Pan Ross Collage

Hydro-Electricity - The Dam Builders 

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Tom Johnstone in younger days (photo courtesy of Mrs Ann Yule)

Tom Johnston was both a socialist and an unrepentantly patriotic Scot. By the end of the First World War he was a leading figure in Labour politics. In 1922 he was elected as the Independent Labour Member of Parliament for West Stirlingshire but he lost the seat within two years when Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government fell to the Conservatives. A by-election a few weeks later brought Johnston back to the House of Commons; and in Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour administration between 1929 and 1931 Johnston briefly held Cabinet rank. He was returned to Westminster again in 1935.

On the outbreak of the War in 1939 Johnston was appointed Regional [sic] Commissioner for Civil Defence in Scotland. Then, in February 1941, Winston Churchill summoned him to Downing Street. Johnston compared an interview with Churchill to being like a rabbit before a boa constrictor. When the Scot said he wanted to get out of politics to write history, Churchill gave a disdainful snort and said Johnston should join him and 'help .... make history'. The Prime Minister then laid his cards on the table: he wanted Johnston to be Secretary of State for Scotland. If Johnston felt himself to be like a rabbit, he remained a canny rabbit and agreed to take the post on certain conditions. The most important of these was that he could try out a Council of State comprising all five surviving former Secretaries of State and that whenever they agreed on a Scottish issue Johnston could look to Churchill for backing.

'I'll look sympathetically upon anything about which Scotland is unanimous,' Johnston records the Prime Minister as saying. 'What next?'

Johnston said he wanted no payment for the job as long as the War lasted. 'Right!' agreed Churchill. 'Nobody can prevent you taking nothing.'

Johnston said later that he was 'bundled out, a little bewildered', and miserable at the thought of the commuting he would have to endure between London and his beloved homeland; but he was also pleased that he had been given a unique opportunity 'to inaugurate some large-scale reforms .... which .... might mean Scotia Resurgent'. As he strode down Whitehall he was already listing the projects he was itching to start, and they included 'a jolly good try at a public corporation on a non-profit basis to harness Highland water power for electricity'.

Johnston's Council of State was officially named the Scottish Advisory Council of ex-Secretaries. The other members were Lord Alness, Sir Archibald Sinclair, Sir John Colville (later Lord Clydesmuir), Walter Elliot and Ernest Brown, and, by Johnston's account, they got on well, despite representing widely varying points on the political spectrum, and proposed projects and reforms in quick succession that laid the basis for post-war reconstruction in Scotland in a broad sweep of public life.

In 1938 Johnston had voted against the Caledonian Power scheme, sharing the opinion of many Highlanders that a private firm should not be allowed to take over a national resource. Johnston's view of hydro-electricity, in keeping with his socialist principles, was that public resources should be handled by publicly owned corporations. He had been impressed by the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States

The Cooper Committee was appointed in October 1941 to consider anew the potential for hydro-electricity generation in the Highlands. This body's official name was the Committee on Hydro-Electric Development in Scotland but it quickly became known by the name of its chairman, Baron Cooper of Culross. The other members of the Cooper Committee were the Viscount (William Douglas) Weir, Neil Beaton, the chairman of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, James Williamson, the chief civil engineer with the consultants to the construction of the Galloway hydro-electric scheme in the 1930s, and John A Cameron of the Land Court.

Although 'handicapped by war conditions', the Committee examined every aspect of its remit throughout the first half of 1942. At the beginning Lord Cooper was sceptical of the Committee's ability to come up with much to supersede earlier work but, as the data accumulated, he became an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of hydro-electricity.

On its peregrination around the country, the Committee met Evan Barron, the editor of the Inverness Courier, and Barron impressed on them the need for a quid pro quo if Highland water were to be harnessed. In their final report the Cooper Commottee recognised that the 'portion of the area popularly designated the Highlands has for long been a depressed area and will remain so unless vigorous and farsighted remedial action is taken in hand without delay'. The Committee looked long and hard at not only the potential for hydro-electric development in the Highlands but also at some of the likely results of such development.

'We accordingly recommend', wrote Lord Cooper and his colleagues, 'that there should be created a new public service corporation called the North Scotland Hydro-Electric Board to be responsible for the generation, transmission and supply of power in all the parts of the Highlands currently outside the "limits of existing undertakers"'. (In time, with the nationalisation of electricity in 1948, the whole of the Highlands and Islands came under the aegis of the Board.)

