SSE’s Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre at Loch Faskally has been enjoyed by many thousands of visitors since it was built many years ago. But when it was decided that the old centre needed an upgrade, a bold and striking new design was commissioned. Now, a fascinating new visitor centre is throwing open its doors to the public, and the Perth City Centre team was invited to look around before the official opening on Monday 6th February.

As it’s only a 30-minute drive or train journey from Perth, it’s so easy to visit from the city. So we headed up the A9 on a bright February day to find out more.

A new outlook

Thanks to its cutting-edge cantilevered design by architect Craig Steven, the new centre appears to “float” over the loch, offering spectacular views of the dam, River Tummel and Loch Faskally.

It’s modern, with clean lines, and industrial touches on the ceiling and fittings, yet looks comfortably at home in the hills. It’s a perfect complement to the post-war turbines that it watches over.

What does the centre offer to visitors?

The centre showcases the incredible engineering feats of the hydro-electric projects of the 1950s that still power thousands of homes today. It explains how electricity is made, moved and managed in harmony with the environment to harness the power of nature.

Features of the centre

We found the Visitor Centre a fascinating place to visit. It’s bright, airy and welcoming, with many well-thought out features, including:

  • audio-visual displays about hydro schemes, fish ladders and SSE’s community projects
  • a film area taking you through the rich history of the dam, including stories of the Tunnel Tigers who blasted their way through the rock face;
  • interactive dynamos that demonstrate the power needed to provide electricity;
  • a model of a fish ladder that visitors can operate;
  • a 3D light-up map of the entire Tummel Valley Scheme;
  • displays of quirky vintage electrical items;
  • a bright, welcoming 60-seat café serving drinks and delicious locally sourced food;
  • an outdoor seated balcony offering dramatic views of Loch Faskally and the dam;
  • a gift shop selling local and Scottish products;
  • knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff on hand to tell you more about the centre, the dam and the local area;
  • free wifi;
  • free entry for all, seven days a week, from 9.30am – 5.30pm.

History of the dam

But how did it all start? Why is there a dam here in the first place and how did it come about?

We caught up with Ed Black, Media Manager at SSE, who told us: “The North of Scotland Hydro-Electricity Board (NOSHEB) built the dam and, in doing so, created Faskally Loch. The loch is fed by the River Garry, River Tummel and Clunie Power Station.”

The dam and hydro station are part of the Tummel Valley Scheme. Building of the scheme began in 1946 and it was opened by Lady McColl in 1951, wife of the late Sir Edward McColl, former Deputy Chairman and CEO of NOSHEB.

Hydro-electricity is produced using the power of running water to turn the turbines of generating sets in power stations. The technology dates back to the late 19th century when the first privately owned hydro-electric power stations were built to power the aluminium smelting industry and to provide local electricity supplies.

But it took the vision of one man, Tom Johnston, the Secretary of State for Scotland in Churchill’s wartime coalition government, to bring “power from the glens” for the benefit of all. At the time, it was estimated that just one farm in six, and one croft in a hundred, had electricity. Today, virtually every home in Scotland has mains electricity.

However, Pitlochry Dam, and many others like it, wouldn’t have been built at all without the Hydro Boys, a group of thousands of people who built dams and tunnels in Scotland’s hydro-electric power network. The highest paid of these were the Tunnel Tigers.

Who were the Tunnel Tigers?

The Tunnel Tigers were a group of men who blasted through solid rock to help create the hydro schemes in the 1950s. The group included native Scots, Irish, German, Polish and Czech workers. They earned their name because of their cavalier approach to safety in their quest to earn the huge bonuses that were available.

The men had to rely on explosives and basic hand tools to break through solid rock. But it didn’t stop the record-breaking Lednock Tunnel Tigers blasting their way through 557 feet (170 metres) of rock in one week in 1955 – equivalent to the height of Blackpool Tower!

Lisa Daniels, manager of the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, adds: “The engineering feats are incredible and it will be a privilege to have some of the Tunnel Tigers here in person for our official opening – this place really is a testament to what they achieved.”

Read the story of a “Tunnel Tiger” from Donegal

What does the dam do for us today?

Pitlochry Dam is the last of the nine hydro stations in the Tummel Valley Scheme and is capable of generating up to 15 megawatts of electricity. That means it can power around 12,000 homes. Some of the water that passes through Pitlochry Dam may have already been used 5 times to make electricity during its course down the Tummel Valley.

Something fishy about this

Visitors (especially young ones!) are also fascinated by the dam’s fish ladder, which was the first of its kind to be built in Scotland.

When Pitlochry Dam was built, the Hydro-Electric Board had to ensure that the salmon already in the waterways could bypass the dam to continue their journey upstream.

At 310m long, the fish ladder is longer than six Olympic swimming pools, and the ladder has 34 chambers, each slightly higher than the last and linked by a tunnel for salmon to swim through.

Since 1952, some 250,000 salmon have crossed the ladder successfully.

Welcoming visitors

In its first year, the new Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre is expected to welcome 88,000 visitors who want to learn how hydro-electricity was brought to the Highlands.

Ed Black says, “We’ve had a very positive reaction to the new visitor centre so far. People who have seen the exhibitions tell us about relatives who have worked on the schemes and their memories of the days of the hydro-revolution. It’s a period of Scottish engineering history that people want to come and learn about. That’s why we built the visitor centre – we want future generations to learn about the great hydro schemes that came to the Highlands and still power homes today.”

Getting to the centre

The Visitor Centre is in Armoury Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5AP.

There is car parking available, or you can walk from the station in just a few minutes. You can find a map and directions on the Pitlochry Dam website.

Find out more

You can find out more at the Pitlochry Dam website or by calling 01796 484111.