Marian travels back to the hollow mountain

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Screened at the end of December, Cameron McNeish’s duo of ‘Roads Less Travelled’ programmes (still available on BBC iPlayer) offered wonderful publicity for the stunning scenery of Argyll.  One of the on-screen contributors was Mid Argyll writer and journalist Marian Pallister, who talked about the impact of the construction of the Cruachan hydro electric project on the rural area around Loch Awe.
Marian offered the following insight to the Argyllshire Advertiser.

My book about the project, Cruachan: The Hollow Mountain, was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its opening. Invited to join Cameron up at the Cruachan dam for the second of his two recent programmes, I was delighted to tramp the mighty mountain with Scotland’s Number one authority on outdoor pursuits.

As an author and broadcaster, Cameron always has an eye on a good story, and so as well as asking me about the lack of health and safety regulations at the time the hydro project was being built, he also wanted to know if there really was a murder during the construction. There was, as I told him, a body – but the body wasn’t identified, no arrests were made, no court case took place.

It would be a shame if that construction period went down in history as an invasion of 3,000 workmen – ‘Tunnel Tigers’ as they were dubbed – into one of Argyll’s most beautiful settings and a possible murder.

My book was intended to give the story of the local people whose lives were punctuated by this ambitious construction project. Quite rightly, those Tunnel Tigers had been lauded in a number of publications. The work that was done hollowing out Argyll’s highest mountain to provide electricity for the nation was amazing.

The plan for Cruachan – as for the other major hydro projects of the post World War II era – was conceived by Tom Johnston, to whom I dedicated my book. Johnston was a politician who remained true to his ideals of bringing rural Scotland into the modern world. There was no power in the Highlands, and without power there could be no industry and no prosperity. The engineering genius was Sir Edward MacColl, whose biographer Norrie Fraser called him ‘a maker of modern Scotland’.

Cruachan was the first reversible pumped-storage system in the world. During its years of construction from 1959 to 1965, eminent international engineers visited the project to see how the water was pumped between two reservoirs through reversible turbine generators. At off-peak hours, the water was – is – pumped back up to the reservoir you see high up in the corrie above Loch Awe, held back by a dam that is now so much a part of our landscape. The loch itself is the lower reservoir.

I had imagined that the scale of such a project – using Scotland’s top engineering companies who shipped in workers from other parts of the UK and Europe – would have been a cause for resentment and protest by local people.

That, of course, failed to take account of the vision of the folk of Dalmally, Lochawe, and Taynuilt. Although it took men with engineering experience to blast the 12 miles of tunnels, hollow out the mountain itself, and construct the dam, there was also a need for a support army. There were clerks and porters, joiners and caterers, folk willing to let out a room, a caravan, a house, serve in a pub where just occasionally it was necessary to keep a baseball bat behind the bar to maintain bonhomie. The project kick started careers, fortunes and marriages, and gave the area good roads and a tourist industry.

If you haven’t visited the hollow mountain or walked Cruachan’s slopes, make 2019 the year you do.

[In bold please] Cruachan: The Hollow Mountain is available from the Argyll Book Centre in Lochgilphead and all good book shops, along with Marian Pallister’s other books of local interest.


The Pass of Brander before work started. no_a02Cruachan05

Life before the project – the Loch Awe Hotel with steamers. no_a02Cruachan04

The Queen opening the project in October 1965. no_a02Cruachan01

Working on the 12 miles of tunnels. no_a02Cruachan02

Working on the road to the dam, overlooking Loch Awe. no_a02Cruachan03