Monday, April 23, 2007


Number 51 in the Ordnance Survey Landranger series, ‘Loch Tay and surrounding area’ is one of my tattiest maps. The cover has broken free, the paper is faded and torn along the fold marks and where I have been this morning, around Killin, there are muddy smears as if a dog has trodden on it. It isn’t surprising – this is my local area.

And yet my explorations this morning have reinforced a sense that the map conceals as well as reveals these local lands. The yellow line of the glen road and the blue of the river Lochay it follows are there alright. The contours tell of the steep north side climbing over 1,000 metres and dropping to the glaciated Glen Lyon. Shielings, even cup marked stones, burns and forests are marked. But to understand the architecture lying beneath it, to realise the tunnels that gather water and carry it between glens, keeping it high until it can fall with maximum force onto a turbine, you need to overlay a different map. This land holds secrets of massive construction as little as fifty years ago, and the lives and stories of many men, drawn from far and wide to harness and drive natural resources for human needs.

I am usually attracted to things which have an ancient quality – the system of aquecias built to bring irrigation to the harsh land of the Andalucian mountains during the exile of the Moors from Granada. The mozarabic trails cut into the stone of terrifying ravines, feats of engineering which entwined Christian and Muslim tradition and allowed direct travel across mountainous terrain in Valencia. But perhaps it is not their age that makes them intriguing. Perhaps, like the hydro systems of the Highlands, they strike me as markers of human ingenuity that have in some way become secret, occult, abandoned or forgotten. Perhaps here it has just happened a little more quickly.

Even those who wield Landcruisers around the single track roads of Highland Perthshire rather than taking to the hills on their feet, will have come across concrete dams, hung on hillsides to hold back reservoirs drained from hill and snowmelt. These are the blatant symbols of the hydro schemes. Few though will realise beyond it, the invisible network, the result of the largest post-war construction project in Europe, and a massive social experiment to bring Highland villages into the twentieth century with power and light and provide work for men returning from the War. Still meticulously maintained by a discreet band of illuminati in their landrovers and plastic hats, monitored remotely by computer, the full scale of it is fading.

Hillwalkers find whispers of it amongst the hills - outcrops of concrete, channels, gates, walls and ladders, even sometimes a mysterious tunnel entrance in a remote hillside, such as the one in Fin Glen, that climbs up from the Allt a’ Chobhair taking you from Glen Lyon onto the Lawers range. But there is comparatively little on the ground, or in people’s heads. Despite its short history, the evidence is grown over by heather and the scramble of birch, the local eye has become accustomed and unquestioning, the original engineers are dying off.

Hugely controversial in its day – prompting a public enquiry in Pitlochry in 1945 on the Tummel-Garry scheme that had locals slamming hotel doors against visiting engineers, so sure were they that the scheme would undermine businesses dependent on the natural attractions of the area. Yet today the dam and salmon ladder at Pitlochry , the point of the funnel for 1,800 sq km of land, receives over a quarter of a million visitors a year.

Upstream of these icons, the land is now thought of as something close to wilderness. At that time it was filled with armies of men – Irish tunnellers and powder monkeys, displaced Poles earning British citizenship on half-pay, Highlanders – stationed in their thousands in encampments up remote glens. They stayed in tin dormitories rank with the smell of gelignite and feet, enduring freezing winters and midge-infested summers. The ‘Tunnel Tigers’ earned vast sums on epic shifts drilling through rock to meet a team coming from the other glen, white faced with daylight deprivation, and exposed to considerable danger.

So fascinated have I been by these hidden tales of the land, that I have written a play about a team of mixed nationality men drilling under a mountain in 1948, attempting to break a record. They are each fiercely, but differently motivated – cash, the need to legitimately belong, ideology. In concert, and in conflict.

Until this morning I had only ever used my imagination to access their territory. Now I have walked there – an adit leading to the main tunnel that passes under the eastern flank of Meall Ghaordaidh, bringing the flow from Stronuich Reservoir to Lochay Power Station. The tunnel is quiet now, rather than fume-filled, pounding with the noise of the drill, the ‘loco’ that took away the spoil, and the men’s jokes and curses. But it still gave me an idea of the confined space, the impossible dark, the persistent drip of water, the wrinkles and corrugations of the rock and its seams of schist. I was amazed to find snaggles of thin red wire lying on the concrete floor – the explosives detonators still there after fifty years. But so few people have walked this way in that time, perhaps it is not so surprising that they remain.

The overland and underland. Another theme I want to explore in my walking – the invisible history beneath my feet, the land that is not as innocent, wild and un-peopled as it might look, that defies assumptions. Rather as you see landscape in a different way if you have only ever navigated your perceptions along the same road, and then walk cross country, or you see it from the air, or by its waterways - so an awareness of its underways must change our perception of the land. And by ‘underways’ I mean both the physical routes and the narrative paths, its human past.

A challenge. How to walk it in a way that draws on this, and how to write about it?

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