 As the Cooper Committee had been gathering its evidence, Tom Johnston had asked Evan Barron to come down to St Andrew's House to talk about how hydro-electricity might be made acceptable in the Highlands. Although the Courier editor was politically much further to the right than the Secretary of State, the two men respected each other highly and maintained a close friendship.

Barron repeated his assertion that Highlanders would agree to hydro-electricity development only if they were to benefit directly from this surrender of their resources. Johnston responded by passing to Barron a draft copy of the Cooper Committee's report with the warning not to publish it: Johnston is reported to have said, 'If anything appears about the Cooper report before Parliament gets it, Scotland will have another secretary of state next week'.

In a long leader in the issue of the Courier on 23 January 1943 Barron gave his opinion of the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Bill under the headline Hope for the Highlands. The introduction of the Bill based on the Cooper Committee findings, he wrote, 'is the most hopeful thing for the Highlands which has happened for many a day'. The water resources of the Highlands were to be developed in the interests of the native Highlander.

Barron called on Highlanders to see that the Bill became law more or less as it stood and put their water resources 'forever beyond the reach of the clutching hands' of outside companies. Now, said the Courier, the State had the chance to undo the ill-treatment meted out to the region for the last 150 years.

The Bill recognised the broader role of the Board. The profit from the sale of surplus electricity to the Central Electricity Board for the national grid would be ploughed back into reducing the costs of distributing power to the more remote, low-populated areas of the Highlands for 'the economic development and social improvement' of the region. In May 1943 the Courier was pleased to say that Tom Johnston had 'earned the gratitude of all who love the Highlands'. The Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act became law in August. Writing of the opponents of the Act, Johnston returned to the rhetoric of his younger days:

I knew most of the nests from which the corbies would operate; the colliery owners had retired from the struggle, and their shareholders wanted no notice taken of the pit bings and so stopped talking about how the hydro schemes would estroy amenity. A few shameless twelfth of August shooting tourists, who themselves took care to live in the electrified south for eleven months in the year, moaned about the possible disappearance in the Highlands of the picturesque cruisie; and I had one deputation whose spokesman was sure we were engaged in a conspiracy to clear Glen Affric of its crofters and its sheep; in response to enquiries, he had not been up at Glen Affric himself, and he really was surprised to learn that there were neither crofters nor sheep in the Glen for these many years past.

 In September the names of the first members of the Board were made public. The Earl of Airlie was appointed chairman, with Edward MacColl as deputy chairman and chief executive. After his success on the Falls of Clyde scheme, MacColl, whose forebears came from Melfort in Argyllshire, had been appointed engineer for the Central Scotland District of the Central Electricity Board and had overseen the construction of the first regional grid in Britain. He brought a vast experience of the technical aspects of electricity generation and distribution to the Board, and added to this formidable expertise a flair for innovation. The other three members were Neil Beaton, who had already served on the Cooper Committee; Hugh Mackenzie, the Provost of Inverness; and Walter Whigham, a director of the Bank of England and the representative of the Central Electricity Board. (Whigham was soon to resign through ill health and his place was filled by Sir Duncan Watson, a Scottish engineer.)

The Earl of Airlie seems at first glance to have been an unlikely choice for the figurehead of a new public corporation. He was the twelfth member of his family to hold the Airlie title, had been educated at Eton, had won the Military Cross in The Black Watch during the First World War, owned around 40,000 acres, was Lord Lieutenant of Angus, a member of Angus County Council and a staff officer at Scottish Command HQ. The good-natured Airlie had, however, been Tom Johnston's second-in-command when he had been in charge of civil defence, and the two men obviously felt that they could work well together.

Two sub-committees of the Board were set up - the Amenity Committee under the chairmanship of Colonel the Hon Ian Campbell and including Lady MacGregor of MacGregor, the only woman in the upper echelons of the Board; and the Fisheries Committee with Colonel Sir D W Cameron of Lochiel in the chair. The registered office was established in Edinburgh, and the Lord Lyon King of Arms granted the Board its own coat of arms in 1944. The shield bore a winged thunderbolt emitting forked flashes of lightning suspended above a cruisie-lamp, the ancient form of domestic illumination. These symbols, encapsulating the Board's aspirations, were supported by two rampant stags on either side of a fir tree and a rock from which water gushed. The motto was in Gaelic: Neart nan Gleann, the power of the glens.


