A Walk to the Blackwater Dam – In The Steps of the 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  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. The 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.

The glen of the River Leven

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 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 to where the workers lived in a shanty town high in the hills.

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 Navvies Graveyard, Blackwater Dam, Kinlochleven

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. Reaching 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 progress easier 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 their rushing waters. The 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.

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.

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.

Navvies Graveyard

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.

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

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.  A track took me to the conduit and I headed for home. 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 harsh life of the navvies of Kinlochleven, whose hard existence makes the worst tribulation of hillwalkers seem very easy.

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