A Brief History of Kinlochleven


The Making of a Village

During the early part of the 20th century aluminium was in great demand and the British Aluminium Company had been searching for a suitable location for the construction of an aluminium smelter and hydro scheme.  Hydro power was a cheap means of generating electricity for the smelting process and so identifying the correct location for a hydro scheme was vital; there must be the ability to store not only a ample quantity of water, but the water must be stored at sufficient height (the 'head') to allow sufficient power to be generated.  

In 1901 an Act of Parliament was passed which allowed the British Aluminium Company to utilize the great water power of the two areas known as the Blackwater and Loch Eilde basins for hydro; Kinlochleven's future path was determined.

At that time the small settlement, at the head of the long winding stretch of shallow water named Loch Leven, consisted of two shooting lodges, their cottages and one farm. This remote valley was accessible either by sea or by a long walk over boggy mountain passes. 

Construction of the Hydro Scheme

In order to create the conditions needed for a suitable hydro scheme (a large quantity of water and stored at height) it was planned to construct a dam high in the hills 5 miles upstream of the settlement; the powerhouse and smelter were to be constructed down the valley as part of the to-be-established village of Kinlochleven.

The hydro scheme required the construction of one key reservoir (the Blackwater reservoir) as well as the infrastructure required to deliver a continuous supply of water to the aluminium smelter.

Engineering Achievement and Stats

Construction began in 1904, with a workforce 3,000 strong.  Many of these were Irish ‘navvies’ and ‘haddies’ from the Scottish Highlands & Islands, itinerant labourers travelling wherever they could find work.

The dam was almost one kilometre in length, 27 metres in height and 14.5 kilometres in length.  With a volume of 109 billion litres, the volume of 43,700 Olympic size swimming pools, it is still the largest in the Highlands. 

The dam created one vast reservoir out of three smaller lochs.

Transporting this stored water to where it was needed required another ambitious engineering solution.  The water stored behind the dam was channelled along 6 kilometres of enclosed concrete aqueduct (the "conduit") before plunging down almost 13km length of steel pipe laid in four parallel pipelines to the powerhouse and smelter.

The dam was built using large blocks of granite embedded in ordinary concrete.  It’s construction was started near it’s centre on the south side of the river and worked out both ways.  The dam was built using hand tools, without the benefit of hydraulics or mechanical earth moving machinery, and is an remarkable feat of civil engineering. 

Conditions and Human Cost

 Navvies provided the necessary 'muscle' to complete major civil engineering projects around the British Isles during the 19th century and the construction of the Kinlochleven hydro scheme has been described as the last major creation of the traditional 'navvy'.   

The navvies were used to hard work and basic conditions and they lived on the job in wooden huts of various sizes. They slept in their clothes and boots, as anything left lying around soon disappeared, and multiple occupants shared each bed.

The labourers were paid a ‘tanner’ (2.5p) per hour and many borrowed against their wages as soon as they arrived and therefore were never out of debt.  Most of the money earned was spent on alcohol. When the navvies finished work they would walk over the hill to the Kingshouse Inn, in Glencoe, the nearest pub. This was 4 miles each way. Many were lost on the hills on the walk back and were not found until the following spring when the snow had thawed.

The health and safety of the workers does not appear to have been given any sort of priority and deaths, as a result of falling into excavated holes in the dam wall as well as accidents with dynamite, were  not uncommon. 

In fact, deaths were frequent enough to merit a graveyard nearby. The concrete gravestones in this desolate spot contains markers for both named and "unknown" persons.

Children of the Dead End

One Irish ‘navvie’ who was employed at the dam was Patrick MacGill who published an account of his travels from his home in Donegal, Ireland to Glasgow and, subsequently, to Kinlochleven where he worked on the building of the dam.   The book is fiction but draws heavily on his first hand experiences of work on the Kinlochleven hydro scheme.  MacGill's ‘Children of the Dead End’ is a fascinating read, and vividly portrays the living and working conditions of those labouring on the construction of the dam. 

The "Electric Village"

The smelter in the village was ready to produce aluminium in March 1909 (there had been a temporary factory located a few miles upstream since December 1907) and needed a workforce; only a few families had lived in the area previously.

Although many navvies moved on when the construction was completed, evidently not tempted to work indoors in a factory environment, many stayed on and settled in the village.  Additional workers were brought in from the slate quarries at Ballachulish, tempted by better wages.  Many others were attracted to the village for similar economic reasons.

Kinlochleven was the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity (famously before even Buckingham Palace), coining the phrase "The Electric Village".

The earliest village shops were not ready until 1908.  There were four of these and were occupied by a butcher, baker, grocer and draper (the Highland Getaway building is the original bakers shop).  These, along with accommodation, were on the south side of the river in Kinlochleven but following the 1st World War the village spread to the north bank of the river to Kinlochmore and a bridge was built to join the two. 

At this time the river represented a county boundary, with Inverness-shire to the north and Argyll-shire to the south.  This resulted in a bizarre duplication of services including two police stations, one on each side of the river!

The population continued to grow, at it's height the smelter alone employed 700 men, and Kinlochleven evolved into a fully functioning community.

A New Beginning

Although producing some of the highest grade aluminium available on the world market, its small size in comparison to modern smelters led to the closure of the Kinlochleven smelter in 2000.

The power station now produces electricity for the aluminium smelter in Fort William, supplementing the supply from the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme. Any surplus energy is sold to the national grid for public supply. Consequently the dam and associated works remain in use.

After an impressive £10m regeneration of the village and the factory site, Kinlochleven has sought its future elsewhere.

Kinlochleven is the penultimate stop on the 95 mile long West Highland Way and is an important tourism destination in the Scottish Highlands. The village lies at the head of the fjord-like Loch Leven and is surrounded on three sides by imposing mountains. There are 10 Munro's (mountains over 3,000 ft) in the Mamores above Kinlochleven with Binnein Mor (at 3,707ft/1,130m) the highest.

In fact, the area around and above Kinlochleven contains more wild mountain land than all of the mountain national parks in England and Wales combined. There is a significant network of mountain biking and hiking trails, and the Ice Factor National Ice Climbing Centre, one of the top five visitor attractions in the highlands and housed in a converted original former smelter building.

In August 2008, Kinlochleven welcomed children back to a new term in a modern £11m new build community school; a 21st century facility offering education to 240 pupils of all ages.

Thank you for taking the time to look at Kinlochleven as it was and will be.  We hope you enjoy your time here and remember when walking through the hills and streets, the people who paved the way for you.

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