In the Steps of the Kinlochleven Navvies

Deep in the Scottish Highlands in the upper valley of the River Leven is truly wild country, caught between the great rift of Glencoe and the mountains of Lochaber.  But this is also an industrial landscape. The village of Kinlochleven came out about as a centre for the manufacture of aluminium, powered by the stored waters of the Leven held behind the long wall of the Blackwater Dam.

    The inspiration for my hill walk out to the great dam occurred several years before, some miles beyond Fort William at Glenfinnan. On a very wet day I had called in at the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre in search of something to read. A charming lady assistant recommended the recently republished novels of navvy life Children of the Dead End and its sequel Moleskin Joe, by the much neglected author Patrick MacGill.  As the rain poured down that evening I sat by the fireside in the tiny cottage in Benderloch and avidly read these tales of navvying in early twentieth century Scotland.

Although presented as novels the books are largely autobiographical, telling how the young MacGill worked on farmsteads and industrial sites around Ireland and Scotland before journeying on foot the hundred miles between Greenock and the dam construction works on the Leven. That trek itself was quite arduous with the two navvies having to steal a boat to cross the Clyde, before they could even begin their long walk through the Highlands. They had roamed on through inhospitable countryside, having to steal or scrounge for food, MacGill literally barefooted as they took the last steps of their journey over the rugged terrain   where the workers lived:

A sleepy hollow lay below; and within it a muddle of shacks, roofed with tarred canvas, and built of driven piles, were huddled together in bewildering confusion. These were surrounded by puddles, heaps of disused woods, tins, bottles, and all manner of discarded rubbish. Some of the shacks had windows, most of them had none; some had doors facing north, some south; everything was in a most haphazard condition, and it looked as if the buildings had dropped out of the sky by accident, and were just allowed to remain where they had fallen.

    It was here that MacGill was to live and work for months on end, on the great dam itself and the route of the pipelines down to Kinlochleven. The Blackwater navvies blew up and carved out great chunks of mountainside in one of the most exposed areas of the Highlands by night and day, in midge-ridden hot weather and during weeks of blizzards and lashing rain. Men were crammed dozens to a hut, often drunk or fighting over the consequences of a gambling match. Then with the completion of the dam they were paid off and marched away to the next job leaving the remnants of where they had lived behind. Well, not all of them marched away. Accidents during their labours were common and a number of the navvies died, to be buried below the dam in Britain’s loneliest and most atmospheric graveyard.

    The aluminium works at Kinlochleven are closed now, though the workers’ houses remain in the deep vale between those high mountains. The waters of the great Blackwater Dam provides power for hydro-electricity. Some of the buildings of the old works have been given over to leisure interests, outdoor centres with climbing walls. But it feels as if the ghosts of those navvies remain in the long valley down from the dam.

    Clouds thundered up the glen as I set out from Kinlochleven, though it remained dry and intermittently sunny for my first mile. The initial stage of my route was part of the West Highland Way, that very popular long distance walk from Glasgow to Fort William. I tramped the winding and steep track through thick birchwoods up the side of the glen, at first beside the huge pipeline from the dam that curved down the hillside. As I reached higher ground the clouds delivered short but heavy and cold showers, though the sun in between the downpours warmed me and made it unnecessary to wear my much hated waterproof clothing. The clouds were high above the mountain summits and there were fine views across to the Mamores, that great range of mountains that huddle up to the highest of all British summits – Ben Nevis.

    The dam proved to be further away than I had imagined. I lost height into a deep valley, which had to be regained on its eastern side. It was close to a lonely cottage on the valley’s topmost edge that I found the conduit again, now covered by an earthen flat track above the pipes, making easier progress as it contoured the walls of the glen. You cannot help but be amazed at this astonishing feat of engineering, on a par with the construction of the dam itself.  The Blackwater navvies worked the pipeline’s route out of solid rock, much of it precipitous cliff. Where waterfalls tumbled down the slopes of the glen narrow bridges carried the pipeline high over the rushing waters. Their slippery track took me sometimes deep into the hillside, then as suddenly out above incredible drops.

    Far below the white waters of  Leven crashed down the glen, supplemented by what seemed to be hundreds of waterfalls from the surrounding hills. Apart from the silver of the birches, the whole landscape appeared  brown and golden – those rich colours of a highland October. A stag bellowed from the woodland lining the banks of the river, his unearthly cry echoing miles into the mountains. The sound must have been very familiar to the navvies as they slaved away, day and night on their perilous perches between the river and the sky. 

    It took three hours of walking before the dam came into view. I think I had expected something narrower and taller, rather than the long grey line of wall that traversed the head of the glen. I had a feeling of profound unease as I stood in its shadow, and not I think just because of the millions of tons of water held above me. Peculiar thudding noises, crashes and booms seemed to come from the heart of its great wall, for all the world as though the navvies were still at work deep inside its stones.

    Some of the navvies never left their workplace. They lie in a tiny but atmospheric burial ground below the dam, a great mound of earth that they themselves probably shifted into place. Simple headstones in ragged lines mark the last resting place of a couple of dozen of Patrick MacGill’s contemporaries. I walked between them reading the names which were mostly Scottish and Irish.  Some bore nicknames such as “Darkie Cunningham”, others had no name at all, perhaps bits of body unrecognisable in death after a rock fall or an accident with explosives.

