An award winning journalist, Marian Pallister is based in Argyll. Her mother inherited cottages which were ‘drowned’ for the reservoir in the Cruachan area, binding her family to this location and community. Her previous works often focus on Argyll and the socio-economic and political changes which have affected this area. It is, then, informed by both personal ties and a professional pre-occupation with the geography of the west Highland region that Pallister is able to document how the Cruachan Hydro Electric Project irreversibly affected the local community and landscape.
Cruachan is not, however, a list of interviews, reports and government legislation. The chapters are not arranged chronologically, by person or document, but by different challenges faced by the locals and the workers on the project, as well as anecdotes about the landscape, mythology, tourism and economy of the area. Many of the people mentioned are quoted throughout, their voices, support for and concerns about the reservoir project come together to illustrate the multiple perspectives on the mountain. It is through such an approach that Pallister’s work excels, as she renders a sense of community and integration brought on by engagement with the Cruachan project. Pallister’s own voice is present throughout, and her connection with the area often seeps through with no effort to disguise what she sees as a purely positive enterprise.
Throughout the book, Pallister examines the extent of loss of lifestyle and identity in the community, which she blames, not solely on the creation of the reservoir, but other invading technologies. It wasn’t just the Hydro-Electric Project which colonised the local community that decade; Pallister tells us that “historians have already put a label on the 1960s as the decade in which the most significant changes in history were introduced” And thus it is invalid to presume that all the changes which followed were a direct result of the project. Looking at the example of the decrease of Gaelic speakers in the region, for example, Pallister blames the introduction of the television to counter the argument against the influx of non-Gaelic speaking workers in the area:
But there is no doubt that language and culture in the Scottish Highlands and Islands were more deeply undermined by the coming of television than by the temporary imposition of Yorkshire blasters, Irish driller, Glaswegian labourers and Polish dam builders.
Moreover, she argues that this inflow of workers benefitted the community more than it impaired it. True, she doesn’t gloss over the bar fights or even the alleged murder of “Gentleman Jim”, but the details of the advantages retain focus throughout. The increased population and migration of workers’ families to the area meant Loch Awe Primary School reopened. There were more shops in town then than there are even now and the local community thrived amidst the construction, with locals and workers’ families coming together in founding TADS, the local dramatic society. Closing her work with the refrain that the region would have been altered by invading technologies regardless of the project, Pallister states that “it would be strange indeed if this area had remained static and untouched,” and that even without the building of the Hydro-Electric Dam, the area “today would still have been [a] very different place.”
Pallister’s work succeeds in both celebrating the changes and mourning the loss of identity brought about by the dam project. For sure, she is biased in her positive portrayal of the changes, but this could be attributed to the feelings of those she interviewed. I suppose with the protests and public divide regarding the building of wind turbines and other renewable sources of energy in what we might suppose a more enlightened time today, it is easy to doubt how favourably the building of the Cruachan dam was viewed in the 1950s. But Pallister manages to capture the near universal sense of opportunity with which the local community welcomed the project, mimicked in their hospitality towards the workers and sense of the integration of voices captured in the pages of her book.