Pan Ross Work

Pan Ross Collage

Ross and Cromarty Heritage Society is grateful to have the permission of James Miller, the author; Birlinn, the publishers; and Scottish Hydro-Electric (the successors to The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board) to reproduce extracts from The Dam Builders which are appropriate to the locality.

Hydro-Electricity - The Dam Builders


Vast in size but thinly populated, the Highlands evoked opposing views in all who were concerned in the 1930s for their future. For many they were 'the last great wilderness in Europe', some 16,000 square miles of magnificent mountains, sprawling moors, mysterious glens and a wealth of wildlife that included the red deer, the golden eagle and the wildcat. For others the landscape represented a man-made wilderness, the sad result of decades of oppressive landlordism, evictions and social deprivation from which the only escape had been and still was emigration. Between 1921 and 1951 the population of the Highlands and Islands fell by around 15 per cent, from 371,372 to 316,471. The land was being emptied of its inhabitants, and what to do to reverse this trend was the subject of many books, articles and reports, often peppered with such loaded phrases as 'the Highland problem' or 'the Highland question'.

Life in the Highlands had never been easy - the thin soil and the harsh winters saw to that - but surely something could be done. The Highlanders were an enterprising, intelligent people; they had proved their abilities time and again in every corner of the Empire, but somehow on their home ground they remained acquiescent and, the occasional land raid apart, not nearly as troublesome to politicians as their urban relatives.

Tourism, forestry, fisheries, improved transport and the development of cottage industries were among the favoured options. The Forestry Commission, established in 1919, had planted thousands of acres with conifers in Argyll and the Great Glen, where Neil Gunn saw them in 1937 and considered their green spires. 'What he [the Highlander] wants now - where the spirit has been left in him to want anything constructive - is hope for the future, and these new forests along the banks of the Canal and on both sides of Loch Lochy were somehow like a symbol of a new order. The trees were full of sap, of young life, green and eager, larches and other pines, pointed in aspiration and with an air about them not of privilege but of freedom'.

The Second World War brought men and women once again from the glens to serve the country, and added another set of names to the memorials in every parish, but it also gave impetus to a sense that something had to be done and to a feeling that from the all-consuming effort of war would emerge a new future.

Industry in the Highlands had always been small and local in scale. Some processing of primary produce - the turning of grain into whisky and wool into tweed, the curing of fish - was established and significant; but the Highlands had no coal, apart from isolated mines at Brora and Machrihanish, and it was accepted that large-scale manufacturing belonged elsewhere, in the lowland cities where the labour force, markets and infrastructure favoured a concentration of effort. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, the potential of the region for water power had been realised. The North British Aluminium Company, formed in 1894, looked to the Highlands for a reliable supply of electricity, essential in the relatively new technology of converting raw bauxite to aluminium, and found it at Foyers on the south side of Loch Ness. Up to 19,000 kW of electricity were needed to convert four tons of bauxite to one ton of pure metal. Construction of the first major hydro-electric scheme in Britain began in 1895, and the smelting plant produced its first metal the following year, some 200 tons but already 10 per cent of the world output at that time. By 1900 production at Foyers had risen to over 1,000 tons, as the world demand for aluminium rose.

Scotland's first hydro-electric plant for public supply had been installed at Greenock in 1885, only four years after the first in Britain opened in Godalming, Surrey. The Greenock experiment ran for only two years but it had been enough to show the potential of hydro-electicity as a clean source of energy for daily activities. The next place to benefit from hydro-electric power was the village of Fort Augustus; in 1890 the Benedictine monks installed an 18 kilowatt turbine in one of the burns supplying their abbey at the southern end of Loch Ness and distributed the excess energy to their secular neighbours. The hotels and houses of the village were to have the benefit of this local supply until nationalisation of the industry in 1948. In 1896 the Fort William Electric Light Company began to operate two turbines at Blarmachfoldach on the Kiachnish River to supply light to the town. Another local scheme, this time at Raven Rock in Glen Sgathaich, to the north of Strathpeffer, was built in 1903 with funding from Colonel E W Blunt-Mackenzie, husband of the Countess of Cromarty, and brought power to Dingwall and Strathpeffer. This enterprise was later transferred to a larger power station at the Falls of Conon on Loch Luichart. The coming of the new source of light was a wonder of the age. 'On Monday evening', reported the North Star in Dingwall, 'the electric light was turned on in the premises of Baillie Frew, jeweller, by his niece, Miss Christine Frew. The glitter and dazzle of the jewellery, caused by the numerous arc lamps, attracted great attention.' An ironmonger's and a bookseller's shop were also illuminated. Blair Atholl received its first hydro-electricity supply in a similar way in 1910 when the Duke of Atholl built a 130-kilowatt generator on the Banrie Burn, a tributary of the Tilt, to supply his castle and the adjoining village. Beyond the ends of the wires strung in these isolated localities, the people still depended on the oil lamp and the kitchen range and, in the countryside, were to do so for around another fifty years. These small beginnings had, however, been literally a glimmer of the future.

