“We shall make a different future.” Tom Johnston’s Vision 70 Years Ago

Even before this energy crisis hit our household and business bills people across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were already paying more despite the region being a net exporter of green energy.

This is not the way the provision of energy to our homes was envisaged nearly 70 years ago when it was proposed to bring cheap electricity through Hydro Electric power. Today, inequality is built into the system. [Letters: ‘The UK energy system is broken’]

See also: “The highest price this winter will be paid by those with the least.” UK Energy Price Hike

In 1943, during the lowest ebb in the tides of World War Two, when Britain had faced humiliation with the fall of Singapore and Rommel’s forces were advancing in North Africa, legislation being brought forward in the House of Commons was looking to the future.

The Hydro-Electric (Scotland) Act was built upon the Cooper Report and successfully passed in the UK Parliament due to the efforts of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, who was later to become the Hydro Board Chairman, Tom Johnston.

Photograph: Leon A. Perskiedigitization: FDR Presidential Library & Museum, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The development of Hydro Power for the Highlands was inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority scheme in the United States of America. In Scotland, hydro projects were intended to reverse depopulation in the Highlands, encourage new industries and provide employment.

In 1932, Franklin D Roosevelt was elected 32nd President of the USA with a reform agenda built around his ‘New Deal’. At a time of great crisis Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Act passed in 1933 to create a public corporation and to address the key issues of energy, economic development and flooding.

Built for the People of the United States’, Roosevelt stated in Congress on April 10th 1933, that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would ‘return to the spirit and vision of the pioneer. If we are successful here, we can march on, step by step, in the like development of other great national territorial units within our borders.’

The TVA had power to acquire real estate for the construction of dams, reservoirs, transmission lines, power houses and other structures; and navigation projects at any point along the Tennessee River, or any of its tributaries. During the 1940s the TVA launched one of the largest hydropower construction programmes ever undertaken in the USA.

In the UK Parliament voices were raised both in favour and against the construction of hydro dams which would drown glens and change the landscape for good.

‘The idea that, by introducing large industries you will re-people the Highlands with their own natives, or even with Scotsmen, seems to be a foolish and dangerous delusion. This is a method which will end forever the life and civilisation of the Highlands,’ Liberal MP, Professor William Gruffydd.

Labour MP, John Leslie was more positive, he said that the Highlands offered opportunities for electricity second to none in Britain.

The differing views and concerns expressed were encapsulated in a film made in 1943 – ‘Power for the Highlands’. Produced by Paul Rotha, with dialogue written by Roger MacDougall and Neil Gunn, the film used service men returning home on leave to address the opportunities that a hydro scheme might present. Conversations between the men, an engineer for the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board and a landowner take place on a train as we view through the windows the majestic landscapes, devoid of human habitation. This extraordinary film made at a time when Britain was engulfed in a world conflict looks forward – ‘we shall make a different future.’

In 1944 local media in Orkney reported on the Scottish Hydro Electric plans for the islands. Coal was expensive and was rationed in 1941 a measure which was not lifted till 1958.  In May 1946 the Hydro, as it came to be known, acquired Kirkwall Electricity Undertaking, the local scheme which supplied parts of Orkney’s main town

Addressing a meeting of the Town Council, Board Chairman Tom Johnston told them that the Hydro’s plans were ‘bold and courageous’. His idea was to create cheaper energy for the Highlands and Islands with the surplus produced being sold to the South for a profit.

‘We sell that surplus power at the best steam coal station price to the Grid down south, and all the profits are poured back into the Highlands, every penny of it in the form of development of the non-economic, cheap schemes of electricity in rural areas where otherwise there would be none.’

One of those developments was the construction of the Power Station in Kirkwall. The £250,000 power station was 154 feet long  and 79 feet wide. Constructed by Orkney Builders using local stone and reclaiming land from the Peedie Sea, it would be powered by diesel oil.

image by Martin Laird

At its opening in May 1951 it was reported in the Aberdeen Evening Express that ‘The power station would itself demonstrate the revolution in the home. Already in Orkney there were 736 electric cookers out of a total of 2,294 domestic appliances’.

The Board had a shop in Kirkwall where it held cookery demonstrations on electric appliances. Gradually cable laying stretched lines outwith Kirkwall, firstly to Stromness then into other parishes on Mainland.  Islanders were keen to be connected up to the local Grid. In July 1951 a subsea cable connected up the small island of Gairsay and by August the island of Shapinsay was connected. It was to be many years before the whole of Orkney was supplied with electricity.

What happened to Tom Johnston’s vision of empowering the people of the Highlands and Islands with cheap electricity?

Image by Martin Laird

Fiona Grahame

This article was first published in iScot Magazine.

2 replies »

  1. What happened was privatisation, firstly NSHEB became Scottish Hydro Electric PLC. Then SHE merged with English company Southern Electric. Although it was officially a merger, lots of soon to be made redundant SHE employees called it a murder. Scottish and Southern Energy now has dividends to give to shareholders,

    That’s what happened to gentleman Tom Johnston’s vision, and legacy.

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