Telling our stories: The Tunnel Tigers of Donegal

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, which highlight harsh working conditions and emphasise the huge difference in today’s safety standards, will be part of a special film which will take centre stage in a new visitor centre at Pitlochry. Here, Gillian shares the memories of one of the original 'Donegal Tunnel Tigers', John ‘Gonna’ O’Donnel:

I was one of the original tunnel tigers who followed earlier generations of Donegal men travelling to Scotland for seasonal work. But it wasn’t the lure of farm work for me, I had other plans. In early January 1956, I borrowed some money and, setting off in my two older brothers’ footsteps, I boarded the ferry for Scotland. From Glasgow I followed two workers to Buchanan Street bus station and bought a single ticket to Callander and then onto Killin.

I had no guarantee of work so considered myself lucky when I was taken on by Nuttals and started my induction to tunnel work in and around the hills of Killin. I remember my first day as if it was yesterday. I was handed a helmet, pair of wellington boots and some bed clothes and told to get my head down as I was going out on the night shift.

Lucky for me I was set to work with my brother who told me, in no uncertain terms, to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut – valuable words that I still abide by today.

My first role was a ‘spanner’ man. It was a tough job which involved holding the drill machine for the four men working above me. Closing my eyes I can still feel the tumbling rocks coming down on my bare knuckles and how the constant drilling affected my hearing so that my ears rang constantly for that first fortnight in Perthshire. It was horrendous. But it was work, and for that I was very grateful.

My expertise expanded over the years and I spent most of my tunnelling career managing explosives. If I sniff the air I swear I can still conjure up the smell of the thick, black, choking, dust and smoke which followed each enormous blast. Boy did the ‘geli-reek’ give us a sore head – or maybe it was because we had to hold our helmets on so tightly to stop them being blown off!

I was based in Garve for a short time when we worked on the Shin hydro scheme, but my warmest memories are of my time at Loch Awe where I drilled the first bore hole and learned about the huge cavern that lies below the loch and the enormous amount of debris dumped there from the tunnels.

As I remember back to the tiring 12 hour shifts, the poor quality food, the 20 shared beds in the bunkhouses and the wellingtons that invariably let water in, I know if I had my life to live again, I would choose the same path and wouldn’t change a thing. Because, despite the sometimes terrible conditions and the lack of protection, working underground was the safest place I have ever worked because we all looked out for one another.

Image: A Drill Carriage in action at Errochty Tunnel and Power Station in 1949.