Special 90th anniversary event rekindles memories of Lochaber smelter

Exhibition of raw materials and analysis techniques from 90 years ago. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba,photos NO F01 LIBERTY EXHIBITION 01
Exhibition of raw materials and analysis techniques from 90 years ago. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba,photos NO F01 LIBERTY EXHIBITION 01

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It is exactly 90 years to the day that the very first aluminium was cast at the Lochaber smelter on December 30, 1929.

Construction had started six years previously on the smelter and the associated hydro-electric scheme, employing a large workforce.

In the intervening nine decades, hundreds of local men and women have spent either all or part of their working lives at the site in Fort William.

And earlier this month a special event to mark the 90th anniversary of the smelter’s commencement of aluminium production and the generation of electricity by the hydro scheme, was held in Fort William.

Present and former staff were invited to hear speeches from Douglas Dawson, the CEO of Liberty, the division of parent company GFG Alliance which oversees the operations of the smelter, and local MP – although at the time of the event only an election candidate – Ian Blackford.

Three of the former employees attending the event, which also included a special display and exhibition of historical artefacts associated with the smelter over its nine decades, were David Cameron, from Inverlochy, Andrew Cameron from Acharacle and Sandy Austin, from Fort William.

David started at the smelter straight after leaving school aged 16 in 1969, eventually retiring in 2013.

His 44 years’ service saw him rise through the ranks from apprentice electrician to operations manager at the smelter power station.

And the smelter was very much a family affair for David, who showed off a precious keepsake that once belonged to his grandfather.

‘My grandfather got this watch for 25 years’ service here in 1953, so if you work that back it would take his employment here to 1928 – just before the smelter started operating.

‘He retired in 1965 and I started in 1969, so there was only a four-year gap in our family when it comes to employment at the smelter.’

David, who still has a small role at the smelter despite officially being retired, believes the plant is still a vital creator of local jobs.

‘Yes, it is very important for the jobs it creates although I don’t think it’s as community-orientated a place as much it was. I was brought up in Inverlochy village where almost everybody to a man worked in the smelter. It was the village of the smelter. The village was built for smelter workers.

‘When I started here, there was in excess of 500 people working on this site. It was a good place to work and things have changed with all the investment over the years, although you tend to find with investment anywhere it comes with a reduction in jobs.

‘Back in the 1970s the health of people who worked here was not great. I can remember old men walking around Inverlochy coughing and you just knew they worked here because of the environment they worked in. It was just horrendous back then. You couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you with the fumes belching out.

‘So a lot of things have been improved in the years. I came right up from an apprentice electrician to operations manager at the power station. I worked here all my life. There were good opportunities here and they treated you well.

‘It was a great company to work for in my opinion.’

Andrew also agreed the smelter was still as important for the local economy as it had always been: ‘It is still very important, having been the mainstay of the community from when it started and has remained so ever since,’ he said.

‘This was a huge development for not just the town, or Lochaber, but the whole of the Highlands at the time when you take into account, not just the infrastructure, but the initial engineering phases such as digging tunnels,’ said Andrew, who also stared as an apprentice in 1973, before spending some years away  and then rejoining the workforce also on the power generation side of the operation at the site in 1985.

‘My story is very similar to Davie’s. It’s really good to be able to come along today. It was always a happy place to work here and I’m sure it still is.’

For his part, Sandy, who lives in Fort William,  came originally from Glasgow in 1973 and then worked at the smelter as a power engineer for 40 years.

‘I came up from Glasgow in a Mini with my bag and a pair of skis at the age of 23,’ he told us.

‘I met my wife up here, got married and had kids and am still here. People came from all over to work here and they either loved it or hated it.

‘It was still pretty isolated back in the 1970s and some people found that difficult to deal with after moving here.

‘Over the years the plant tried to employ people from outwith the area such as graduates, but they tended to just use it as a stepping stone in their career before leaving.

‘I think it’s great what the company is doing here now with all the investment for the future. It’s a place that is always evolving to meet the needs of the future.’