Hills of the Dead End – Remembering Patrick MacGill


The poignant Blackwater Dam graveyard

IT was one of the most poignant destinations of any route I’ve walked. We had tramped from the Kinlochleven side of the dramatically named Devil’s Staircase and then dropped down alongside a water pipeline that ran from the Blackwater Reservoir high above the birch banks of the River Leven. There was a sheen of newly minted green on the trees and the sky was blue. Spring was turning to summer and birdsong, especially that of the ebullient skylark, filled the air. It was hard to imagine the desolation, the strife and the sheer pathos of the industrial scene that dominated this landscape a hundred years before.

In the distance a long, low wall ran across the horizon, the line of the Blackwater Dam, and as we approached it a dumpy, drumlin-like hillock took our attention. Fifty metres from the track and pipeline a wooden fence straddled the hill, tracing the outline of the most unusual graveyard I’ve ever seen, for all the world like the Boot Hill of a western movie. Twenty-two headstones stood proud of the ground, concrete plinths, some with names etched on them, some without. Daffodils swayed in the breeze offering a hint of softness in the harsh surroundings of heather, rock and water.

Here lay the remains of some of those who had died in the building of this great dam, and the reservoir that lay behind it. Some names are scratched on the stones – John MacKenzie, W. Smith, Darkey Cunningham, and curiously, Mrs Reilly, a lone woman in this male-dominated environment. What stories lie behind these simple stones, gravestones not of marble or slate but the material with which these such men worked – concrete? Another stone bears the word ‘Unknown’, a reminder that these folk were the misfits of the day, itinerant workers who knew no home or family. I realised quickly that this little graveyard, in its wild and remote setting, is more than just a cemetery. It’s a monument to those who were once described as ‘the outcasts of a mighty industrial society.’


The Blackwater Reservoir project was the last of its kind, when men, largely using hand tools and without the use of mechanical earth moving machinery, gouged this great reservoir from the earth. It is thought to be the last major project of the traditional ‘navvies’, who made such a major contribution to the construction of Britain’s canals and railways in the early part of the twentieth century.


In 1906 the British Aluminium Company opened a plant in Kinlochleven, turning what had been a tiny settlement of two or three farm houses and a shooting lodge into a ‘model village’ to house the hundreds of itinerants who were expected to come and work on the smelter project. To provide the power for the aluminium smelter the Blackwater Reservoir, four miles to the east of the town, was slowly gouged from the bowels of the mountains themselves.

The dam at Blackwater was the product of the second major hydro-electric project undertaken in Scotland by the British Aluminium Company. The company wanted to build an aluminium smelting plant, using hydro-electric power, at Kinlochleven and they knew there were suitable hills above the village – hydro-electric power depends on height to generate a strong enough flow of water – but there was no suitable water catchment. The company had to create a loch to hold sufficient water to create the hydro power. 

In 1904 construction of the dam, and subsequent reservoir, began with 3,000 itinerant workmen, many of them Irish navvies. The men didn’t even know what they were building and referred to the construction as ‘the waterworks’.

“If a man throws red muck over a wall today and throws it back again tomorrow, what the devil is it to him if he keeps throwing that same muck over the wall for the rest of his life, knowing not why or wherefore, provided he gets paid sixpence an hour for his labour. There were so many tons of earth to be lifted and thrown somewhere else; we lifted them and threw them somewhere else: so many cubic yards of iron-hard rocks to be blasted and carried away; we blasted and carried them away, but never asking questions and never knew what results we were labouring to bring about.”


The Blackwater Dam, the last big building project in Scotland that didn’t use heavy plant

In reality they were making one loch out of three, with a dam that was over 900 metres long. The Blackwater Reservoir – 75 feet deep, nine miles in length – would eventually contain 24,000 million gallons of water. 

One of those itinerants, a young Irishman from Glenties in County Donegal, graphically described the terrible isolation and horrendous conditions the navvies had to endure as they toiled against the broken earth: “We were men despised when we were most useful, rejected when we were not needed, and forgotten when our troubles weighed upon us heavily”, he wrote.

