Of Land & Power – energy before and after neoliberalism

7 Nov 2014 james


Mountain of Ben Lui, Pertshire, seen from Strath Cononish
Mountain of Ben Lui, Pertshire, seen from Strath Cononish

The mass of Ben Lui rises up. So much higher than all those ridges around it. We can make out our planned line of ascent up Alt Coire Ghaothaich, the mare’s tail of white water plunging down the mountainside. We cross Alt an Rund and begin the climb from 1,150 feet to the summit of 3,400 ft. As the crow flies, the peak is less than a mile due southwest. The weather is holding. The crags near the top of Ben Lui are hidden in cloud but the rest of the landscape is bright. We look back down Strath Cononish through which we have walked – it is a simply massive expanse of country, almost devoid of signs of dwelling, except for Cononish Farm. Closer by, at the head of the strath, the sunlight picks out the marks of abandoned strip fields and the scattered stones of former sheepfolds and shielings. Surely this was a village in the shadow of Ben Lui, the mountain sheltering it from the prevailing south westerly. The usual questions rush back: Who lived here? What generations of song and stories? Was the grazing in the ‘outfields’ on the mountainside held as a commons by the villagers? When were the people evicted? By whom? Who now owns the land?

The march of the sheep from the Lowlands of Dumfries into these Highlands of Perthshire began in the 1750s, alongside new landlords, evictions and the Clearances of the Gaelic-speaking peoples from their home lands. As families were driven from the villages, their language was largely exterminated, as was their practice of holding most of the land in common.

We enter Coire Ghaothaich and pick our way between the boulders. I’m struck by the density of the silence. A vacuum. We too have fallen silent now. The stream of conversation has stopped between myself and my companion Greg Muttitt. The mountain casts its spell.

Suddenly, a loud cawing above us. A Golden Eagle being mobbed by a pair of Ravens – tumbling and barking until they’ve driven it from the rocky precipice of Stob an Tighe Aird. The eagle glides and flaps directly over us, wingtip primaries outspread.

We pant and sweat our way up the shoulder of the mountain. On the ridge there’s a scuffed line among the rocks that marks a climbers’ path to the summit cairn. Soon we are in the cloud that we’d seen from below. The ridge is perhaps eight feet wide and then precipice. I’m thankful for the cloud that masks the abyss, just fifty feet of visibility and then white void. There is not a breath of wind. I feel like skipping as we approach the cairn, stone in hand.

On the descent we lose our way. As we lumber around in the cloud, trying to pick out some semblance of a path, my mind flips back to walking with Jane, crossing the mountain of Oyrnafjall between the townships of Trungisvagur and Famjin on the island of Suduroy in the Faroes.

Mountain and township on the island of Suduroy in the Faroes
Mountain and township on the island of Suduroy in the Faroes

Climbing a mountain as wild as Ben Lui, we’d followed a line of cairns. Each one just visible from the last despite the mist. What a kind and intimate presence those piles of stones had been, guiding traveller from the ‘outfield’ of one settlement to the ‘outfield’ of the next. These grazing ‘outfields’ are held in common by the inhabitants of the townships. In the Faroes, where tarmaced roads between villages are barely more than a generation old, the paths were the main form of communication between one farm and the next. The land is known, and possessed, so intimately by those that work it.

In contrast the path that we’d taken up Ben Lui, and were now anxiously trying to find in the enveloping cloud, was a route made by mountaineers. By visitors on a ‘tour’ of the mountains. By ‘tour-ists’ from the metropolis such as Greg and I, drawn to the romance of the Highlands – part of a long line from Johnson & Boswell, to Sir Ian Munro, who invented the mountain category of ‘Munros’ in the 1880s. How different these two types of paths are, the line of cairns on Oyrnafjall and the scuff marks between the boulders on Ben Lui. How they illustrate such different senses of ownership and possession over the mountains.

I think of the lines by Norman McCaig in ‘A Man in Assynt’:

Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?


Who possesses this landscape? –

The man who bought it or

I who am possessed by it?

Eventually we descend far enough that we drop below the cloud. The landscape opens up before us – a great bowl of a moor dotted with a myriad of silver lochans and winding burns. The sky shot through with shafts of sunlight, white between the dark clouds. We struggle to identify exactly were we are on the OS map. Then a perfect clue – a line of pylons in the far distance, the only sign of humanity, incongruously industrial in this wildness. Below us is Gleann nan Caorann, and the River Falloach flowing into Loch Lomand. We have crossed the ridge, moved from one valley to another, from the watershed of the North Sea to the watershed of the North Atlantic. We have been walking for six hours and have seen only two other people. Who owns this land?

