Patrick Baker’s book The Unremembered Places was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Award, and is published this month in paperback. In it, he uncovers the human histories that have left traces in Scotland’s wild places. His writing blends walk report with archival research to tell the story of what you see in the landscape. This extract tells the story of the building of the Blackwater Dam above Kinlochleven in Lochaber, and the graveyard that is to be found there.
At the start of the twentieth century, in a remote glen in the West Highlands, the clatter of pickaxes and voices rings out: hard metallic sounds and the great compound noise of human commotion. A dam is being built, an alien shape in the landscape, linear and distinct, cleaved into the steep undulations of hillside.
The place hives with activity. Rock and peat are blasted away, and smoke blows through the cranes and rigging, billowing past small shanty-town huts and out across moorland. Thousands of men are at work, an army of the desperate and dispossessed. There’s blood and toil to be found in the mud and heather here, and hardship and death.
‘There was a graveyard in the place . . .’ wrote Patrick MacGill about the building of Blackwater Reservoir in his thinly veiled autobiographical novel Children of the Dead End. ‘A few went there from the last shift with the red muck still on their trousers and their long unshaven beards still on their faces. Maybe they died under a fallen rock or a broken derrick jib. Once dead they were buried, and there was an end of them.’
MacGill’s book is one of the most brutal I have ever read. It tells the story of Dermod Flynn, a feisty adolescent forced from his home in Ireland into bonded labour in Scotland. Years of itinerant work and unremitting poverty eventually lead him to Kinlochleven. It is here, along with so many other Irish and Scottish navvies, that he finds employment in the hydroelectric scheme: a massive civil-engineering project which included the construction of the reservoir, a six-kilometre aqueduct and an aluminium-smelting plant.
The chapters describing Flynn’s (or rather, MacGill’s) life at Kinlochleven are among the most powerful and disturbing in the novel. The squalor of the workers’ encampment, where the ‘muddle of shacks’ looked as though they had ‘dropped out of the sky’ and out of which ‘a spring oozed through the earthen floor’, is only matched by the danger of the tasks they are required to carry out:
‘As he struck the ground there was a deadly roar; the pick whirled around, sprung upwards, twirled in the air like a wind-swept straw, and entered Bill’s throat just a finger’s breadth below the Adam’s apple. One of the dynamite charges had failed to explode on the previous day, and Bill had struck it with the point of the pick, and with this tool which had earned him his livelihood for many years sticking in his throat he stood for a moment swaying unsteadily. He laughed awkwardly as if ashamed of what had happened, then dropped silently to the ground.’
Children of the Dead End is deeply affecting: in equal measure hard to read and hard to forget. It reverberated deep in my subconscious long after the last page was finished with the kind of protracted background hum that all potent books seem to leave behind. The characters and their place within the Highland landscape were like nothing else that I had ever come across. This was no idealised version of nature, no celebration of a wild, but ultimately beautiful place. Neither was it a setting that prompted any prospect of spiritual reclamation, nor transcendental enlightenment for the navvies. The place was pitiless and unforgiving.
MacGill describes an almost dystopian society, a far-flung outpost of lawlessness where ‘all manner of quarrels were settled with fists’, and drinking and gambling are the only possible distractions from the savagery of working life. The mountains, the moor, the sheer scale and grandeur of scenery are no solace. No succour is to be found in the landscape’s aesthetics. Instead, the environment is merely another agent of misery for the men. The navvies are thus caught between two contrasting but overlapping adversities, asperities to be endured that are both wild and man-made, natural and industrial.
It’s not just the matter-of-fact wretchedness of the Kinlochleven descriptions, though, that render MacGill’s book extraordinary. More significantly, the prose, in all its awkward mixture of autobiography-cum-fiction, is an otherwise untold story. It becomes the counterpoint legacy to the mass of concrete and steel, a parallel and forgotten voice to be measured against the cold, physical reality of the Blackwater Dam. MacGill’s text provides a human narrative, the collective testament for the thousands of men who were once part of this wild history.
