGB. The rivalry between BA and Alcan for the Invergordon site was becoming intense. In early November BA purchased an option on Inverbreakie Farm - 300 acres of good flat farmland adjacent to sheltered deep water on the Moray Firth, and Alcan took an option on Ord Farm.

When it became clear that three smelters were to be built with an initial capacity of 300,000 tons, rising to 360,000, there were strong protests from existing overseas suppliers, particularly Norway.

The Negotiation of the Power Contract

The principles of the power contract had been laid down publicly in October 1967.

BA had a further difficulty which was a serious problem for the whole life of the contract. Invergordon was in the area served by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (NoSHEB), but the Hunterston 'B' AGR was being built by the South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB). NoSHEB had fought to preserve its independence from the SSEB and insisted that it negotiated the contract although most of the key issues required the agreement of the SSEB.

This had to provide for a (more expensive) period of coal-based power before the AGR became operational. The contract then specified that power would be delivered based on AGR costs from April 1974 (with no proviso that the AGR had to be operational).

BA wanted a contract for 30 years so as to spread the capital cost and assure supplies for the economic life of the smelter. The generators were estimating on a 25-year life for the AGR and eventually the contract was fixed for 29 years up to March 2000, of which 26 years were based on AGR supplies and the first three years on coal-based power.

BA invited five major engineering consortia to tender for a contract to design, procure and manage the construction of the smelter. But the director of engineering for BACO, Jake Hedgecock, and his team unanimously recommended Taywood Wrightson, a consortium of Taylor Woodrow and Head Wrightson. It proved to be a happy choice.

The smelter design was based on a Reynolds pre-bake pot (furnace) to operate at 130,000 amps. The estimated cost was £37 million and the first line was scheduled to start up in April 1971.

The first pots were started at the beginning of May 1971 and BA had good reason to feel satisfied with the progress made. It was already clear that the final cost would be within estimate. At a time when most major construction projects in the UK suffered serious "over-runs" in both time and money, this was a considerable achievement.

The immediate problem for Invergordon was the aluminium market slump of 1970-72. BA therefore decided to bring in only the first line at Invergordon, and to stay at 50 per cent procuction until the market improved.

Despite the poor market, BA felt confident. The capital cost was low, the start-up had gone well, and morale in the plant was high. BA had fulfilled to the letter the commitments it had made in 1968. There were, however, disturbing reports coming from the quarterly progress meetings on the Hunterston AGR. Escalation was rising faster than expected, and the programme was running behind schedule, and most ominously there was a growing number of "change orders" which were bound to lead to further cost increases. However, at this point it looked as if BA's share of the capital cost would still fall within the £30 million loan limit and BA was protected against delay in commissioning.

The first Invergordon smelting line reached full output in September 1971.

Since the engagement of the first 400 employees in 1970-71 the labour situation in Easter Ross had changed completely. Highland Fabricators needed over 1,000 workers as quickly as possible, many of them welders, fitters and machinists, and was prepared to pay whatever was necessary to get them. The effect on the smelter labour force was almost disastrous in a number of ways. There was no housing for the incomers, and BA had to buy 100 caravans to provide accommodation for new employees. Within two years the whole industrial relations climate changed from one of co-operation and goodwill to one which was a fertile breeding ground for dispute. The technology of the aluminium reduction pot makes it peculiarly vulnerable to disruption of normal operating.

As trouble simmered throughout 1973, the men deliberately restricted output to prevent management building up a reserve stock. There was finally a short strike at the end of 1973 which forced a cut in output of 10 per cent. Full load was not regained till the end of the year.

1975 was a year of relative stability at Invergordon, with the plant running at full capacity for the whole year.

Optimism was tempered by a long drawn out dispute with NoSHEB over the charging of nuclear fuel and operating costs. The contract provided that from April 1974 BA should be charged its proportion of the actual fuel and operating costs of Hunterston 'B'. But Hunterston 'B' was not yet operating . The arguments dragged on through 1974 and 1975, with BA withholding various amounts in dispute. A settlement for these years was finally reached in the summer of 1976.

The succession of serious incidents at Invergordon from 1976-78 is probably without parallel in any Western smelter:

July 1976 - Rectiformer fire - production reduced by 50 per cent - full load restored by November.

March 1977 - Cellroom strike - production reduced by 20 per cent - maintained around that level for the rest of 1977 by a sequence of overtime ban, rectiformer failures and a fire in the fume treatment plant.

January 1978 - Snowstorm caused failure of three of four incoming power lines - production down to less than 50 per cent - recovered to 80 per cent by April but full load not reached until early 1979.

The rectiformer failures were due to poor design and manufacture at English Electric. Other users who had the same design also had problems.

