NICKNAMED the Tunnel Tigers, a 4,000 strong army of workers drilled their way into the depths of an Argyll mountain to transform the nation’s energy supplies. Thirty-six men died in the mammoth task of creating the Cruachan Power Station, which took six years to build.
Today marks 50 years since the hydroelectric station was opened by the Queen, yet it remains the crucial power storehouse to top up the UK’s National Grid at peak times.
To mark the anniversary five Tunnel Tigers, now in their 70s, revisited the inside of Ben Cruachan. They also took a trip up to the hilltop dam, high above Loch Awe, which is an intergral part of the scheme.
The human price paid for the remarkable feat of engineering hit home on the first port of the tour, when the group stopped at a small stone memorial to workmates who lost their lives.
John O’Donnell, one of the many Irishmen who worked on the scheme, was asked to “do the honours”. Placing a small basket of flowers on the monument, he wiped away a tear.
He said: “My next door neighbour Hugh Rogers – I grew up with him – was working at Cruachan, when there was another death. He said, there are 11 gone now, I wonder who will be the twelfth? He was the next. He died when 600ft of steel pipe, full of concrete, came down through the shaft.”
Mr O’Donnell, 76, from Kincasslagh, Donegal, added: “Thirty six men died in the construction phase but many, many, many more died with illness afterwards, including my brother, who died from emphysema.
“There was no health and safety then, that is the reason I am wearing a hearing aid now, and we never had anything, no goggles, no oilskins, just a helmet.”
Mr O’Donnell was part of the team who drilled the first holes into the hard granite rock face that is Ben Cruachan. Over the next six years some 220,000 cubic metres of rock were removed.
The men chipped and drilled out a seven-metre wide tunnel one kilometre into the hillside, before a team, whose pay slips were stamped with the words danger money, started drilling a shaft vertically up the mountain.
Angus Whyte, 74, from Maryburgh near Dingwall, remembers the day he was on stand-by to man the onsite ambulance.
He said: “They were concreting the shaft, pumping concrete down this steel pipe for ten to 15 feet. Everything, came off, it was filled with concrete and the whole lot came down. There were three killed on that occasion and a lot more injured.”
Hugh Finlay, generation director at ScottishPower, said: “It was a prodigiously complex feat of engineering to design a power station buried deep inside a mountain, and it was a herculean task to construct it.
“The genius of Sir Edward MacColl’s initial design, coupled with the skill and determination over six years from the 4,000-strong workforce, ensured Cruachan power station was built to last. It is as important today as 50 years ago.”