The aluminium industry continued to grow. A village grew up at Foyers to house the staff of the plant beside Loch Ness. The British Aluminium Company decided to expand its facilities and initiated an extensive scheme in the Loch Leven area that was to create the industrial village of Kinlochleven, with its smelting plant and the associated hydro-electric works drawing on the abundant water of Rannoch Moor. A dam was built across the Blackwater River to turn it into an eight-mile long reservoir whose waters were then led down the mountainside into a power station above Kinlochleven. Construction began in 1905 and was complete four years later. As a major undertaking in remote mountain country, with the creation of a new loch and the redirection of existing water courses, it was a forerunner of what was to come.

It also marked the end of a more primitive era: the Blackwater Dam, 3,000 feet long and 90 feet high, in its time the largest in Europe, was the last large construction project built by the hard labour, unassisted by machinery, of itinerant Irish navvies. The Kinlochleven project also attracted a large number of labourers from the Hebrides, so many in fact that foremen or 'gangers' had to have a command of Gaelic.

The navvies lived in shacks with tarred canvas roofs and slept in bunks, sometimes shared by three men, arranged in tiers around the flimsy walls. Cooking was done in frying pans on a stove in the centre of the muddy floor, and light was provided by naptha-burning lamps. There was almost no law and order among the 3,000 workers byond what men could exert with their fists, and the only diversions were drinking and gambling. It was less a life than an existence. The highest paid workers, the hammermen, earned sixpence and an hour, with rises to sevenpence-ha'penny for overtime and ninepence on Sundays. Drilling the rock was done by teams of five; one man, the holder, sat gripping the steel drill between his knees while his four companions struck it in rotation with sledgehammers until they had driven a hole four or five feet deep. Dynamite was then packed in the hole and the rock blown apart. Only the contractors knew what the work was intended for; the workers did not know and they did not care. Life in the camp rolled relentlessly and violently on without contact with the native Highlanders: the navvies were 'outcasts ... despised ... rejected ...forgotten'. A small graveyard with cement tombstones lies on a hillock a little to the west of the dam, the last resting place of some twenty of the navvies. The work camps associated with the later hydro-electric schemes had their share of violence, drinking and gambling but they were a world away from what the earlier workers had endured.

The First World War brought about a massive rise in the demand for aluminium and the Blackwater Reservoir had to be expanded to cope with the extra electricity requirement. Five hundred British troops and 1,200 German prisoners of war were brought in to build a five-mile aqueduct to lead water from Loch Eilde Mhor into the Blackwater. TheBritish Aluminium Company set in train another development in 1924. Called the Lochaber project, it continued until the end of 1943. The main elements of this scheme were a 900-foot dam to divert water from the upper reaches of the Spey into Loch Laggan which, in turn, fed water through a tunnel to Loch Treig. A fifteen-foot diameter pressure tunnel was driven fifteen miles under the Ben Nevis Massif to emerge at the head of a steel pipeline 600 feet above a power station in Fort William. The original plan to build an extra power station at Kinlochleven had to be shelved when Inverness County Council, in whose territory lay the Spey and the Laggan, refused to allow its resources to be piped across the county boundary to Kinlochleven in Argyllshire.

There were several schemes in the 1920s and 1930s to generate power for public use. The Clyde Valley Company's power stations on the Falls of Clyde opened in 1926. The chief technical engineer on this scheme was Edward MacColl who was later to bring his expertise to the Hydro Board. A larger scheme in Galloway was built between 1931 and 1936. In the Highlands the main effort was made by the Grampian Electricity Supply (acquired by the Scottish Power Company Ltd in 1927) and involved tapping Lochs Ericht, Rannoch and Tummel, with extra feed from Lochs Seilich and Garry, to generate electricity to serve a wide area of the central, southern Highlands and the Central Belt. The power stations opened in 1930 and 1933. The hydro-schemes of the inter-war years established the pattern that was to be followed after 1945. They all employed large numbers of men - for example, 3,000 at the height of the Lochaber project - who lived in work camps and used technology to allow them to build and drill in the harsh landscape. Compressed air drills were deployed on boring out the pressure tunnel under Ben Nevis, and the workers had electrical power from a temporary generating station on the River Spean.

The Grampian scheme showed how Highland water could be harnessed for the public good and the Cooper Committee, sitting during the early years of the Second World War, looked with approval on its achievement. Not everybody was happy about the ambitions of the Grampian company and when, in 1929, they first put forward plans to develop the waters of the river system that discharged through the Beauly River into the Beauly Firth they met with considerable opposition. This plan would have involved the lochs of Affric, Mullardoch and Monar but it was rejected by the House of Lords, after strong arguments from A. M. MacEwan, the Provost of Inverness, and the Mining Association. Their combined opposition was based on the destruction of the beauty of this area of the Highlands and the fact that there were not enough consumers to benefit from the power to be generated.

Continued on page 2
Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage