Story of Ben Cruachan ‘tunnel tigers’ to be told

Engineers work deep inside the mountain. Picture: TSPL
Engineers work deep inside the mountain. Picture: TSPL
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THE story of 3,000 “tunnel tigers” who descended on a tiny crofting community to build a power station inside a hollowed-out mountain is being told in a new book.

For the first time residents of the villages in the shadow of Ben Cruachan have spoken about the impact on their communities of the influx of workers drafted in to help build the Cruachan Power Station at Dalmally 50 years ago.

The dammed reservoir is linked to Loch Awe. Picture: Alamy

The dammed reservoir is linked to Loch Awe. Picture: Alamy

The scale of the pioneering engineering project, which generated electricity for central belt industries almost 100 miles away, attracted workers from across Scotland and beyond. They stayed in local bed and breakfasts as well as hastily erected camps.

The anecdotes collated by writer Marian Pallister in her book, Cruachan: The Hollow Mountain, include stories of the Teddy Boy tunnellers returning from weekend spending sprees in Glasgow in tight-fitting blue suits – the likes of which had never been seen before in Dalmally.

There were also pub fights, romances between tunnellers and local girls and the drama surrounding a missing radioactive isotope.

Sandy Dawson, whose father ran Crunachy House, now called Brander Lodge Hotel, in Taynuilt, recalls wild fights in the bar and remembered asking his father “Why have you got a pick axe handle behind the bar?”

Why have you got a pick axe handle behind the bar?

Sandy Dawson

Mabel Grieves, now McNulty, from Dalmally married one of the Irish workers and remembers travelling to local dances by foot, bike or bus.

“There was one blonde bombshell – the first drunk woman I ever saw,” she recalled.

And there was the alleged murder of ‘Gentleman Jim’ – a gambler who “hit the hydro camps like Bret Maverick” from the eponymous Western television series with his own blackjack case.

The dramatic location and scale of the power station has, in the past, attracted the attention of directors and it has featured in a number of films including the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough (1999).

Pallister’s book, published as residents prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the project’s opening in October 1965, notes that the Cruachan project brought many benefits, as well as disruption to the crofting villages.

The benefits included the cash injection over the five years workers were on site, living in bed and breakfasts and hotels as well as camps. It provided a kick-start for local ­people to launch their own businesses and allowed a school at Loch Awe to reopen when workers’ families moved north to join them.

The project worth £24.5 million (£484m today) was the brainchild of Red Clydesider Tom Johnston, secretary of state for Scotland in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government, who later set up the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.

As well as providing electricity, the project was a means of tackling Scotland’s grim 5.4 per cent unemployment rate and offered work to returning servicemen from the Highlands whose job prospects were bleak.

The project, in which 36 workers lost their lives, consisted of one barrage, two dams, 13 aqueducts and three generating stations with a capacity of around 450,000 kilowatts, constructed in a corridor stretching from Dalmally to Taynuilt.

Locals admit the early to mid-1960s, was an era of social revolution and that “tunnel tigers” were not responsible for all changes.

Pallister said that in the current climate of environmental protest over fracking and windfarms she had been expecting to find that people had been up in arms about the decision to build on the pristine Highland landscape.

“I went into it thinking I was going to get negative viewpoints but was very, very surprised when I didn’t,” she said. “There was a different mindset then and people were looking at it in terms of jobs and opportunities.”

“The only objections were from landowners thinking about fishing for people in the south of England who had once been there on holiday.

“People weren’t talking in terms of Munros then – mountains were for putting sheep on or shooting deer if you were from a different social class.

“It’s just such an amazing project which has stood the test of time.”

‘Cruachan: The Hollow Mountain by Marian Pallister, is published by Birlinn next month.