Energy company SSE will open a new free to all visitor centre in Perthshire this month, which will tell the history of how hydropower was brought to Highland Scotland in the 1950s.

SSE’s Visitor Centre will be located at Pitlochry Dam and Power Station and will open its doors at the end of January 2017, to an expected 88,000 visitors every year.

Together with the company’s archive, which opened in August 2015 at the power station, the Perthshire centre will tell the story of SSE’s role in bringing hydroelectricity to the Highlands – a key chapter in Scotland’s industrial and social history.

It will showcase the great engineering feats of the Hydro projects of the 1950s, the benefits to society of bringing power to the glens, and the remarkable story of how salmon navigate their way through our dams and fish ladders.

And thanks to its innovative design, the centre and 60 seat café appears to ‘hover’ off the ground, providing breath-taking views of the dam and River Tummel below.

Inside the building the exhibition space is designed to be no less visually engaging. The main exhibition space will use a range of technologies to tell the story of the great engineering projects carried out by early pioneers to bring electricity to the Scottish Highlands. 

A good example of this was in the 1950s when the men digging the tunnels had to rely on drilling and explosives to break through solid rock. But it didn’t stop the record-breaking Lednock ‘Tunnel Tigers’ blasting their way through 170m of rock in one week in 1955 – equivalent to the height of Blackpool Tower!

Engineering heritage

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, in Scotland, 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 ten years after World War Two 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. 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.”

Brian 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 the workers  were doing and appreciated the all year round income.

“The contractors would make an effort to help us get on with the locals,” Brain says. “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 these 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,” he concludes. “Whenever people ask me about it I say, ‘whenever you press a switch and a light comes on –  hat’s what we made possible.’ I feel proud and humble because the technology we built is still here and still working today.”

A lot of credit is also given to the pioneering politician Tom Johnston [who created the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board] 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,” Brian added.

According to Gillian O’Reilly, the near completion of the new visitor centre was now creating a genuine ‘buzz’ in the Pitlochry area.

She said: “When we came up with the designs for the new visitor centre we knew we were going for something that was bold, and we’re delighted with the building that has emerged. Built on stilts on the banks of the River Tummel; it’s deliberately designed to make the most of the stunning views of the dam and Loch Faskally, and I hope people will, like me, be bowled over by it.”

Building design

The building has been designed by Craig Steven, Director of Chartered Architects BSP. He said: “The siting of the building allows views up and down the River Tummel, the dam itself, and Loch Faskally. It has been designed to defer to the size and scale of the existing dam, whilst creating a new more visitor friendly space to learn and enjoy.

“There are three elements to the design: a smaller form extending out of the main façade to create the entrance and house ancillary spaces; the main rectangular envelope which sits on the landscape and then appears to ‘hover’ above the river bank; and the lower level which being glazed helps it to ‘disappear’ into the landscape to accentuate the volume above cantilevering out. It’s even become affectionately knows as the ‘view tube!’”

The exhibits in the new centre will also demonstrate how energy is harnessed from nature. In addition, visitors will discover the secrets of the annual journey made by salmon when they return to their native Perthshire rivers to spawn and the part played by the salmon ladder, which has been crossed by over 250,000 salmon since it was built in 1952. 

SSE is also investing in a face-lift for the ever popular salmon observation chamber. And whilst huge salmon swimming in beautiful crystal clear water cannot necessarily be guaranteed, there will now be a modern day interpretation of nature’s very own incredible journey for the benefit of the estimated 550,000 visitors who cross the dam each year.