The shield of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board as depicted in wrought iron on the gates of Invergarry power station.  (author)

 The Board benefited in its early decades from the calibre of the almost handpicked senior staff - 'men steeped in their subject', according to Hamish Mackinven. Edward MacColl selected Angus Fulton, as enthusiastically in favour of hydro-electric development as himself, as his chief civil and hydraulic engineer; and wooed David Fenton back to Scotland from the English Midlands to be his commercial engineer. Thomas Lawrie became the Board's secretary on its inception. W Guthrie was appointed as the first chief electrical engineer and A N Ferrier as the chief accountant.

Inverness Town Council organised a conference in August 1943 where representatives from all the Highlands and Islands local authorities could discuss the implications of the new Act. Fearing that once again Highland resources might be exploited for the benefit of others, the so-called Scottish Local Authorities Hydro-Electric General Committee that emerged from the conference resolved to 'watch the interests of the area'. For example, John Murray, the Provost of Dornoch, while calling for a bold policy to take advantage of the new source of energy and expressing confidence that industry would follow power, was concerned that the remote places wouldn't be forgotten.

In March 1944 the Board published its development programme and listed no less than 102 projects, ranging in size from small local ones to giant schemes covering whole series of glens. At one end of the spectrum lay the streams draining into Loch nan Gillean, near Plockton, calculated to be capable of generating four million units (kilowatt hours per year), the streams on Islay and Jura (five million units), two streams on the north side of Loch Nevis (five million units), and streams in Arisaig (six million units). The biggest schemes pinpointed the Affric-Beauly river system (440 million units), the Orrin-Conon and the Garry Moriston systems (each 350 million units), and the Tummel-Garry system (300 million units). It seemed as if every corner of the Highlands and Islands were included, from the burns on Shetland to those draining the Mull of Kintyre. The impressively ambitious programme recorded a total potential output of 6,274 million units of electricity per year, considerably more than the 4,000 million units per year estimated by the Cooper Committee. Edward MacColl pointed out in an address to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland that the programme did not include 'a substantial amount of power still available in the form of high-head run-off schemes' with little or no storage capacity in the form of lochs. He also conceded that not all the schemes in the list of 102 were economic, although in the future when coal became scarce or dear they might become viable.

The prospects were, however, exciting enough. Just before the War finished, the Ministry of Information made a film to show how good it would be to have power in the Highlands. The film showed a pair of Clydesdales and a horse plough ploughing on a very barren bit of gound. This was supposed to show worthless ground that was to be recovered. Everyone was supposed to get power for nothing. The idea was that the people coming home from the War would get better things. Of course there was no power then; unless you lived on an estate where there was a water turbine or a generator, it was the Tilley lamp, double-wick lamps and candles.

The Scottish branch of the Association of Scientific Workers, a body firmly in favour of centrally planned, publicly owned advancement, hailed the Board's development programme by issuing a brochure, Highland Power, which made direct reference to the Tennessee Valley Authority and stated that the proposed developments offered 'a golden opportunity to test a new approach to British social and economic problems'. Other bodies more concerned with what might result when a great concrete dam was thrown across a glen also soon made their voices heard. In the summer of 1944 the Association for the Preservation of Rural Scotland protested that areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as Glen Affric, Glen Garry and Loch Maree should be safeguarded.

The schemes in the counties of Perth, Dunbarton, Argyll and Inverness were already being surveyed and planned in the spring of 1944 and the Board published the details of its first construction projects on 3 July. There were three - Loch Morar, Lochalsh and Loch Sloy, costing a total of £4.6 million and aimed at generating an estimated 136,000 units of electricity. Two were mainly of local significance: the Morar scheme proposed a dam and power station on the Morar river to provide power to the Mallaig and Morar area; and the Lochalsh scheme comprised a dam on the Allt Gleann Udalain and a power station near Nostie Bridge to meet local power needs. The third scheme, the one at Loch Sloy, was by far the largest of the three, a major enterprise involving the construction of a power station on the shore of Loch Lomond, four miles north of Tarbet, to be fed from a dam at Loch Sloy in the hills overlooking the outfall.

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