The snowstorm on 28 January 1978 was of freak severity for that part of Easter Ross, and for over a day it was virtually impossible to leave or enter the plant. Power supplies were disrupted for 27 hours and for several hours only one power line out of four was operating.

More than half the cells had to be disconnected in order to maintain adequate power to the remainder. It took five months before production was back to the pre-storm level.

The Nightmare of Nuclear Power Price Escalation

As operating management, by herculean efforts, coped successfully with the problems just described, a far more serious issue was becoming apparent to senior management dealing with the power contract. Projected nuclear power operating costs were escalating at an increasing rate. Then, in 1976-77, as the Hunterston AGR actually began to operate, the escalation jumped to 198 per cent above the basic price, and in 1977-78, to 387 per cent. BA refused to pay large parts of the increase and demanded detailed explanations of the figures.

Over the five-year period to December 1980 BA refused to pay £24.5 million in running costs and £3.9 million in ongoing capital charges.

Numerous meetings were held with NoSHEB in an attempt to negotiate a settlement of the disputed items, but no progress was made.

NoSHEB was now completely hemmed in. On one side was their determination not to disadvantage their other customers. On the other was their contract with SSEB which kept pushing through the additional costs. They had no room for manoeuvre. At the technical level there were excellent working relationships between BA engineers and NoSHEB control centre at Pitlochry. In a crisis like the snowstorm damage in 1978 NoSHEB control did everything that could be expected of them. When NoSHEB eventually took legal action against BA, it was virtually at the company's invitation. What was unforgivable was that SSEB and the government sheltered behind NoSHEB, maintaining to the end that the parties to the contract must settle the disputes themselves.

BA thought it should make a last effort to get some movement from the government and a meeting was held with George Younger, the Secretary of State for Scotland, on 12 February 1980. By the end of 1980 the situation for BA had become alarming.

1981:  The Crisis

Invergordon had produced a satisfactory profit in 1978 (which included very large insurance receipts) but profits fell sharply in 1979 and 1980 as the power price rose and the increase in metal prices flattened off.

By June, Invergordon was forecasting a loss of £13 million for the year which might rise to £20 million on more pessimistic but still plausible assumptions. The Board held a major review of all possible options, including cut back to 50 per cent and temporary closure, for, say, eighteen months.

With losses at Invergordon now approaching £2 million per month, and the rest of BA doing no better than break even, it was a matter of simple arithmetic to calculate that BA would be in breach of its loan covenants by the middle of 1982. By then the disputed items would exceed £45 million and lenders were unlikely to be helpful to a company with that item on its balance sheet.

The only remaining option was to negotiate the termination of the power contract and loan agreement and to close Invergordon permanently.

The next three months were spent in detailed re-examination of the various options and exploration of some of them with third parties. Closure was the only option and on 6 October 1981 the Chairman of BA (since 1979 Ronnie Utiger) with John Ford, the deputy managing director, and David Scholey of Warburgs, met officials at the Department of Industry.

It quickly became evident that the DOI was not interested in trying to devise a new power contract which would enable Invergordon to continue.

On 14 December Lord Plowden and the Chairman of BA met the Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger. After a review of the position, Mr Younger asked what were the conditions under which BA would agree to continue operating Invergordon.

1. That NoSHEB give up any claim to the disputed items.
2. That NoSHEB will not charge in future for such items.
3. That future escalation should not exceed the general rate of inflation.
4. That payments for power should be directly proportional to the number of KWH used.
5. That NoSHEB's smelter deficit account could not be counted against BA's rights if the power contract was terminated.
6. That BA could set up Invergordon as a separate subsidiary company including all the contracts pertaining to the smelter. So that any future problems could be isolated from the rest of BA.

BA could not accept any short-term arrangement as it would inhibit long-term planning, prevent necessary investment at Invergordon such as microprocessor controls. On the last day of discussion, 17 December, a package was discussed. BA felt that there was an air of unreality about the whole proceedings which bore no relation to the detailed discussion of the previous two months. BA never knew what proposals were finally put to the Cabinet Committee, but on 18 December was informed that the continuation package was too costly and termination was the only possibility.

The closure was announced on 29 December 1981 and BA had teams prepared in Invergordon, Glasgow and London to deal with the understandable uproar.

Demolition followed ....

Summing Up

The closure of Invergordon was a tragedy for all concerned - above all the 900 employees in an area where there was little alternative employment.

The cause of the disaster was clear - the cost of generation by AGR nuclear stations was not economic for aluminium production. Indeed, it finally became clear in the course of electricity privatisation in 1990 that, far from being the lowest cost part of the UK generating system, they had the highest cost and were currently being subsidised by a levy on all electricity users.

It is clear that if realistic estimates of AGR costs had been available in 1968, Invergordon would never have been built. But, given that the plant was operating, could it have been saved in 1981?

What was outrageous from BA's standpoint was that another state-owned organisation was supporting the Anglesey smelter by a comparable, if not larger, amount. It appears from the accounts of Anglesey Aluminium that the CEGB must have accepted an arrangement which gave much lower power costs than at Invergordon as blatant discrimination between competing companies, despite the verbal assurances given in 1968.

The sad truth was that the British electricity industry could not provide power economically at the price necessary for aluminium. In Germany, Holland, Spain and Italy aluminium smelters, whether based on fossil fuel or nuclear, have continued to operate.

A final word should be said on the triangular relationships between government, the state-owned generating board and the Company. When it suited them, government exercised considerable pressure on the generating boards, particularly in 1967-68. NoSHEB was given the guarantee on the smelter deficit account. When it did not suit them - e.g. in Parliament, and when BA was trying to resolve the disputed items with NoSHEB - government maintained that the power arrangement was entirely a commercial matter between NoSHEB and BA.

The Invergordon project was conceived in 1967-68 as an example of government intervention to make possible an outcome which would not otherwise have happened. By the time the crisis came in 1981, the Thatcher government was determined not to intervene in industrial affairs, and gave the impression that if larger parts of the manufacturing industry disappeared it did not really matter.

The Reduction Process

Aluminium is the most abundant metal in the earth's crust - it forms about 8% - but always in chemical compounds with other elements. The commercial source of the metal is bauxite, an impure form of aluminium oxide with combined water and with iron oxides and silica as the main impurities. It is named after Les Baux in the south of France where it was originally mined.

Bauxite is found all over the world, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical regions, but only deposits of high purity are mined commercially. Major deposits are found in the Caribbean, South America, Australia and West Africa. They are essentially surface deposits with little or no soil overburden and are worked by open cast methods.

The extraction of aluminium from bauxite takes place in two main stages. Bauxite is first processed chemically to produce alumina (aluminium oxide) and this is then reduced to metal by the passage of an electric current.

About 16,000 units of direct current electricity are required to produce one ton of aluminium from about two tons of alumina. This, in turn, has to be purified from approximately four tons of bauxite.

In the first stage of the process, bauxite is crushed and mixed with hot caustic soda solution under pressure. Any remaining coarse particles and other impurities are then removed and hydrate of alumina crystals precipitated from the solution. Finally the crystals are calcined in rotary kilns at a temperature of about 1400 C and alumina is left as a fine white powder.

The process whereby electricity is used to convert this white powder to the metal operates basically in the same way as the electrolysis of water. In the case of water, the current passes from the anode through the water to the cathode and liberates oxygen at the anode and hydrogen at the cathode. In the aluminium reduction process, the alumina has first to be dissolved in a flux to allow the passing of the current which liberates the oxygen content of the alumina leaving behind molten aluminium.

The reduction process takes place at the smelter in rectangular mild steel boxes, or cells, with a lining of carbon which forms the cathode. The cell contains the flux of molten cryolite (aluminium sodium fluoride) in which the alumina is dissolved. The anode of the cell is formed by suspended carbon blocks dipping into the contents of the cell.

At Invergordon there are two series of cells - 160 in each series - and these are housed in four 1,500 foot long cell rooms. The cells consist of a steel shell about 28.5 feet by 11.5 feet and 4 feet deep. Over the cell is a superstructure which carries the suspension system for the aluminium busbar which carries the direct current to the anode block assemblies, the hoppers which feed the alumina to the cells and the fume hoods.

Cells at Invergordon Smelter

In the cell rooms high-level cranes charge alumina to the individual cell hoppers, tap the metal, make flux additions and remove and replace cathode shells when cell re-lining becomes necessary. Each cell room also contains two special machines for anode block changing and other operations, and these travel on a gantry below the high-level cranes.

Brief on British Aluminium's Invergordon Smelter

The project was set up in 1968 with active encouragement of the government of the day, in the belief that power costs from the new advanced gas cooled reactor (AGR) nuclear stations would enable aluminium smelters in Britain to be competitive with overseas plants based on hydro-electric power. A special power contract was concluded between the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (NSHEB) and the British Aluminium Company (BACO) under which BACO contributed to the cost of constructing Hunterston 'B' and was entitled to a tranche of power up to 2000 at operating cost plus escalation. With the capital element fixed and cost escalation forecast to be small in real terms, BACO expected to pay a power price which would make the smelter competitive; while the generating boards calculated they would recover all their costs over the life of the contract.

To finance the £37 million capital cost of the new smelter BACO sold its 54% interest in a Canadian smelter of similar size. BACO received the normal investment grants then available for all capital investment, but nothing additional.

To finance its share of the Hunterston 'B' AGR, BACO was promised a government loan of up to £30 million at 7%, which was slightly below the 8% then being charged to nationalised industries. This loan was repayable in equal annual instalments of principal and interest from 1972 to 1999.

The smelter was completed in 1971 on time and within budgeted cost.

By 1973-74, Hunterston 'B' was already several years late. It was clear that cost would exceed budget by at least one-third, and that its performance had to be down-rated to 80% of specification. BACO was required to pay its share of the capital cost overrun, for which the government made a further loan of £7 million at 14.5% The additional operating costs arising initially from delay in completing Hunterston 'B' and subsequently from its lower performance could not, the government recognised, be charged to BACO. The government made arrangements through what has become known as the Smelter Deficit Account to compensate NSHEB for these failures. Since 1976 Parliament has voted a total of £113 million for this purpose; none of this of course has been paid to BACO.

From 1976 onwards the power charges, by then based on Hunterston 'B' costs, began to escalate at a rate far in excess of inflation. In addition, there was a dispute between BACO and NSHEB as to whether certain susbtantial elements were payable under the terms of the contract. Attempts to negotiate a settlement of the dispute failed, and in February 1980 BACO was informed that NSHEB would bring a lawsuit to determine the interpretation of the contract. The problem was discussed at that time between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Chairman of BACO. Legal proceedings were not initiated until April 1981, a year later.

By the autumn of 1981 the situation had reached crisis point for BACO. Power charges had increased by a further 33% in 1981, at a time when the aluminium market was worsening steadily and Invergordon looked certain to lose £20 million in the year. Such losses were insupportable for a company the size of BACO, and it was clear that the whole Group would be forced into liquidation within a few months unless the losses could be stopped.

The company therefore formally approached the Department of Industry pointing out that it was now impossible for the company to await the outcome of the litigation with NSHEB which might drag on in the courts for several years. There appeared to be only three alternatives remaining:

(a) to improve the power contract substantially so as to make Invergordon competitive internationally;

(b) to terminate the power contract and close Invergordon;

(c) to allow the whole Group to go into liquidation despite the fact that, excluding Invergordon, it was financially viable and during the period 1976-80 had the best performance record of any major European aluminium company.

After thorough examination of the whole financial position of the company, BACO was asked to put forward suggestions for a basis on which it could continue to operate the plant. The company tabled six major issues which would have to be satisfactorily resolved, covering inter alia the disputed charges, price, future escalation, and flexibility of power offtake. The government added a seventh issue wishing to insert a three-year break clause. BACO argued that such a right of termination was not appropriate since the smelter could not be viable over such a short period. Negotiations proceeded with all the major issues being discussed in parallel, and both sides modified their positions in an attempt to find a total package which could be submitted to Ministers and to the Board of BACO. At no stage did the government negotiators indicate that they had authority to offer any particular package, either short- or long-term. The package discussed on the last day of negotiations, on 17 December 1981, did not include a break clause. On 18 December BACO was informed that the package had been rejected as too costly and that termination was the only possibility.

BACO had to act urgently. Losses at Invergordon had exceeded £0.5 million a week since September, and the financial resources of the company were in danger of fast running out. Government departments and the Scottish generating boards co-operated to complete the necessary arrangements as rapidly as possible so as to limit further damage to the company. Unfortunately, it was not possible in these circumstances to consult with employees and their trade union representatives in advance.

The financial settlement on termination of the power contract was based on BACO's contractual rights. Having made capital payments in 1968 and later years, BACO had the right to receive 200 mw of power at operating cost until the year 2000. By giving up these rights BACO was returning a valuable asset to the generating system, and the contract provided that this "residual value" should be paid to BACO. The gross sum of £79.3 million agreed in negotiation enabled BACO to pay the disputed power charges (by then amounting to £47 million) and to repay £12.3 million of the government loans; the balance of £21.2 million outstanding having been waived by the government. From the remaining £20 million of the residual value was deducted £4.5 million due to NSHEB in the normal course of business, so that BACO received £15.5 million cash.

Out of this sum BACO had to meet all closure and redundancy costs and it also had to write down its substantial investment in the smelter project. However, the payment of the disputed items and the elimination of the Invergordon losses did restore the financial viability of the Group, thus removing the immediate threat to its other operations with 2,700 employees in Scotland and 4,500 elsewhere in the UK.

This settlement in no way compensated BACO for the heavy losses incurred and the other opportunities foregone, particularly in Canada, by involvement in the Invergordon project. Success of the project depended on both the company and the generating boards fulfilling the estimates made in 1968. The company considers that it has carried out everything that it undertook at that time, but the unexpected evolution of the power cost destroyed the viability of the project.

