YESTERDAY was the 80th anniversary of the passing of the legislation which led to the creation of the North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board, the single most important step forward in hydro power in Scottish history.

To those of us who believe that history has a relevance in the present day, it is always reassuring when events back in the day can shed light on current issues. In recent weeks and months, there has been much discussion, and indeed, some concrete proposals – such as the plan by Drax to add massively to the existing Cruachan scheme at Loch Awe at a cost of £500 million – for a new generation of hydro-electric power stations, a form of renewable energy production in which Scotland at times led the world as I shall show over today and next week.

Modern Scotland could learn a great deal from the way in which the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act 1943 came into being, and the first lesson would be to have a powerful politician driving the legislation forward, as was the case with the then secretary of state for Scotland, the extraordinary Tom Johnston. He is rightly known as the father of Scottish hydro-electricity and was the first chairman of the Hydro Board, a post he held for 15 years.

Scotland’s early flirtation with hydro power dates back to the 19th century. Textile and flour mills had been driven by water for centuries, but using water-driven turbines to create electricity was new for Victorian Scotland. Often credited as the first hydro-electric station in Scotland was the small project in 1891 by the Benedictine monks at Fort Augustus to power their electric organ. Local people were able to tap into this power source and the legend grew that their lights would go dim whenever the monks were singing hymns.

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The arrival of the British Aluminium Company (BAC) in 1894 really began the hydro-electricity industry in Scotland. The BAC plumped for the Highlands as the perfect place to produce aluminium which needed huge sources of cheap electricity.

As early as 1899, a Highland Water Power Bill went to Parliament but for various reasons did not proceed on to the statute book. Landowners, sitting and absent, objected to the many plans that sprung up for hydro-electricity schemes, and managed to hold up developments for many years.

The BAC did manage to construct its first major hydro power plant at the Falls of Foyers, because it bought all the land around the site and did not need parliamentary approval. With hydro pioneer Sir William Morrison in charge, other BAC hydro-powered plants would follow firstly at Kinlochleven, which involved the huge Blackwater dam, and later at Lochaber.

In the 1930s, it was the giant Tummel scheme which first saw the mass generation of hydro-electricity for public use, and by the start of the Second World War, Scotland also had hydro power stations on the Clyde near New Lanark and in Galloway, where a world-leading scheme saw water cascading down through nine generating stations.

The Galloway scheme made a huge impression on Tom Johnston, the Labour MP who became secretary of state for Scotland in Churchill’s wartime government – Churchill once called him the “uncrowned king of Scotland”. He saw how hydro power could transform the Highlands and set about doing just that.

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In his excellent biography of Johnston, Without Quarter, Russell Galbraith charts how in 1941 Johnston appointed judge Lord Cooper to inquire into the possibility of widescale use of hydro power to bring industries to the Highlands and reverse the population losses that dated back to the Highland Clearances.

Cooper’s report was adamant that a public authority, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, should be created to build and have control over new schemes across the Highlands. Johnston had studied the Tennessee Valley Authority created in the US under President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, and he promoted the board as a Scottish equivalent, emphasising its social benefits.

Johnston argued for legislation to create the Hydro Board and he personally piloted it through Westminster. In 1943, he told the House of Commons: “This bill will give considerable employment, direct and indirect, in coal, iron, steel, cable-making, electrical engineering, cement, house and civil building works, and contracting.

On the basis of the experience of the Central Electricity Board, the operations of the board on an expenditure of £30,000,000 should give employment, direct and indirect, of the order of 10,000 men for a number of years. In its train, the bill will bring a better placing and location of industry. It will provide amenities for the Highland population which will otherwise be denied them.”

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What is truly remarkable is how, with the exception of some land-owning Tories, politicians of all hues supported the bill. Having served as leader of the opposition to Winston Churchill’s national coalition government, Labour MP Frederick Pethick-Lawrence told MPs: “The Highlands of Scotland left to themselves, without any attempt to bring them into accord with modern ideas of industrial development, were, and are, gradually going into decay.

"Citizens of Scotland residing in those parts were disappearing, leaving a derelict population. In those circumstances there is only one answer to the question. We must accept the industrial development of the Highlands of Scotland in order to preserve the Highlands.”

Rev James Barr, the Labour MP for Coatbridge, who had once regularly toured the Highlands in his church work, memorably said: “There is no beauty in a deserted village. There is no beauty in the rugged foundations what were once crofters’ houses. There is no beauty for me in a deer forest. The Highland Clearances did not improve the beauty of the Highlands.”

The bill sailed through both houses without a division and on August 5, 1943, the act received its royal assent. Johnston resisted attempts to interfere with the autonomy of the board, and one month after VE Day on June 11, 1945, the first sod was cut for the Sloy scheme, the largest generator of hydro-electricity in the UK. The following year Johnston became chairman of the board and hydro power duly took off.

Next week I will look at the Cruachan scheme, to my mind the greatest of them.