Sixty years after work began to build the iconic Cruachan pumped hydro storage power station in Scotland, its owner, Drax Group, has commissioned a new tartan to commemorate the 15 men who died during its construction.
The design, based on the Clan MacColl tartan sett, uses 15 strands of a special dark blue thread to represent each of the men who tragically lost their lives building what was the world’s first reversible pumped storage hydro system, located in the west Highlands.
Ian Kinnaird, head of Hydro at Drax, said: “Building this unique power station was an astonishing feat of engineering, completed in challenging conditions. The work was physically demanding and at times, incredibly dangerous. Sadly, during the course of the construction, 15 men lost their lives – many of whom were very young.”
Between 1959 and 1965, a 4,000-strong workforce built the power station on the shore of Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute – 1,300 of them were known as ‘Tunnel Tigers’ – the men at the forefront of the work. They drilled, blasted and cleared the rocks from the inside of the mountain.
Among those who died was 23-year-old Edward Gallagher, from Donegal – the fiancé of Barbara McCabe, now 81, who lives in Inverness-shire.
Mrs McCabe got engaged to Edward on 21 December 1961 and they were planning to get married the following September.
However, tragedy struck just before Easter 1962, when loose rock in the ceiling of a tunnel fell down – the force of which was so strong, it pulled Edward out of his protective footwear.
“He shouldn’t have been at work, but he’d swapped shifts with someone else who wanted to go home early for Easter – that was what Eddie was like,” she said.
Hollowing out the Ben Cruachan mountain was done by hand-drilling two to three-metre-deep holes into the granite rockface. Gelignite was packed into the drilled holes and detonated – blasted rocks were then removed by bulldozers, trucks and shovels, before drilling began on a fresh section of exposed granite. Eventually some 220,000 cubic metres of rubble was removed.
Ian MacLean, from Oban, was a 20-year-old joiner when he started working at Cruachan in 1962. He said: “I worked as a joiner on the roof of what is the machine hall now. The noise from the blasting was incredible – you didn’t just hear it, you felt it too.
“There was a lot of dust, but what bothered us the most was the smell – it was horrible. There were fumes from the explosives as well as the dump truck’s diesel engines that were running all the time – and we didn’t have masks to wear. Some days the air was so thick you could only see a few yards in front of where you were standing.”
In total, 20km of tunnels and chambers were excavated, including the kilometre-long entrance tunnel and the 91-metre-long, 36-metre-high machine hall.
The 77-year-old says that despite the conditions he worked in, it was an interesting job and he earned good money: “When I finished as an apprentice joiner I was earning £9 a week – when I started working at Cruachan I was on treble that. The conditions we were working in were tough – but I met some great people and we were young. It’s just what we did.”
Polish and Irish labourers worked alongside Scots, as well as displaced Europeans, prisoners of the second world war and even workers from as far away as Asia.
The 15 men who died are remembered at Cruachan in a mural on the wall of the turbine hall at the heart of the power station and now visitors to the award-winning ‘Hollow Mountain’ visitor centre will see the new tartan waistcoats worn by guides.
Sarah Cameron, Drax’s Manager of the Hollow Mountain visitor centre at Cruachan, added: “Our visitor centre guides will proudly wear the tartan on their waistcoats and continue to tell the stories about how this unique power station was built. It’s important that we remember the 15 men who died and the many others who were injured building this unique power station.”
The new tartan, made by Kinloch Anderson in Edinburgh, based on the Clan MacColl Sett, which was created in respect of Sir Edward MacColl, the brainchild and pioneer of Cruachan Power Station, has also been used to make some special scarves, available to buy from the visitor centre shop.
The Hollow Mountain visitor centre’s interactive exhibitions and displays help bring the history of the power station to life and explain how electricity is generated. There is also a café, gift shop and picnic area.