Basic facts about the British Aluminium Group in 1982

BACO is the only British owned company engaged in all aspects of the aluminium industry from bauxite to finished products. In the context of the world aluminium industry it is only a medium sized company, but it is the sixth largest in Europe. BACO is a publicly quoted company, of which Tube Investments owns 58 per cent.

  1978 1979 1980 Jan-June
Sales (Group) £m  211  269  276  128
Profit before tax £m   25   21   12 (9) loss

The principal factories of the Group are:

Primary Smelters Invergordon, Ross-shire
Fort William, Inverness-shire
Kinlochleven, Argyll
Rolling Mills Falkirk, Stirlingshire
Dolgarrog, Gwynedd
Extrusion Plants Redditch, Worcestershire
Warrington (2), Cheshire
St Helens, Merseyside
Distington, Cumbria
Foil Plants Glasgow
Silvertown, London
Alumina Chemicals Burntisland, Fife
Magnesium and Zirconium Clifton Junction, Manchester

How The Tories Sold Out Invergordon

On the morning of Tuesday December 29, 1981, the workforce of 890 was told by local management that their plant had just 48 hours of productive life left. Even Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger, was moved to describe the loss of Invergordon as 'a profound disaster' for the Highlands.

A booklet "How The Tories Sold Out Invergordon" was written by Gordon Brown (elected Prime Minister in 2007), John Reid and Brian Wilson and published with the financial assistance of ASTMS, AUEW, EEPTU and the GMWU. The following link is to a copy of that booklet: How The Tories Sold Out Invergordon 

The total employees of the Group at the end of 1981 were:

Invergordon - 890
Other Scottish Plants - 2,700
England and Wales - 4,500
Overseas - 1,450

The Saltburn Conveyer

Since the closure of the smelter in 1981 the demolition of the plant and the subsequent redevelopment of the site to an industrial park has proceeded with little notice or comment.

The demolition of the conveyor is indeed the removal of one of the last remaining landmarks of the smelter and it is true to say that the landscape of the north shore of the Cromarty Firth will be all the better for its removal. The conveyor, however, has a particular identity with the Highlands and its removal represents the end of a piece of engineering history.

The conveyor was of the Cable Belt concept and being 60" wide was in fact unique. It is not well known that the Cable Belt conveyor system was invented by an engineer working in Inverness in the late 1940s. He was Mr Charles Thompson and, with his partner Mr S Gordon (previously managing director of another world-renowned Inverness company - then Resistance Welders), he established the company called Cable Belt Ltd in 1949 in Inverness.

The first operating unit was installed for the National Coal Board at the Francis Colliery in Fife. It was 787 yards long and operated over a gradient of 1 in 4.

The principle behind the invention was to seaparate the driving forces from the carrying function of the conveyor. Charles Thompson achieved this by supporting the belt on two steel wire ropes. The design eliminated the need to drag the belt through troughing idlers and so eliminate significant drag forces and give much reduced power requirements and greater carrying capacities.

During the 1950s and '60s the Cable Belt conveyor continued to answer the requirements of the mining industry: first in the UK, where the National Coal Board was upgrading the old mines it had acquired. The Cable Belt system was used extensively by the NCB on the main trunk roads underground where having a long continuous belt conveyor with only one drive unit was most desirable. Then, as output increased in the coal mines, engineers looked for a way to improve the vertical shaft outlet. They drove inclined tunnels down from the surface to reach the coal which was also having to be worked at greater depths and the Cable Belt conveyor was the answer to this method as it offered a continuous flow for the increased output with a single drive conveyor having the drive located on the surface.

In the mid 1960s the company moved from Inverness to Camberley, Surrey, and embarked upon a programme of further technical development and expansion, particularly overseas. Then, in the late 1960s, the company joined a large engineering group, headquartered in London, to enable it to undertake further technical development and expansion. As part of the overall company expansion a network of overseas subsidiaries was formed which now function worldwide.

During the 1970s, Cable Belt developed the long overland applications where there is an increasing demand to carry bulk materials over long distances economically, in preference to trucks and rail haulage. In this field the Cable Belt system is now well established with single flight, single drive conveyors with lengths up to 25 km in operation.

Since its inception in Inverness in 1949 the Cable Belt system has proved its worth.

In respect of the Invergordon installation, it was designed to operate at 1,500 t.p.h. and the quayside facility specifically designed to give a totally enclosed transfer system from the bulk cargo vessels to the smelter silos. The ships were complete with self-discharging equipment also rated at 1,500 t.p.h.

