Obituaries: Kenneth Vernon CBE, man who brought power to Scots islands

Kenneth Vernon CBE, electrical engineer. Born: 15 March 1923 in Dumfries. Died: 2 May, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 98.

When he wasn't keeping the lights on, Kenneth Vernon grew prize onions

IN A LONG and distinguished career with the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, including 16 years as its deputy chairman and chief executive, Kenneth Vernon helped to lead the organisation through a time of transition in the years up to its privatisation.

As well as his responsibility for several major construction projects, he was closely involved in the extension of electrical power across the Highlands and Islands, bringing mains-powered electricity to many remote communities for the first time.

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Kenneth Robert Vernon was born in Dumfries and spent the first seven years of his life in Calcutta where his father, Cecil Vernon, an industrial chemist, headed up a factory making shellac. Early on, he acquired a rudimentary knowledge of Bengali, and became the interpreter between his mother, Jessie, and their Bengali cook.

When the family returned to Scotland, he was educated at Dumfries Academy. Although he would to go on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as an engineer, his school prizes were in art, and this would remain a lifelong interest.

After graduating from Glasgow University with a BSc in Electrical Engineering, he secured a highly prized graduate apprenticeship with the British Thomson-Houston Company, a heavy industrial firm based in Rugby. There he met Pamela Hands, who was secretary to the managing director, and they married in 1946, a partnership lasting until Pamela’s death in 2016.

Ken and Pamela bought their first home in Heriot Row, Edinburgh, Ken having taken a job in Edinburgh Corporation’s Electrical Department. They later moved to a larger house in Keith Crescent where they raised their five children, Lynne (who predeceased them), Sally, Michael, Lucy and Kate. Ken’s love of cars - he was once the proud owner of a 1930s Riley MPH - adapted to his growing family with the purchase of a Riley Pathfinder which carried the Vernons on many family outings.

He went on to work for the British Electricity Authority (1948-55) and South of Scotland Electrical Board (1955-56), before joining the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board - “the Hydro” - as chief planning engineer in 1956. He was made chief electrical and mechanical engineer two years later, and general manager in 1966. Becoming a board member in 1970, he was appointed deputy chairman and chief executive in 1973, a post he held until his retirement in 1989.

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He arrived at the Hydro at a time of change. The rapid expansion and construction of hydro electric power schemes in the North of Scotland in the post-war years had come to an end. At the same time, demand for power was increasing across the country, with the focus turning towards the more economical gas- and oil-fired power stations. However, many of the most remote parts of Scotland were still without any electricity supply.

During his time at the Hydro, Ken held overall responsibility for several major development projects including the oil-fired power station Carolina Port ‘B’, at Dundee, the pioneering pumped storage scheme at Cruachan (1965), a second pumped-storage scheme at Foyers on the east side of Loch Ness (1974), and the commissioning of the oil- and gas-fired power station at Peterhead, to take advantage of oil and gas supply from the North Sea.

In 1965, Ken was detailed to escort the Queen around the newly completed Cruachan Power Station. Near Dalmally in Argyll, the plant used cheap off-peak electricity to pump water from Loch Awe up to the higher Cruachan reservoir, from which it could be released to generate electricity when needed. Capable of generating 440 megawatts from turbines housed inside the mountain, Cruachan is one of just four pumped storage plants in the UK and still has “black start” capability for the national grid in the event of widespread power failure.

At the same time, the Hydro was turning its attention away from large-scale schemes towards using its energy for the direct benefit of communities in the Highlands and Islands. Ken was closely involved with the planning and design of transmission and distribution systems extending electricity supply to the most remote communities, and enjoyed the opportunity to travel to many of them. In this period, over 120 miles of submarine cable was laid taking power to over 50 inhabited islands, including the Orkney Islands and the Western Isles. Ken was made a CBE in 1978 “for services to electricity supply in the North of Scotland”.

In the 1988 book, The Hydro: Study of the Development of the Major Hydroelectric Schemes Undertaken by the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, Peter L Payne writes that Ken Vernon “transformed the orientation of the Board” thus ensuring its survival. He also helped build the Hydro’s reputation for serving local communities in the North. Writing in the Board’s newsletter at the time of his retirement, Ken described his greatest achievement as the fact that “staff [are] held in such high regard not only by the consumers in the North of Scotland but also by the industry at large”.

Ken was a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and was a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He authored academic papers and represented his industry at conferences around the world.

He announced his intention to retire from the Hydro in 1988 but was invited to stay on to help guide the organisation through the forthcoming privatisation, and was acclaimed for his leadership during these complex negotiations.

After retirement, he and Pamela divided their time between their Edinburgh home and a cottage at Caulkerbush on the Solway Coast, a return to Ken’s Dumfriesshire roots. Always a keen gardener who loved to grow vegetables and fruit and once won a prize for onions at the Blackhall Fruit and Veg Competition, he now had an opportunity to create a second beautiful garden. He also loved fishing, saying that observing wildlife at close range brought him as much pleasure as catching fish.

Kenneth Vernon is remembered as “a devoted husband and kind and loving father… well respected by his peers and all who came into contact with him”. He is survived by his children Sally, Michael, Lucy and Kate, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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