Tunnel tigers

It’s the smells that Alex Ross remembers, more than half a century on - a potent mixture of diesel and gelignite and crusher dust: "You never forget it. I still get a whiff of it every time I fill my car tank up with diesel. All the machinery, everything, was diesel, even the ovens for cooking. You’d go to the canteen and you got dieselimpregnated buns."

Ross was one of the formidable and motley legion of workers who used picks, shovels and gelignite to subdue mountains and tame rivers. They were the "hydro boys", the men whose back-breaking and often dangerous labour during the post-war years ushered in the era of cheap hydro-electric power in the Highlands. The glory days of hydro-power seemed consigned to the history books in the early 1960s, with the arrival of North Sea oil and nuclear power, but today fears about climate change and the quest for green energy sources could see hydro power in favour again, as Emma Wood suggests in her new book, The Hydro Boys: Pioneers of Renewable Energy.

Wood’s home, perched on the Heights of Achterneed, above Strathpeffer, overlooks the heartland of Scottish hydro-electric power: the first such scheme of any scale in the north of Scotland was established in 1903 by land owner Colonel Walter Blunt-Mackenzie, who built a power station in the foothills of Ben Wyvis.

Originally from Yorkshire, Wood has lived at Achterneed for 15 years. There she has been fascinated by talk of "the hydro", and about the men who came to build it, the "tunnel tigers", who drank, fought, gambled and spent money like water when not risking life and limb in the heart of the hills.

The hydro boys transformed the Highlands in more ways than one. They were given licence to do so by a radical piece of legislation, the 1943 Hydro-Electric Development Act, which brought about the creation of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (NoSHEB). Much of what came to pass was down to the vision of the still-revered Tom Johnston.

Secretary of state for Scotland from 1941 to 1945, Johnston was a crusading socialist with a vision of harnessing the vast, untapped energy of its rivers to "do something decisive for the Highlands". Despite widespread opposition, his will effectively moved mountains. And the men who did the moving descended upon remote Highland communities which would never be the same again.

Among them was 15-year-old Alex Ross, who had left school in Inverness at 13 and was working for an undertaker for 3 a week. His father, who was already driving buses for the Mullardoch dam project in Glen Cannich, took his son to the contractor’s office and at eight the next morning the lad was boarding a lorry to take him up to Mullardoch, where he became a chain man, carrying a surveyor’s theodolites and levels. His wage more than doubled overnight, but he earned it. "You’ve no idea of the harshness of the place," he recalls. "I can remember once actually crying because of the cold."

Worse things could happen to hydro men, however. Ross was working late one evening when, "there was a sudden crump, and the general foreman come round a rock with blood coming out of his ears and says to me: ‘For God’s sake go and see what you can do for Paddy, though I don’t think there’s anything we can do for him.’

"The chief ganger and I went round and Paddy was lying there with his face flapped over on the rock, like a false face, and his stomach blown out between his legs. I was standing there shocked and [the foreman] says to me: ‘What are you doing standing there? Get a shovel and bury that’ - meaning the entrails."

By way of counselling, the shocked 16-year-old’s workmates remarked to him the next morning: "You had a bit of trouble last night, Alex? Ah, well, boy, it’s time you grew up."

Almost every hydro tunnel had its fatalities. Health and safety went by the board in the face of high wages and the urgency to get the job done.

Horrific memories, however, have done little to quench Ross’s enthusiasm for his time as a hydro worker, as he graduated to helping build the timber shutters to mould the concrete work in the tunnels. After a few years, however, the confinement of the tunnels, the diesel fumes and the sweet, sickly "gellie-reek" started to get him down and he left to take up a succession of less demanding occupations.

As Wood’s book shows, it was not just the traditional "Paddies" who arrived to pit themselves against the Highland landscape. In those post-war years they were joined by displaced persons from Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Hungary or wherever, and by eager squads of native Highlanders who had never before been paid such high wages to work on their own doorsteps.

Surprisingly, Wood’s research revealed little conflict, political, national or sectarian, between these disparate factions. "If there was any trouble among the DPs, they sorted it out for themselves," one interviewee told her. Another said: "We might have come from different places, but we were all miners."

Life on the construction camps, says Ross, was "like something straight out of Paint Your Wagon". They were visited by prostitutes (who plied their ancient profession in huts unofficially set aside and known as "hen houses"), and by professional gamblers. In one of the later projects, the Cruachan scheme on Loch Awe in the 1960s, some of the "weekend millionaires", as the miners were known - they earned a then-princely 200 a week - used to hit Oban resplendent in made-to-measure suits, cravats and wellie boots.

Wood’s book looks beyond the lives of the men who drove the tunnels through the mountains, to those whose communities were directly affected by the hydro revolution. It wasn’t just a case of villages formerly lit by Tilley lamps suddenly glowing with electric light. For many locals, the impact of the gangs of labourers and fleets of heavy vehicles was disconcerting to say the least. One man remembered how there were so many yellow cement lorries rumbling along local roads that he started seeing them in his sleep. A woman recalled hearing an electric guitar for the first time. Wee Free communities trembled at the prospect of encroaching legions of Irish Catholics.

By the start of the 1960s, however, nationalisation was no longer politically favoured the way it had been during the post-war recovery years (NoSHEB was Britain’s first nationalised industry). The Tory government-commissioned Mackenzie report, charged with reviewing electricity generation and distribution, recommended that Scotland’s two electricity boards should be brought together as the Scottish Electricity Board.

This move effectively stymied NoSHEB’s development plan in 1962, with more than 60 hydro schemes left unbuilt. The final blow was the Thatcherite privatisation of the late 1980s; a socially motivated vision had been ousted by profit-driven enterprise.

These days, though, there is a distinct feeling that hydro power has been waiting for its hour to come again; the schemes left mouldering on the drawing boards may yet be implemented.

Back in the 1940s, when hydro schemes were first mooted, they were vociferously opposed by land owners, hoteliers and certain English MPs, who nursed a romantic attachment to these unspoiled bens and glens, while the spectre of Highland clearance was invoked by Scottish MPs who feared economic exploitation of small communities. Today’s arguments tend toward the problems of environmental damage and displacement of populations - such as in China or in the Kariba Dam project of Zambia. But, as Wood points out, hydro schemes need not be so destructive. "And you can’t talk about that sort of displacement in the Highlands, because there are hardly any people left to displace."

The Hydro Boys: Pioneers of Renewable Energy by Emma Wood is published by Luath Press, priced 16.99.