Why heritage matters

All this week SSE is paying tribute to the achievements of those who risked their lives to bring electricity to the Scottish Highlands.

Specifically the Lednock Tunnel Tigers who blasted their way through 557 feet of rock at St Fillans which set a world record at the time, and helped build the pioneering hydro-electric schemes that still provide power for us all today.

Why does it matter? Well, first and foremost it is all too easy to take electricity for granted but there are still men alive today who worked in such schemes and bear testimony to the harsh conditions of the day. Back then health and safety was virtually non-existent, and although the Tunnel Tigers were well rewarded financially, their work was fraught with danger.

The letters and testimony of those workers is a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made to bring power to our homes. No less important is the enormous difference electricity made to the lives of Highlanders who even as late as the 1970s were being introduced to its benefits for the first time.

In an article of the Hydro News in January 1975, Elizabeth Macpherson, a freelance journalist for the Glasgow Herald and Press and Journal, wrote a nostalgic article entitled ‘to the Hydro with Love’.  In it she shares her excitement that the hydro projects brought to Highland villages and their dwindling populations.

I was fascinated to read that it wasn’t just a well lit home that made the difference, but it provided opportunities for enterprising souls prepared to meet the demands of the new workers: ‘the wives of isolated gamekeepers [now] did a roaring trade in home baking and venison dripping, while an astonished postmistress found long-overdue bills being paid and enlisted the help of two jobless graduates to write letters to Sassenach firms asking them to supply hitherto unheard of goods now in demand by the incomers.

Enterprising women found their lives could be transformed as for the first time had their own income and a say in how it would be spent: a brilliant example of how electricity enabled social change beyond improved home comfort.

It’s impossible to put a price on these memories which provide a window to the past and remind us to respect those who went before us and never to take the present for granted. It’s why we at SSE have been busy collecting such shared memories and testimonies.

We see it as our responsibility to gather and catalogue artefacts and preserve them for future generations to enjoy and learn from. So this summer we opened a central repository where the pioneering works of a brave and courageous workforce could be gathered under one roof.

Located at Pitlochry dam, visitors to this new SSE Archive* can hear the rushing waters and reassuring ‘hum’ of the generator making electricity as they leaf through a treasure trove of letters, speeches, plans, photographs and employee magazines stemming from the north of Scotland electrification.

Archives help people to understand and respect their history and the role that particular organisations, individuals and movements played in shaping that past. And if we are very smart, we can always learn from the past to create a better future.


* Members of the public can visit the SSE Archive in person by making an appointment by e-mail or post. Applicants are required to specify the following: the subject and purpose of their research; the material they would like to view; the date and time they would like to visit; and contact details. E-mail applications should be made to heritage@sse.com and postal applications should be sent to SSE Archive, Pitlochry power station, Port-Na-Craig Road, Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5ND. To view the items that have been catalogued visit www.sseheritage.org.uk

About the author

Gillian O'Reilly Head of Heritage and Community Programmes

Gillian is Head of Heritage and Community Programmes. She is part of the CA directorate and supports SSE's businesses to actively get involved with their local communities. Her responsibilities include employee volunteering, matched funding and charity partnerships. She is also heavily involved in bringing SSE's heritage to life.

Read more articles by Gillian O'Reilly