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Issue 45 - A day in the life of a hydro boy

Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


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A day in the life of a hydro boy

Hydroelectric power schemes were set up in Scotland in the early 1900's. David Fleetwood looks at what life was like for the people who made a living this way.

Hydroelectric power exploits the water resources of some of Scotland’s wildest and most rugged locations. Schemes have been in production since the early 20th century, requiring construction and maintenance in the most hostile and unforgiving conditions.

Today, the consequence of the relative inaccessibility of many schemes across Scotland is the widespread automation of schemes and a marked fall in the number of people working on site, yet, from around 1910 until the late 1980s, many men worked on the construction and development of schemes throughout Scotland, leaving behind them a legacy that is still in operation today and which provides the renewable energy to light and heat our homes and offices. The Hydro Boys, as they were known, worked hard and in tough conditions to provide Scotland with a worldclass renewable energy resource.

Scotland occupies a unique position in the UK for the exploitation of hydroelectric power generation, with steep relief and locally very high rainfall. This combination of large amounts of water which can be made to flow down steep slopes to generators is ideal for producing power from water. Potential for this was recognised early on by the monks of Fort Augustus Abbey, who developed a turbine as early as 1891. Scotland quickly went on to develop a number of internationally important schemes, with those built by the British Aluminium Company at Kinlochleven and Lochaber leading the world in terms of output.

The development of public supply was also rapid with schemes at Loch Rannoch and in Galloway in the 1930s. Such was the importance of the sector to the emerging National Grid, and to the generation of electricity for public supply in Scotland, that the sector was nationalised in 1943 with the founding of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board (NOSHEB). NOSHEB went on to oversee the development of high-profile schemes across Scotland in such locations as the Conon Valley in Invernesshire, and in central Perthshire, around Pitlochry. All of these schemes required a remarkable effort to build dams and power stations in mountainous terrain and to bore tunnels, most famously through the flank of Ben Nevis, to transport water from reservoirs to turbines.

At its height NOSHEB employed nearly 12,000 men who moved from scheme to scheme as construction and maintenance staff. The work of the board was famously permeated with a spirit of adventure and collective progress as a result of the vision of the longtime chairman Tom Johnston, a former Labour politician and Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

The large amounts of labour required to develop the schemes meant that many Highlanders could, for the first time, find well-paid employment building dams and boring tunnels right on their doorstep.

Admittedly, the Highlanders often worked shoulder to shoulder after WWII with Poles, Irish and a number of so called ‘displaced persons’, but the work ethic among all of the men was vigorous, and, without their huge personal effort, the difficulties would have been insurmountable.

Over the decades between the development of one of the earliest major schemes in Scotland at Kinlochleven and the later work by NOSHEB, working conditions and the approach to health and safety improved remarkably little. The Hydro Boys were still accommodated in temporary camps with limited entertainment, other than that which they could make for themselves. Although pay increased, conditions were improved little with deaths on site an all too common occurrence.

These are paid testament to by the graveyards associated with a number of the schemes. The men working at Kinlochleven from 1909 onwards were paid sixpence an hour and overtime was strictly limited.

Each man was paid his wages at the end of every day at work, providing ready money to fund nightly drinking and gambling sessions in the small windswept huts which served as accommodation, strewn across a mountainside.

The life of the camp was often as wild as the location. Disputes were settled with fists, providing entertainment in itself with men often betting on the outcomes of the fight.

The rough nature of life on the camps was a measure of the harshness of both the accommodation and the working conditions.

Men lived in long windowless huts with only a bunk and a blanket and communal access to a hotplate to cook food bought from the camp shop. With so many men living so close together, theft was rife, and men often slept with their belongings under their pillows.

The harsh lifestyle brutalised the men themselves, setting them apart from the rest of Highland society. In his book The Children of the Dean End, Patrick MacGill records the harsh life of the men who worked on Kinlochleven, and records the life of Dermot Flynn, whose hut-mates collected money to be sent home to Skye to help support an injured colleague. The money was made redundant by the death of the injured man and, after brief talk of the money being used to buy a memorial cross, it was decided to use it as a stake on the gambling table. The eventual winner, a man called Clancy, was forever after known as Clancy of the Cross.

By the time work was being completed on the later schemes, camp life had improved a little. Construction sites often had canteens such as the one at Meig where the men were served by female canteen staff. The mix of nationalities continued, however, and, even today, Poles and Czechs are commonly found on hydro schemes across Scotland.

Before building works could start, the landscape had to be very carefully surveyed by specialist hydro engineers, who quickly became fit from tramping across rugged hillsides, wading through rivers, and helping to decide the most efficient locations for dams, maximizing the fall between dam and powerhouse.

When surveying the pipelines which connected dams with powerhouses, detailed contour maps were required. As well as precisely recording the landscape, engineers recorded information such as bedrock and soil depth. Surveying remained important throughout the construction, with specialist chain men assisting the engineers to establish a level baseline some 3,000 feet long with a marker post placed every 100 feet. From this baseline, the dam would spring up across the valley.

Once actual construction on the schemes began, the range of jobs was diverse, but it was the men prepared to work in the tunnels who were paid the highest wages and who consequently had the most difficult and dangerous job. They were known as the Tunnel Tigers. A number of European records for the removal of rock were broken by the men who worked on the hydro schemes, infected by the constant desire to drive the great projects forward.

The process of boring the tunnels involved a sequence of operations which would be repeated numerous times in the long eight or 10-hour shifts. A spiral pattern of holes would be drilled into the tunnel face and gelignite inserted. This would then be detonated in a sequence of delayed explosions causing the rock to fracture and fissure, falling to the floor of the tunnel.

The mass of rock debris would then be removed to the mouth of the tunnel using manual power and wheelbarrows.

After 1940, this was made slightly easier with the introduction of EIMCOs, automated shovels which transferred the debris to small wagons. These were pulled out of the tunnel on locomotives which filled the tunnel with the smell of diesel, complemented by the reek of explosives and foul, often knee-deep, water.

Not only was the work dangerous, but health and safety was very limited. Workers were taken on with no reference to qualifications or previous experience, and many contractors banned trade unions from the sites leaving the workers with little representation. In the tunnels, scaling (to remove loose rock and prevent rock falls) was secondary to pressing the tunnel forwards, yet right up to the 1950s head protection was limited to hats made from compressed cardboard.

Many men were prepared to endure the dangerous conditions to get a share of the high wages available. Highlanders employed in estate work earned an average of two shillings per hour with no overtime, whilst a tunnel boss for ‘the hydro’ could earn up to £60 a week.

In many remote Highland communities the coming of the hydro was a major event involving an influx of new faces and features in the landscape that they helped to create.

The longstanding memory of the dams in Highland Scotland shows the number of men and the sheer effort required to build access roads, dams and other infrastructure which still remain in place and operational today.

The hard and dangerous work of the Hydro Boys throughout the 20th century has left Scotland with a truly invaluable legacy of generating power from renewable sources. The social vision of Tom Johnston (1881-1965) to connect remote Highland communities to the modern world, with roads built for access to schemes and the electricity provided from them, allowed the development of an infrastructure which would never otherwise have taken place.

The legacy of the hard work of the Hydro Boys, and their commitment to building and maintaining schemes, can still be seen throughout Highland Scotland today.

The awe-inspiring dams which soar across Highland glens have an equally awe-inspiring story of human effort behind them.