Blog: Remembering the courage of the Tunnel Tigers

Alasdair Bachell, SSE Heritage Archivist

Many of us take electricity for granted but this week provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on the courage of those workers who helped build the infrastructure that powers our homes today.

It’s why SSE is commemorating the  60th anniversary of the Lednock Tunnel Tigers who dug and blasted their way through the hills at St Fillans, Perthshire,  setting a world record for tunnelling while working on our pioneering Hydro-Electric schemes.

The dig took place between October 20 and 27 1955, with three crews of 14 men working eight hour shifts to clear over 557 feet (170m) of rock in just seven days, creating part of a tunnel system that would eventually provide water to St Fillans power station. To put that distance in perspective that’s more than the height of Blackpool Tower - which stands at 518ft (158m).

Such work undertaken in the 1930s to 1960s by men of all nationalities to bring hydro power to Scotland was often dangerous, sometimes, tragically resulting in men losing their lives or suffering life changing injuries.

And nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than from an account written by a Glasgow Weekly Herald reporter as he descended into the tunnel being created at Loch Ericht in 1936:

“The staccato bark of the drills became louder. My boots were heavy with mud and the air vibrated. The atmosphere grew heavier with sulphur fumes…Then we came upon the borers suddenly. The noise was appalling…it was an all enveloping, all encompassing racket, in which sensation was drowned for the first few minutes….

“It takes the borers several hours to finish the drilling. That done they take down the electric fittings, clear away all their gear, put a stick of gelignite in each hole, retire at least 800 feet, then blow the fuses. The resultant explosion can be heard on the surface more than a mile away.”

Advances in drilling techniques and improved training over the next 20 years would increase the speed of tunnelling, but ultimately it was the very same methods that would allow the Tunnel Tigers to break the rock tunnelling speed world record.

The working conditions in the tunnels would have been very poor; dark, cramped, filled with fumes and noise. The work was dangerous and on occasion proved fatal. Outside the tunnel the wet, windy and bitterly cold Highland weather was there to meet the miners.

The benefit of this was that the pay was far higher than the men would expect working elsewhere. The miners at St Fillans could expect around £5 a week, but for breaking the record the men were given pay of £60 and a £20 bonus, a huge sum of money at the time.

The promise of large bonuses encouraged huge numbers of labourers to work on the hydro schemes, and there was a good amount of friendly rivalry between tunnelling teams to see who could dig through their section quickest.

60 years on and the tunnels are still being used; a true testament to the work of the men who built them.