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Archive for September, 2015

Energising the Highlands for half a century

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Pioneering energy developments have been at the heart of economic activity in the north since the Highlands and Islands Development Board (later renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise) began life in 1965. In the first of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the organisation’s 50th anniversary, Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how hydro investment paved the way for industrial growth in the region – and he recounts the role of the board’s first chairman in lobbying for the Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than in the south of England

“THE Highland Problem” … It’s not a phrase you hear much these days, but in the early 1960s the long and ongoing decline of the north of Scotland was a key issue in Scottish politics, dominating the letters pages of the national broadsheets.

Stemming the region’s chronic depopulation, high unemployment and poor infrastructure was a priority for post-war planners in the Scottish Office, the subject of reports, studies, commissions and debates in parliament, all culminating in the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) in 1965, now of course Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

November 1 was the day that the HIDB officially opened its doors (famously when Bob Grieve, the board’s new chair, arrived on the first day, there was a west coast fisherman already waiting at the reception of the new office), but a rather higher-profile event had happened in Argyll just a fortnight earlier. October 15, 1965, saw the Queen formally opening the Cruachan Power Station at the head of Loch Awe, Scotland’s first hydroelectric pumped storage scheme.

The building of Cruachan was the culmination of 25 years of major energy investment in the Highlands and Islands.

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how critical the work of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board (now SSE) was in providing a modern 20th-century infrastructure for what then was a remote rural area blighted by out-migration and a severely depressed economy.

Building dams and power stations and connecting houses and crofts to electricity supplies was a key means of creating local jobs, reversing the relentless population drift, and modernising a large part of the landmass of Scotland.

It’s also easy to forget how controversial these developments were – strongly opposed by many landowners and others who argued that the scenic beauty of the Highlands would be ruined, tourism and field sports devastated and large areas of land sterilised. Sounds familiar?

The simple act of wiring up a house was life-changing. As a local newspaper noted: “At Morar in Inverness-shire and at Lochalsh in Wester Ross the other day, a crofter’s wife pulled a switch and the dim glows of the paraffin lamps were eclipsed by the flood of electric light.” The 20th century had arrived in the Gàidhealtachd.

Yet the electrification of the region was much more than electric cookers and new televisions. With almost all of the Highlands and Islands connected in 1965, it provided the basis for the HIDB to invest in businesses, communities and infrastructure to grow the economy and workforce, particularly in the crofting communities and islands.

Hydro investment was also central to the establishment of a local energy construction and engineering supply chain which has grown and evolved through the oil and gas boom of the 1970s and ’80s, and the growth of renewables since 2000. Even the Highlands and Islands regional airline, Loganair, started as the air taxi service of Muir of Ord-based Logan Construction, a major player in hydro construction during the 1950s and ’60s.

Building on this, a key part of the HIDB’s strategy in the 1960s was the industrial development of the Highlands and Islands, along with the growth of the region’s primary industries, fishing, farming and crofting, and the promotion of tourism. This development focus was based on the attraction of large-scale industries exploiting the regional natural resources, such as minerals and timber, available areas of large flat land and deep water, and an “under-used” workforce.

As HIDB’s first chairman, Robert Grieve, had come from his previous role as Scotland’s chief planner, the board followed the classic economic planning strategy of a “growth pole”, where major industrial developments would act as focus for population growth, and what we would now call the creation of a supply chain “cluster”. Energy, as a key part of the region’s natural resources, was seen as a strong driver of this industrialisation process.

Of course the board was not starting in an industrial policy vacuum, with the Scottish Office having already supported the development of a pulp and paper mill at Corpach in Lochaber, which opened in 1966, complementing the area’s existing aluminium smelter. Caithness was the home to the Dounreay Fast Reactor, established in the 1950s, primarily due to its remote location, and Invergordon in Easter Ross was one of a number of UK sites being considered for three new and very large aluminium smelters.

However, the perceived remoteness of the Highlands and Islands meant that the newly established HIDB had to lobby hard for the Invergordon smelter, and for new nuclear developments. In 1966, the board’s chairman spent his first year lobbying at ministerial level for the UK’s Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than Winfrith in Dorset, arguing that the PFR would act as a magnet for supply-chain activity in Caithness and develop internationally exportable technology.

This lobbying paid off, with both new developments confirmed in 1967 and construction starting in 1968, and the plants were operational in the early 1970s. Neither Dounreay, Invergordon, nor the Corpach pulp mill survived the UK’s deindustrialisation of the 1980s – although the complexity and sensitivity of nuclear decommissioning means Dounreay will remain a significant employer in Caithness for some time to come. But in retrospect they had played a crucial role in bringing industry to the north, training a workforce and growing a local supply chain.

Cruachan was the penultimate Hydro Board project, with just the Loch Ness Foyers scheme being built in the early 1970s. Yet 50 years on hydro power is still growing, now being driven by smaller community-based projects with the support of HIE. What’s more, they are still being built by local companies that got their start through the Hydro Board, and grew through infrastructure investments championed by the HIDB.

And Cruachan? Its dam and generator room are recognised as one of Scotland’s most iconic post-war industrial structures. It is an important tourist attraction, and is also a film location seen in James Bond movies. Today the Cruachan Power Station is still a critical part of Scotland’s energy infrastructure, storing power when the wind blows, and generating when we switch on the kettle at the end of Strictly.