Patrick MacGill’s semi-autobiographical account of life as an itinerant worker in the early years of last century, Children of the Dead End, vividly portrays the horror of the times, and other accounts of the times verify his descriptions. The nearby Moor of Rannoch is a silent witness to those who succumbed to its chilling wintry horror as they left the warm bar of the Kingshouse to make their way on foot to the worksite at Blackwater. Those victims of cruel hypothermia were still being discovered many years later – they had no-one to report them missing. MacGill writes of one incident;

“That night Maloney was handed his lying time and told to slide. He padded from Kinlochleven in the darkness, and I have never seen him since then. He must have died on the journey. No man could cross those mountains in the darkness of mid-winter and in the teeth of a snow-storm.

“Some time afterwards the copy of a Glasgow newspaper, either the Evening Times or News (I now forget which), came into our shack wrapped around some provisions, and in the paper I read a paragraph concerned the discovery of a dead body on the mountains of Argyllshire. While looking after sheep a shepherd came on the corpse of a man that lay rotting in a thawing snowdrift… Nobody identified him, but the paper stated he was presumably a navvy who lost his way on a journey to or from the big waterworks of Kinlochleven. As for myself, I am quite certain that it was that of big Jim Maloney.”

But what of this young writer who became known as the ‘navvies laureate’, a young man whose words have informed several generations of the lives of individuals like Moleskin Joe, Carroty Dan, Norah Ryan, Gourock Ellen and Red Billy Davis. I’d love to see a statue of Patrick MacGill erected in Kinlochelevn, just to remind us of the lives that were lost and the terrible conditions that thousands of men had to endure just to earn a meagre pay.

By all accounts MacGill was an extraordinary young man. He arrived in Scotland at the age of 14 after ‘escaping’ from a Country Tyrone farmer who had ‘bought’ him at a hiring fair in Strabane at the age of 12. He worked in Ayrshire as a tattie-howker during the potato picking season and as a navvy the rest of the year, reading the books in any spare time he had that would educate him and lead to his own life as a journalist and author. He became a member of a number of circulating libraries, consuming the works of Thomas Carlyle, Victor Hugo, Rudyard Kipling, Bret Harte and Montaigne. It’s said that he read to take his mind off the horrors that real life was throwing at him, the intolerable conditions of the time that allowed young boys and girls to be lodged alongside drunkards, gamblers and prostitutes. And yet, whether he was writing of life on the open road as a tramp, or that of a gang-labourer or navvy, digging and toiling in the most horrendous conditions that a Scottish winter can throw down, he managed to achieve something quite extraordinary. He had the ability to transform the horror and the pathos into poetry and prose, often with more than a dash of humour

His first published work appeared when he was only 20. Not surprisingly they were poems of emigration, including To Erin, The Exile of Erin and A Tale of the Bogland. At the time he was working as a member of a repair gang, platelaying on the Glasgow to Greenock Caledonian railway. His poetry, much of it based on his own experience as a navvy, reflected his growing preoccupation with the poor and the downtrodden and those navvies who, like himself, toiled in the dirt to build civilization, but lived on the outside of society.

By this time MacGill had written a number of volumes of poetry, which he sold from door to door in Greenock, where he was living at the time. The relative success of these books, together with articles he’d had published in the Daily Express, resulted in his being offered a job by that newspaper. Bound for London, his life was to change overnight.

Here was a young man who had never worn a collar or tie, had never learned how to use a knife or fork and had never mixed in the kind of society that he was now engulfed in. He didn’t take readily to London, or to journalism, but it was at that time that he wrote his first major success, an autobiographical novel called Children of the Dead End.