Of course, many never left the place. For some, all the inherent danger of the work would coalesce in a single instant. With a sudden evaporation of luck – the misplaced sledgehammer blow, a moment’s loss of balance or the abrupt death-strike of unseen rock-fall – lives were ended in the wind-torn reaches of the moor. They were laid to rest near where they fell, in a small, improvised burial ground situated below the steep walls of the reservoir.
This was the place MacGill had described in Children of the Dead End – the navvies’ graveyard. Over a century after the book was written, it retains a strange literal and literary identity, a gangplank extending between fiction and reality, existing both on the pages of MacGill’s novel and on the empty moorland: a handful of weather-beaten concrete headstones in a scarce, vacated landscape.
It was my fourth attempt to reach the place. A couple of years earlier I had made the journey north after work, my eyes gritty and screen-burnt from hours of working at my computer. That autumn night I had driven into the remnants of a tropical cyclone. Hurricane Gonzalo, the most destructive Atlantic storm to occur in several years, had spun its way out across the ocean and was making landfall again, a condensed set of isobars and weather fronts hitting the west coast of Scotland in a maelstrom of gales and heavy rain.
In some idiotic form of logic, I was hoping for a weather window. If I were to go directly into the weather, I had concluded, I would – at some point on my journey – encounter the storm’s eye, and thereby be graced with several hours of benign, tranquil conditions.
Forestry lorries thundered past me, orange lights flashing, washing up walls of spray and surface water. For several hours I assumed a white-knuckle driving position, hunched forward on the steering wheel, squinting through the windscreen, the wipers knocking out a frantic rhythm. I eventually gave up. Fraught and tired, I pulled off the road somewhere before Rannoch Moor, pitching my tent on rain-soaked ground, the fly sheet snapping violently in the wind.
I tried twice more: beaten back before I had even started by thick winter snowfall; then, in spring, halted after only a couple of hours of walking, a back sprain leaving me almost immobile five kilometres into the disturbingly empty moorland. This time, I had subconsciously decided, I would definitely get there.
Conditions were good as I reached the Devil’s Staircase. High-altitude clouds moved in slow south-westerly convoys, the sun behind them, chalky and bright. The five-hundred-metre-high pass rose ahead of me in a switchback of loose grit and polished rock. Despite the supernatural association, it looked innocuous enough, hardly befitting such a foreboding name.
Leaving the pass’s summit, I cut across folds of empty moorland, stumbling mainly. For an hour I fell in and out of contour lines, the rhythm of my footfall constantly disrupted by the uncertainty of the terrain: hidden burns, spine-jarring rocks and mossy sinkholes. Eventually I passed the point of my previous attempt and reached a stretch of light-green woodland that flickered in the sunlight and breeze. It was here that I hoped to locate a strange-looking vehicle track that was marked on the map. Something about its description didn’t seem right. Its sudden height gain, its elaborate twists and turns, and its elevated position above the glen hinted at some kind of eccentric folly, a mad person’s foolish endeavour.
What I found was completely unexpected. I dropped down through a shrubby incline, brushing my way through a thicket of birch and heather, until, without warning, my feet landed solidly on concrete. I was in a lateral clearing, with trees parted either side of me, left and right. I stood on what looked like a walkway, the surface a metre or so wide, perfectly flat and laid in large rectangular sections spanning ahead like tightly packed railway sleepers. Below it, the land continued to fall away so steeply that the structure became a viewing platform onto the glen below.
I moved gingerly on the concrete, uncertain it would hold my weight. Each step rang with a hollow echo. After a few metres, I noticed several bore holes an inch or so wide, spaced at intervals on the surface. They revealed not only the thickness of the concrete, but something much more remarkable underneath – water! Silver and black and moving at incredible speed. This was no walkway. I was on the aqueduct, inches above a man-made torrent of incredible power, the sight of which left me momentarily rooted to the spot.
The Unremembered Places is published in paperback in April 2021 (Birlinn).
The Blackwater Dam and the graveyard can be visited on this Walkhighlands route.