Bringing our oral hydro history to life

Construction work on SSE’s new visitor centre in Pitlochry is making good progress and is due to open at the start of next year.

Whilst the physical site is being built SSE’s Head of Heritage, Gillian O’Reilly, has been leading a project to gather stories from engineers and workers who helped bring hydro power to Scotland over 70 years ago. These accounts will be part of a special film which will take centre stage in the visitor centre.

One such engineer is Brian Haslam, 83, from Fochabers, who worked on the Errochty and Breadalbane Schemes in the 1950s as a civil engineer. An engineer’s job was to make sure the network of tunnels and pipelines were positioned correctly.

Brian is fiercely proud of the role he played in bringing electricity to the Highlands and recalls conditions at that time.

“I started 10 years after WW2 ended and Europe was still in turmoil,” he says.

“Many displaced workers from all over Europe, who had little possessions, came to Scotland to work and as a young person; it was fascinating to hear their experiences. There were also many Irish workers and we generally all got on well. Everyone was glad of the work and the chance to earn good money, and for me it was also a chance to gain experience and learn about life.

“I worked for two construction companies, Mitchell Construction and A.M. Carmichael, between 1955 and 1959, two of the many contractors involved.

“There were vast numbers of workers in the area and each company would build camps to house everyone. Initially some locals in some places were sceptical, but they soon saw the benefits of what we were doing and appreciated the all year round income.

“The contractors would make an effort to help us get on with the locals. I remember one lively Burns Supper organised by Mitchells in the Luib Hotel where all the local farmers, gamekeepers and their wives were invited.

“The dances held in the McLaren Hall in Killin drew more people than the Yukon Gold Rush! It was a very special and social time and people made lifelong friends.”

So how does Brian sum up the legacy of theses projects and how would he like people to remember the ‘Hydro Boys’ when they come to SSE’s new visitor centre?

“I look back on it all with enormous pride,” concludes Brian. “Whenever people ask me about it I say, ‘whenever you press a switch and a light comes on - that’s what we made possible.’ I feel proud and humble because the technology we built is still here and still working today.

“I think a lot of credit must go to Tom Johnston and his colleagues who were the visionaries behind the hydro revolution. There was a lot of resistance from rich landowners who didn’t want to see the schemes built, but he won the day and his legacy endures.

“I sincerely commend SSE for wanting to capture these memories. I hope people will come to their new visitor centre and be inspired by the stories we have handed down to them.”

For more information on what we have planned please watch this short film with SSE’s Head of Heritage, Gillian O’Reilly.