To answer this question, I later dig into Andy Wightman’s seminal book, first published in 1996, ‘Who owns Scotland?’. The western face of the mountain of Ben Lui is owned by Glenfalloch Estate, part of a company managed by David Lowes, formerly deputy Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance. Beyond Glen Falloch lies the Garabal Estate, owned by Dr Wilhelm Frischmann. The latter made his millions as chairman of Pell Frischman ltd, which was central to the building of Centre Point in the West End of London, and Tower 42 in The City of London.

Tower 42 in The City of London engineered by Pell Frischman ltd
Tower 42 in The City of London engineered by Pell Frischman ltd

Far off in the distance, where the line of pylons ran to, lies a stretch of mountain and moor which forms the Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric Scheme and is owned by SSE, Scottish and Southern Energy plc. The Loch Sloy project first saw the light of day in July 1944, when it was published as one of the plans of the Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. The Board’s programme was hailed at the time as ‘a golden opportunity to test a new approach to British social and economic problems’[1] The plan to generate electricity from the rivers and glens of the Scottish Highlands was a plank in ship of the coming Social Democratic settlement.

Dam at Loch Sloy under construction in 1949
Dam at Loch Sloy under construction in 1949

In the Sloy valley a massive dam was constructed across the Allt a’ Chnoic burn and a reservoir created. This artificial loch was further fed by aqueducts bringing water through underground pipes from Gleann nan Caorran. The perceived wildness of sliver lochans that Greg and I had looked down upon from Ben Lui was in fact a catchment area for the tunnels built by the construction companies Balfour Beatty & Co and Edmund Nuttall Sons & Co to feed Loch Sloy eight miles due south.

From the reservoir, the water cascades through a shaft to a main power station at Inveruglas Bay on Loch Lomond. Construction began in 1945 with thousands of workers housed in makeshift camps. Men from Scotland, England and Ireland – and squads of German POWs – poured concrete for the dams and burrowed through the schist rock beneath Ben Vorlich to build the tunnels. The project was opened in October 1950 by Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), the first of the many Scotland Hydro-Electric Board schemes to come on line. Sixty-four years later the project still operates. It is kept on standby for periods of peak demand but can be generating 152 megawatts within five minutes.

The train that we take, heading home from Tyndrum, passes in the shadow of the generator building at Inveruglas. The pylons fan out from the power station west to Oban and south to Glasgow. My head spins with reflections on the days in the mountains.

Whose land was flooded to make Loch Sloy? The land between Ben Vorlich and Ben Vane had doubtless long since been ‘cleared’ of settlement, like Strath Cononish. But the flooding of the valley was heavily contested. The local authority of Dunbarton County Council forced the issue to a public inquiry held in Edinburgh, but their objections were summarily overruled.

Here is a renewable energy generating system that has been running successfully for over half a century, why is it so rarely remembered? Why is it not deployed more widely in the continual arguments about the reliability of renewable energy systems and whether they should be allowed to intrude into the landscape, the ‘unspoilt landscape’? These schemes were contested at birth, but now have become an accepted part of the Highlands. Will industrial-sized offshore windfarms and large onshore wind turbines become a normal, accepted – even reassuring – part of the landscape in England, Wales and Scotland?

This was a project created through public finance, through taxes receipts – but now owned by the shareholders of SSE. The Scotland Hydro-Electric Board was privatised in August 1989. What does this shift of ownership mean? Private profits are generated from this structure built and financed by the state, by the public. Do the shareholders understand that they possess the valley beneath Ben Vorlich?

The relationship between the ownership of land and non-fossil fuel energy schemes is key. At Platform we learnt this the hard way through our South West London urban renewable energy project – RENUE – in the 1990s. We are exploring this in our forthcoming booklet ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’, an installment of the Kilburn Manifesto that will be launched on 18th November.

Is it possible to create a post-neoliberal energy system, in which we prioritise models like that of the island community of Eigg, 100 miles northwest of Ben Lui. Models in which the generating technology and the land on which it sits is held common?

Community owned wind turbines on the island of Eigg, Scotland
Community owned wind turbines on the island of Eigg, Scotland

This is a different ownership and usage structure to the Scotland Hydro-Electric Board where the the dams and power stations at Sloy and Inveruglas were held by the state, as was the land in the shadow of Ben Vorlich. Eigg suggests a pattern of land ownership similar to that in the townships of Trungisvagur and Famjin in the Faroes and perhaps once held in the now ruined village at the head of Strath Connon.

[1] Scottish Branch of the Association of Scientific Workers, 1944 – Highland Power – in Miller, James – The Dam Builders – p27

With thanks to Greg Muttitt and Mika Minio

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