Unfortunately, in the mid 70s, the ships were taken off the trans-Atlantic run and the replacement vessels were only equipped with grab discharge equipment and hence the notorious white clouds of dust became a common feature of the Saltburn jetty and the conveyor system was never called upon to handle discharge rates in excess of 600 t.p.h.

The conveyor was 6,670 feet long and operated at 350 ft/min (approx. 3 mph). It was driven by an electronic motor of 500 hp.

Throughout its operating life the conveyor handled almost 2 million tonnes of aluminium oxide (Alumina - the raw material) and over half a million tonnes of petroleum coke.

The entire alumina conveying complex was maintained and operated by a relatively small team of personnel; albeit over the years there were changes. It is interesting to note that of the "key players" all have remained in Ross-shire and now contribute to the success of other industries: John Russell (Isleburn), Ed Ross (Isleburn), Bert Stewart (Dalmore Distillery), Ken Macdonald (Trouw), Billy Macdonald (Trouw), Ken Macleod (Nigg Oil Terminal) and M Webb, who had the dubious privilege of commissioning the system on the first visit of the SS Richard in 1970.

The removal of a landmark- yes. The removal of an eyesore - yes. For some also the reminder of an association with an excellent asset whose origins were truly Highland, and a degree of sadness to see such a plant assigned to the scrapheap.

Invergordon Smelter Sculpture

The British Aluminium Company promoted in Scotland an open competition for an original sculpture in aluminium to be placed in the entrance hall of the administration block of the new smelter at Invergordon, Ross and Cromarty.

The company hoped that entrants to the competition would seek to match in their work the excitement and significance of the Invergordon project - a major step in the economic regeneration of the Highlands, where the United Kingdom aluminium industry was born in the early 1900s. As the largest industrial employer in the Highlands throughout the 20th century, British Aluminium hoped to strengthen its already firm links with Scottish culture through this encouragement of artistic endeavour.

The competition operated in two phases. In the first phase entrants were asked to submit designs anonymously to a panel of assessors. In the second phase, a selected short list of final entrants was announced and these entrants were asked to submit models. Each finalist was given a grant of £50 towards the cost of preparing the entry. From the final entries the assessors selected a single winning design.

The prize offered was £500 (in addition to the finalist's grant of £50) to execute the finished work. The commission was subject to an agreement negotiated between the promoters and the winner.

The Assessors
The panel comprised three assessors, each of whom had equal voting rights, consisting of Gerald Laing, sculptor, Conon Bridge, Ross and Cromarty; Andrew Renton, architect, London and Edinburgh; Gordon Drummond, manager, Invergordon smelter. All designs entered were submitted to the assessors.

Extract from unknown newspaper (1972):

Edinburgh Teacher Wins Sculpture Competition
The Invergordon Sculpture Competition, sponsored by the British Aluminium Company, has been won by Mr Gavin Scobie (32), Director of Art at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. His prize is a commission worth £500 to carry out his winning design: a 7.5 feet high group of four tapered aluminium pillars.

The finished work, which will not be completed until the summer, will stand in the entrance hall of the British Aluminium smelter at Invergordon.

Mr Scobie was one of four finalists selected out of the 76 entrants for the competition, which was announced in April 1971. The other three were: Stanley Bonnar, Dundee; Bill Laing, Kilmarnock; and Campbell Macphail, Achahoish, by Lochgilphead, Argyll.

The competition, which was open only to entrants from Scotland, was judged by Mr Gerald Laing, sculptor, Conon Bridge; Mr Andrew Renton, architect, Edinburgh and London; and Mr Gordon Drummond, BA's smelter manager.

British Aluminium is hoping to arrange for a touring exhitibition in the Highlands of the four finalists' models and drawings, plus a further 12 initial entries which the judges considered of exceptional merit.

Mr Scobie has been Director of Art at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, since 1962. He was born in Edinburgh in 1940, and educated at Leith Academy and Edinburgh College of Art.

The first public exhibition of his sculpture will be held at the Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh, from 18 March to 7 April, and will include a number of works in aluminium and a mock-up in wood for a massive work in steel.

Mr Scobie has two connections with Ross-shire: he has a croft at Tarvie, near Contin, which he is converting into a studio and pottery; and his wife is the former Miss Stroma Somerville, daughter of Air Commodore and Mrs Duncan Somerville, formerly of Loch Droma, now of the Garden Cottage, Lemlair. They have two children, a boy and a girl.

Winning sculpture by Gavin Scobie.  [Photograph courtesy of the British Aluminium Co Ltd, Invergordon, 1971.]


Invergordon on Stream - June 1971

Construction of the new smelter for The British Aluminium Co. Ltd. at Invergordon was brought to its closing stages on schedule by Taywood Wrightson Ltd, the joint company specifically formed to carry out the vast project as managing contractors.