    There was a grave of a woman, and a more recent headstone from 1978 with the epitaph “These Are My Mountains”. I wondered if this perhaps was a navvy who had died a more peaceful death seventy years on from his fellows but who sought to lie with them in this loneliest of graveyards, or just someone who had a fellow feeling with these half-forgotten individuals. MacGill relates how some workers perished in blizzards as they made a desperate journey across the mountains in search of liquor at the Kingshouse inn on the skirts of Rannoch Moor, their bones lying in the heather to this day.

We talk now of hard work and a tough existence, but what do we know of either compared to the existence of the  navvies who laboured day and night on freezing mountainsides, lashed with rain and snow and attacked by swarms of midges on warmer summer days? They lived hard, worked to extremes, fought the landscape and each other, and occasionally died in this out of the way place. Nothing remains of the shanty town described so vividly by Patrick MacGill but the refuse pits where broken shovels and rusty food tins remind us of the courageous and colourful individuals who made this desolate place their temporary home.

    I felt humbled as I stood among the headstones for I know I will never have to toil as hard as the navvies who lay by my feet. The mountains for me are a challenge and a pleasure, not rock to be confronted and worked away. As I stood there the great belt of cloud that had hung for so long over Loch Leven began to head inland towards me, bringing the promise of rain. I bowed my head in silent tribute to these brave individuals and then walked away without looking back.

    A track took me to the conduit and I headed back to Kinlochleven. And it was just then that I had one of those weird experiences that seem natural when you are high in the lonely mountains, but appear to be irrational, unexplainable, when back at home. As I approached a turn in the pipeline track I heard some men in conversation ahead of me. They were talking loudly, their voices echoing back from the side of the mountain. I turned the corner but there was no one in sight and the talking had stopped. But a few hundred yards on it began again, seemingly right in front of me, then in the air all around. There was a strong masculine voice speaking with an Irish accent.  I could barely make out the words, but I knew the conversation was not in English. More likely Erse or perhaps Scottish Gaelic. There was one very loud speaker and two fainter answering voices. I saw nothing, but it felt as though the loudest of the men was standing right next to me and his fellows some little distance down the slope. The air seemed to tingle as the voices grew louder and then melted away. Suddenly, as I descended, the voices stopped as though the spell was broken. The strange atmosphere was gone.

    I am aware that sounds travel in peculiar ways in the mountains, and it certainly not the first time I have heard conversations in this way. But I know that these sounds were not inside my head, but external. And they were too close to me and vivid to be the carried conversations of distant hillwalkers. Were the voices some ghostly echo of the Blackwater navvies? It is true that I had been in a very atmospheric place that had moved me, and the navvies were heavy in my thoughts. But I remain convinced that the sounds were not some imaginative projection. I do think that it is possible for great emotions to be imprinted on landscapes and played back in the same way that we listen and watch recorded music and pictures on disc. There is something that we do not yet understand about these matters, but they are inexplicable only in the sense that our science has not yet found a way to bring them to our understanding.

    The showers became more frequent as the band of cloud rolled overhead, turning into a fierce downpour as I breasted the last valley before Kinlochleven. In the birchwoods I passed three hikers huddled away from the rain in a stretch of furze, looking thoroughly dispirited. I waved a hand but they just looked miserable in return. As I walked into Kinlochleven some lads approached and asked if I had encountered three of their friends overdue whilst walking the stretch of the West Highland Way from Rannoch Moor. I pointed them in the right direction and then sat in the pouring rain on the banks of the Leven thinking about Patrick MacGill’s description of the day the navvies of the Blackwater dam were paid off and they marched away.

A great silence fell on the party. The nailed shoes rasping on the hard earth, and the half-whispered curse of some falling man as he tripped over a hidden boulder, were the only sounds that could be heard in the darkness. And down the face of the mountain the ragged army tramped slowly on

(c) John Bainbridge 2020

This is a chapter from my book of walking memoirs “Wayfarer’s Dole” – and the walk was obviously done before lockdown.

Author: John Bainbridge

Rambler, hillwalker, stravaiger and trespasser, access campaigner. Novelist writing historical and period crime fiction.

16 thoughts on “In the Steps of the Kinlochleven Navvies”

  1. I agree it is possible that powerful emotions may be imprinted on the landscape, and perhaps those that detect them are those who have ‘set their receptors’ to these emotions by thinking deeply about the circumstances concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Evocative piece that, John. Thanks.
    The Mamores were one of my favourite areas when I was visiting Scotland regularly. I often used Mamore Lodge as a base though I always thought Kinlochleven a bit of a dump.
    MacGill’s children of the dead end was a must-read though I wasn’t aware of Moleskin Joe, will track it down.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some places remind us that we COME from place… that place matters… that the land is a part of us even if we have appointed ourselves caretakers of someone else’s place…When we see OUR place… something stirs… something REMEMBERS… Thank you for taking us with you on your walks! Thank you for showing us “place”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true. There can hardly be an acre of these small islands that doesn’t have as fascinating history – but very often we have no record of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful Loch Leven shots there… and the autumnal one!

    A lot of the navvies also died on the way back over the high moor from The Kingshouse! I’ve never visited the camp or the graveyard (although you make the track sound very exciting once it leaves the WHW route!) but I’ve been to the other side of the dam a couple of times. Must have a walk the same way myself sometime (if I ever get back up to Scotland!)

    Liked by 1 person

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