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'Tunnel Tigers': Irish workers' world record feat commemorated in Scotland

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Media captionThe Irish emigrants were among 45 workers known as the 'Tunnel Tigers' who set the record for rock breaking in 1955.

A group of Irish tunnel workers are being hailed in Scotland on the 60th anniversary of a unique world record.

The Irish emigrants were among 45 workers known as the 'Tunnel Tigers' who set the record for rock breaking in 1955.

The tigers made history by grinding through 557ft (170m) of rock in seven days.

The momentous feat was achieved while building the St Fillans section of the Breadalbane hydro scheme in Perthshire.

The Irish workers, mostly from County Donegal, were following in the footsteps of generations of Irish emigrants who travelled to Scotland for seasonal work.

There are only a few known survivors from the Irish members of the record-breaking team.

Colm Gallagher, 84, now lives back in his home town of Dungloe in County Donegal.

"It was dangerous work, there was no safety going. You could wear a helmet or you could go without the helmet," he told BBC News NI.

"It wasn't safe in the tunnels."

Mr Gallagher revealed that his own brother, Patrick, was killed while working in a Scottish tunnel.

Image copyright SSE, Scottish Renewables and Historic Scotland
Image caption Living conditions for the workers were basic with many huts transferred from former Prisoner of War camps, as shown in this photo of the hydro workers' camp in Cannich, during construction of the Affric/Beauly scheme

He also described his own close encounter with the tragic death of a fellow worker.

"He was driving the loco (dumper truck) and he asked me for a cigarette and I gave him a cigarette. He came out, the next load that came out, he was on the top, dead."

Another worker, John 'Gonna' O'Donnell, left his family home in the Irish-speaking (Gaeltacht) village of Ranafast to work in tunnels of Scotland a year after the world record was set.

Mr O'Donnell said the Tunnel Tigers' achievement was "superhuman"

"It's just unreal, it was never done before and never, ever, in the history of mankind, will it ever be done again," he said.

"It was a superhuman effort, what they achieved. To me, they were supermen."

Image copyright SSE, Scottish Renewables and Historic Scotland
Image caption "Tunnel Tigers" celebrated as two groups met in Ben Vorlich during the construction of the Loch Sloy scheme, 1949

The Scottish Parliament in Holyrood has previously given a commitment to recognise the contribution of Irishmen in the development of the hydro electric schemes in Scotland.

Scottish National Party MSP Annabelle Ewing said: "The men came from all over to work in the tunnels and on dams.

"Poles, Czechs, Highlanders, and huge numbers, as we've heard, of Irishmen, from Donegal and other places, came to live in the camps and work on the hydro schemes.

"The official histories and visitor information have in the past tended to focus on the engineering achievements rather than the contribution made, and human cost paid, by the workers, and that does need to be addressed."

The MSP added: "Let us also invite them to remember the men who swung the pick and set the charge"

Image copyright SSE, Scottish Renewables and Historic Scotland
Image caption At its peak, more than 12,000 people were employed in hydro development in the north of Scotland, with workers from Ireland, prisoners of war and displaced people from Germany, Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia joining squads of native Highlanders

As testament to the toil of the Tunnel Tigers, SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy) has announced plans to design and install a commemorative plaque at the site of the world record.

Gillian O'Reilly, SSE's head of heritage and community programmes, said: "The achievement of the Tunnel Tigers is an important chapter in the story of how SSE brought electricity to the Highlands and it is important that their tireless work and sacrifice is not forgotten.

"We know there will be many people in Scotland with their own stories and memories and we would encourage people to get in touch and share those with us as we celebrate this historic milestone."

SSE has also announced that it is investing £4m in a new visitor centre overlooking a renowned dam at Pitlochry.

The new visitor centre will open in Autumn 2016 and will include testimonies from and about many of the Irishmen who worked on the development of the hydro schemes.

Image copyright SSE, Scottish Renewables and Historic Scotland
Image caption By the time major hydro development ended in the mid-1960s, Scotland had 56 dams, including Pitlochry dam (pictured here), connected by over 600km of rock tunnel, aqueducts and pipelines

The world record-breaking 'Tunnel Tigers' who worked round the clock to achieve the feat received a £20 bonus at the time - which would equate to about £2,000 in today's money.

However, the often dangerous and difficult conditions took their toll at the time and over subsequent decades.

Some workers paid the ultimate price with their lives, while others suffered life-changing injuries.

Many workers also suffered from lung illnesses associated with the unhealthy working conditions they endured, deep underground the hills of Scotland.

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