25 September 2014

S4M-10672 Hydroelectric Dams and Tunnels (Contribution of Building Workers)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-10672, in the name of Annabelle Ewing, on remembering the contribution of those who built the dams and tunnels. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes plans by Scottish and Southern Energy to develop a new state-of-the-art visitor centre at Pitlochry Dam and salmon ladder; recognises the contribution that this and other hydroelectric dams and tunnels throughout Scotland can make as tourist attractions as well as their primary function contributing to Scotland’s renewable electricity generation; respects the contribution made by the men, of many nationalities, who built the dams and tunnels, such as the Lednock “Tunnel Tigers”, who set a world record by tunnelling 557 feet in seven days in 1955 while working on the St Fillans section of the Breadalbane Hydro-Electric scheme; further recognises that this was hard, dangerous work and that a number of men lost their lives and countless others experienced injury or illness that affected them for the rest of their lives; understands that some of the public visitor information boards list several nationalities of workers in the tunnels but make no reference to Irish workers, and looks forward to the new visitor centre properly reflecting the contributions of all of the men who built the dams and tunnels.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): I congratulate my colleague Annabelle Ewing on lodging the motion and giving us time to debate the important matters that it raises.

Like others, I have connections with the issue, which are various. Among the many jobs that I have had, I have never worked on a hydro scheme or in a tunnel—except when I was around 10 or 11, when we used to build tunnels with a former tunneller from a Stalag Luft prisoner-of-war camp. However, that was a very different thing that is not to be compared at all with what we are talking about.

As a family, we used to camp regularly at Ardgualich farm, which is just below the Queen’s view on Loch Tummel. One of the highlights of all our visits there was the salmon ladder. My father, my brother and I were enthusiastic brown-trout fishermen, and to gaze in awe at the big brother—the salmon—was well worth doing. We aspired to catch it, but that would have required us to pay out money for a licence, or to find some other way of being able to fish for salmon, which we would not have contemplated.

The building of dams and tunnels is a substantial engineering issue. We sometimes forget how much the Victorians achieved in their engineering. For example, we should consider their achievement in building the Union canal—a topical name—which traverses the whole of central Scotland with a rise and fall of no more than 4 inches.

The Victorians, in building their tunnels, bridges and cofferdams, developed an impressive set of technologies. Some of the challenges involved in such work are quite substantial. The adiabatic lapse rate means that, for every 1,000 feet that one goes down, the temperature rises by 1.98° and the barometric pressure rises by 33 millibars. In addition, one is exposed to the release of methane in underground workings. There is a wide range of natural challenges, to which we can add the challenge that Richard Simpson mentioned: the dust from such work is perfectly contained in a closed environment for those who are working to inhale, to the substantial detriment to their health.

When the Lednock tunnel tigers tunnelled 557 feet in a week, it was a huge achievement. They were able to do that perhaps because the rock in the area through which they were tunnelling was comparatively soft, but that would increase the risk of roof fall and people being killed as a result. It is unlikely that the tunnellers were drilling through granite at that rate of knots. However, those are formidable achievements that we can admire from a distance.

Like other members, I have a connection with the benefits of electricity. My wife lived in a council house a mere 6 miles out on the main road down to Fort William from Inverness, and was at secondary school before the household got electricity. It came, of course, from the work of the hydro. To this day, the very large oil lamp that used to illuminate my wife’s house and by which she did her early studying when she was at school adorns our living room. It is a very impressive piece of kit, at about two and a half feet tall.

The Irish and other workers—including Dr Simpson, as we now know—achieved much in building our dams and tunnels and contributing to our having one of the most green sources of electricity quite early in the development of the idea that that was a good thing. More fundamentally, getting electricity into the hills and glens is a substantial achievement that I am delighted that we are able to celebrate today. I look forward to visiting the new facilities, which will tell the tale again in a modern context and perhaps redress the omission, in particular, of the Irish navvies and the others who made such a big contribution.


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