In the space of a very short time the 23-year old Irish navvy had become a journalist in Fleet Street with an acclaimed literary success behind him. His journalistic career didn’t last long for he was taken to Windsor Castle by the eccentric but influential Canon Sir John Dalton, who had been chaplain to Queen Victoria and tutor to the Princes Edward and George and who was now in of charge of the administration of the Castle buildings including the magnificent St. George’s Chapel.  McGill was appointed King’s Librarian to George V and worked in the Chapter Library at Windsor Castle translating old manuscripts. However his socialist ideals did not wane, he still gave the occasional radical lecture, but the clouds of World War 1 were closing in and his years fighting on the front line provided the raw material in which he told the story of his experiences. He wrote five books about the war, and as in his earlier works, his main themes were of man’s humanity and humour in suffering and adversity.

He later emigrated to the US and continued to write, with some early success, but with the 1930’s came changing tastes and styles and of course, the Great Depression. McGill’s final years were dominated by poverty and ill-health. He contracted multiple scleroris and continued to write but with little success. He died in 1963 and is buried alongside his wife in Fall River, Massachusetts.

In Children of the Dead End, MacGill described the mountains that look down on Kinlochleven, recognising perhaps prophetically, a cruel sense of irony in the timelessness of the hills.

“Above and over all, the mystery of the night and the desert places hovered inscrutable and implacable. All round the ancient mountains sat like brooding witches, dreaming on their own story of which they knew neither the beginning nor the end. Naked to the four winds of heaven and all the rains of the world, they had stood there for countless ages in all their sinister strength, undefied and unconquered, until man, with puny hands and little tools of labour, came to break the spirit of their ancient mightiness.”

Their “spirit of ancient mightiness” remains unbroken. Instead it’s the smelter that’s been run down while the hills remain, steadfastly undefiled and unconquered. Once again the workforce “has been rejected when not needed” but paradoxically there is a ray of optimism shining on the area. Tucked away at the head of the fjord-like Loch Leven, Kinlochleven nestles at the foot of the Mamore Forest and is completely dominated by high peaks and soaring ridges, the same mountains that ironically offer hope for a resurgent ‘green’ economy.

The highly popular West Highland Way, the 96 mile long distance trail that runs from Milngavie to Fort William, passes through Kinlochleven bringing welcome revenue and jobs, and a bunkhouse and camp site have been established. An indoor climbing wall with a permanent ice climbing facility, the Ice Factor, also attracts climbers at all times of the year. The hill slopes around the village boast a remarkable network of stalker’s paths, many of which attract mountain bikers and hill walkers keen to use them to access the clutch of Munros on the nearby Mamores ridge.  Kinlochleven has re-invented itself, just as Patrick MacGill did all those years ago.

 First published in The Scots Magazine




2 thoughts on “Hills of the Dead End – Remembering Patrick MacGill

  1. As always you have a way of words that draws ones mind into the whole surroundings of the time and the conditions therin. Will need to talk to my mother as our family history had our Irish ancestors working a navvies in areas of Scotland.

    • My Grandfather John McKeown and his brother Joseph came to Scotland to escape poverty and persecution from Ballymena area of County Antrim‎‎ as young men around 1905-06 at the age of 18-19 yrs. The only work they could find was the emptying of the communal toilet areas known as Dry-middans.
      These were simple built structures of four walls with staggered entry at both sides that allowed you to enter and balance on a slim dividing wall or on a plank of wood raised on blocks, whilst you suspended yourself to carryout your oblations onto a straw lined floor.
      The method of emptying was manual labour with a pitch fork and shovel were you would fill a wicker basket with the human excrement and soiled straw and carry it on your shoulder to a cart and horse, as you can imagine not the most pleasant of jobs.
      Desperate to find some other form of work, they heard of the project in Kinlochleven area namely the building of the Backwater Reservoir.
      They set off on foot from Mossend area of Lanarkshire to walk the 100 or so miles to the project, in the hope they would secure work. Unfortunately on their arrival they were informed that no work was available.
      They were exhausted and starving and had all but given up when an off chance encounter lead them to a group of local Drovers preparing to start the cattle and sheep drive to the markets in Glasgow, there was no pay, but they were guaranteed a seat at the fire and some warm food for their bellies. Without this who knows if they would have gone the same way as the man in your article, and I would not be here to make this comment……David McKeown.

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