First quantities of aluminium were produced in May 1971, twenty-nine months after construction work began in December 1968, and the smelter will work up to its planned output of 100,000 tons a year in succeeding months.

It is confidently expected that not only will the full contract period of 34 months be met from concept to commissioning, but that the project will have been carried out within the original price forecast, despite rapidly rising costs.

The contract was announced in October 1968 to Taywood Wrightson, which combines the contracting and engineering resources of Taylor Woodrow Construction Ltd and Head Wrightson Ltd.

With commitments covering management, engineering, purchasing and site construction, the consortium companies not only carried out their own extensive operations but co-ordinated and supervised the work of a wide range of suppliers and sub-contractors.

In all, orders were placed with some 2,000 manufacturers and suppliers, supplies coming from all parts of the country, as much as possible being obtained from Scotland, America, Canada, France, Holland, Norway; and Switzerland also contributed specialist parts or plant.

Fabrication was carried out both on site, where facilities set up included the casting of iron and aluminium, and off-site at the Teesside works of Head Wrightson, and elsewhere, with finished parts and components conveyed through the Highlands by rail and road.

In the course of the project 170,000 cu. yds. of concrete was used; 11,000 tons of structural steel erected; and 36 acres of aluminium cladding placed. Five miles of road were laid, together with two and a half miles of railway track (linked to the nearby main line).

The 400 acre site is dominated by the four 1,500 ft. long cell-rooms together with their six 210 ft. high reinforced concrete chimneys. In these rooms 320 cells are grouped 80 to each building, and each two of the rooms forms a single electric circuit as one cell line in a 'U' shape.

The first cell line having been handed over, on 26th May British Aluminium announced that the first 64 electrolytic reduction cells, representing 20 per cent of the plant's total capacity, were on stream and producing metal.

Other major buildings were the carbon complex, which had been in production since November 1970 (the output of carbon electrode blocks was a necessary prelude to aluminium production in the cell rooms); and the cast shop, where the molten aluminium would be cast into various shapes prior to despatch.

A comprehensive materials handling system was also installed, which takes into account that to produce one ton of aluminium nearly three tons of material are needed (mainly alumina, coke and pitch). The main feature of this is a one-and-a-quarter mile long totally enclosed conveyor, linking a 3,400 ft. long jetty (constructed by Edmund Nuttall Sons & Co. (London) Ltd. under spearate contract; consulting engineers Baptie, Shaw & Morton), in the Cromarty Firth, to storage facilities which include two 30,000 ton capacity alumina silos, 80 ft. high. The seaborne alumina, first supplies of which arrived in January 1971, can be transferred at a rate of 1,500 tons an hour, and coke at 400 tons an hour.

The jetty head with ship-to-shore conveyor in adjustable frame.

The total labour force, including sub-contractors and administrative staff, numbered 1,950 at peak in the summer of 1970.

Fully operating, the smelter will give employment to about 550 British Aluminium staff and operatives; use 3 million gallons of water a day; and have a maximum demand load for electricity of 200 mw (equivalent to that for a city of nearly 200,000 people).

The Taywood Wrightson site manager is Mr Klaas van der Lee, BA, BAI, MICE, and the civils manager, formerly Mr Ken Williams, MIStruct,E, and now Mr Alan Stewart, BA (CE), BAI. Plant installation is under the direction of Mr R Mitchell, BSc, FICE, and the services manager is Mr Gerry Beers, BA, BAI. At Southall the director in charge is Mr Frank Gibb, BSc (Hons.), FICE. Mr John Wood Rogers, BSc, MICE, is project manager, and chief project engineer and Head Wrightson representative is Mr J C McCrone.

Repairs to Hunterston 'B' Nuclean Power Station

The Hunterston 'B' Power Station of the South of Scotland Electricity Board is equipped with two 660 mw advanced gas cooled reactors (AGRs). The first reactor (Reactor 3) was initially synchronised in February 1976 and the second (Reactor 4) in March 1977. The commissioning tests and working to full power of Reactor 4 were successfully completed and the plant was shut down for maintenance in October 1977. The pressure of the carbon dioxide in the reactor vessel was reduced to atmospheric. It then became apparent that sea water had entered a space inside the reactor pressure vessel but isolated from the core by the gas baffle which surrounds the graphite core structure.

The entry of the sea water was found to have damaged about ten per cent of the insulation which lines the interior of the reactor vessel.

