Thursday, October 12, 2006

How to revive a town in the Highlands

"Would yer turn yer arse to the window, Mr King, so Ah can see ma tape?" said the local tailor from Fort William. The person to whom that somewhat blunt request was made was none other than King Edward VII.
The date was September 1909 and the place was Mamore Hunting Lodge, high above Kinlochleven where the Hotel is to-day. The King was on his first visit to the area and was there specifically for shooting. He shot 9 stags each with and average weight of 16st. 2lbs.

Kinlochleven lies at the head of Loch Leven, a sea loch which has a scenic drive around either of the roads leading to the village. Nestled below towering mountains, Kinlochleven is on the main West Highland Way route - a 97 miles walk from Glasgow to Fort William.

Thousands of labourers, navvies, and poor people walked that walk in all conditions 100 years ago looking for work. They built the huge Blackwater dam on Rannoch Moor. No tractors in those days, no diggers, no machines. They dug out every clod by hand. Awful conditions, living in shacks, earning such a pittance that most of them would never marry in their lives. They drank and gambled away such money as they did save. The life was terrible, really awful. They died young.

In the 19th century, Kinlochleven was a tiny hamlet with a scattering of cottages. In 1907 the aluminium smelter was built and a new town was born but the conditions in it were poor. Surrounded by mountains and with an abundance of fresh water, Kinlochleven might have been an ideal location for a hydro-powered factory from the owners point of view but they had little thought for their workers. Then, Aluminium production stopped in 2000. The town has had a run down feeling for some years now.

But to-day there is a great revival and it is led by climbers from all over the country who come to try out the Ice Factor wall. Newly built and opened, one of only two in the whole country with an ice wall, it is full winter and summer. Gillian and I go there for a couple of hours when it rains steadily, just to watch.

It is a marvellously different place to visit, The Ice Factor. The whole town has revived, houses painted, new buildings, and a sense of the future because of it. Amazing what you can do with a bit of entreprenurial spirit.

But it must have been a huge financial risk to put it up in the first place. Someone took a guess that you could take a run down place in the mountains and build a centre there which experts would visit from all over Europe. Not a business for a faint heart, that takes courage and a forgiving family if it goes wrong.

Have a look at their web site.

John Winkler
Lochside cottage near Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland
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