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Cruachan Power Station

The Hollow Mountain

Deep inside Ben Cruachan is a most improbable tourist attraction -- an enormous power
storage system that thrills even the technophobe.

BY KEITH AITKEN

We all know about hollowed-out mountains. They're where James Bond villains live...together with their mini-submarines, their stolen nukes, their truck-sized computer terminals, their Mao-suited guards whose guns never hit the mark, and their pampered white cats. Hollowed-out mountains are futuristic, fantastic, sinister and not of the real world.

Except, that is, for Cruachan Power Station. Cruachan is none of these things. It is 50 years old this year, the Queen having officially opened it on October 15, 1965. It plays a benign and crucial role in keeping Scotland's lights on, and it is discreetly located about 20 miles from Oban, in the very heart of Argyll, among some of the most real and sumptuous West Highland scenery that Scotland has to offer a bedazzled world. Wikipedia is insistent that parts of The World is Not Enough were filmed there, but at Cruachan they are just as insistent that nothing of the sort ever took place. Many other film crews have taken to these tunnels down the years, but no one from the Ian Fleming franchise.

Ask a hill walker about Cruachan, meanwhile, and you won't hear an answer that has anything to do with technology, power supply or 007. What you'll hear about is a beloved and accessible Munro (that is, a mountain more than 3,000 feet high), standing command over the Brander Pass and affording unbeatable views of Loch Awe, Loch Etive and Argyll's mountainous heartland. They would love it not a whit less if it were rock right through, and some may even think it is.

It's not, though. It's hollowed out, massively so, to accommodate one of the U.K.'s four pumped storage power stations. That might not sound immediately more appealing as a place to spend some of your holiday in Scotland than, say, a sewage treatment works or a small quarry. But you would be wrong. The inside of the mountain is as striking a spectacle as any to be found outside. The Machine Hall alone is tall enough to accommodate a seven-story building, and as long and wide as a football field. Each of the four turbines weighs as much as 175 family cars. The tunnels, if taken together as a total length, would stretch all the way to Oban. The dam on the upper reservoir is as wide as the Eiffel Tower is high, and as high as a four-lane freeway is wide. A visit to the inner secrets of the Hollow Mountain is a dramatic, and unforgettable, experience.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2015 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Orkney's Heart Of Stone by Jim Gilchrist.

Click here to preview our feature article on the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula by Ben Williams.

Click here to preview Bens & Glens & Heroes, News of Interest To Scots.

Click here to preview our reviews of Scottish Books.

Photo © Jonathan Jamieson