The investigation of the damage and the repair work were major and complex exercises requiring:

1. The analysis of many thousands of investigational specimens.
2. The manufacture of over 100,000 replacement components.
3. The build-up of a site workforce which eventually reached 340 supervisory and industrial staff.
4. The setting-up of reactor entry facilities, workshops and offices.
5. The establishment of repair techniques enabling clean-up and repair activities to be carried out safely and without spreading salt deposits from the affected regions to other parts of the reactor.
6. Obtaining a wide range of access equipment, plant and tools.
7. Remedial work on some of the gas circulators and all 308 of the fuel upper-plug units, and examinations of all 81 control rod actuators and of the various instrumentation and gas circuits external to the main reactor circuit.
8. The compilation of a Safety Case giving all the information necessary for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to approve the return of the reactor to power.

The repair activities, which were undertaken whilst the fuel remained in the core and with up to sixty people working inside the pressure vessel at the same time, took some 24 months. Recommissioning occupied a further four months, and in all the reactor was out of service for 28 months. The repair work, involving over 480 man-years of effort, cost £13 m. Since its return to service in February 1980 the reactor has operated successfully with no restriction resulting from the incident.

BACO Invergordon - Production Statistics

Power switched on 1 May 1971 ("Grist Bake")
First cell "fluxed" on 6 May 1971


Year Metric tonnes Notes
1971  21,424 8 months only
1972  45,513  
1973  80,168  
1974  81,170  
1975 100,886 Design output
1976  93,624  
1977  89,729  
1978  82,733  
1979 100,932 2nd year with design output
1980 100,937 3rd year with design output
1981  90,369  
Total 886,985  

Date Production cost Selling price Loss
Dec '80   £750/te   £720/te £30/te
Dec '81   £900/te   £730/te £170/te

Note:  Even if the average selling price over the ten years was £700/te (it was much lower), then the maximum revenue would be £700 x 886,995 = £620,889,500.  Based on the raw material costs, labour costs, depreciation, overheads and the applied power costs at the time of closure the plant was losing £1,250,000 per month.

Environmental Issues

A number of environmental issues were associated with the Smelter, including:

Alumina Dust
The raw material (Alumina - the oxide of Aluminium) was shipped into Invergordon in bulk (35,000te) cargo handling vessels. The system, constructed by British Aluminium, to convey the cargo from quayside to Smelter was a totally enclosed system designed to integrate with custom designed "self-discharging" equipment fitted to a small fleet of vessels.

On numerous occasions the self-discharging vessels were not available, having been dedicated to serve ports with more demanding environmental restrictions than those imposed at Invergordon. The alternative vessels deployed allowed the release of dust into the atmosphere. Alumina is an inert substance and poses no risk other than nuisance value.

Carbon Dioxide
The conversion of alumina to aluminium is an electrolytic reduction process and the oxygen released from the alumina combines with the carbon of the carbon anodes to release large quantities of carbon dioxide.

To enable the electrolytic process to take place, the alumina must be dissolved in a liquid. Due to the inert properties of alumina there are very few substances in which it will dissolve. One available liquid is hot molten cryolite.

In solution, and during the reduction process (long with the carbon dioxide), hydrogen fluoride gas is given off. This gas can be captured by a wet filtration system - this was the source of the large white clouds emitted from the iconic six big chimneys. Due to mechanical failures and other deficiencies, quantities of hydrogen fluoride were released into the atmosphere. In trace quantities this gas is harmless (can be beneficial to your teeth!), but because it is soluble it is absorbed by rain and then enters the food chain for all grass eating animals. The ingestion of grass contaminated with small amounts of fluoride results in bone embrittlement in the bovine species and in particular pedal bone fractures which do not heal and require the animal to be culled. This problem is well established in the aluminium industry and British Aluminium entered into a compensation agreement with neighbouring farmers prior to the commissioning of Invergordon Smelter. Resort to the agreement had to be made on a number of occasions.

The life of a furnace (cell) was of the order of three years and, with 320 cells in operation, there was a requirement to clean out and rebuild two cells each week. The cleaning out required the total removal of the cathode materials (also carbon based) which, if exposed to moisture, produced compounds of cyanide. The cryolite recovery facility was designed to recover and process the waste. However, any leaching of the material entering drains and water courses would take some time to decay to harmless levels.

PolyChlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
In the 1960s and early 1970s extensive use of PCBs was made in the process and electrical distribution industries. PCBs had good properties as heat transfer oils and were non-inflammable. The carbon plant at Invergordon had a large heat transfer system containing significant quantities of PCBs. In the early 70s a number of health risks, including possible cancer, was identified in relation to PCBs and the decision was taken to flush out the heat transfer system and replace it with a mineral oil (mineral oils perform well as heat transfer media but crease a very high fire risk). PCBs are very difficult to recover from any leakage and do not decay in atmosphere, water or ground conditions. Removal of any contamination is very difficult.


Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage