Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Children of the Dead End

When I was 16, back in the days when we had summers, I walked the West Highland Way through the shimmer of a July heatwave. The Way had only been open a year and it came with a shiny guidebook by a chap called Bob Aitken. The guide contained a great deal of information on the history of the route and, unusually for the time and subject, avoided tartan and misty mountain cliche concentrating instead on the more recent social history of the west highlands.
Some of the subjects it opened my eyes to have already been mentioned such as access but one that stayed with me was the story of the Blackwater dam. 
The dam was built just before the Great War to provide power for the new technology of the aluminium factory at Kinlochleven. It was a monumental undertaking in every way with a massive dam rising out of the wild glen and huge pipelines snaking across the hillside for four miles before plunging down and into the back of the smelter. Amongst the grisly and possibly legendary stories of corpses strewn across the hill towards the Kingshouse, Aitken also mentioned a book called 'Children of the Dead End' - a semi-autobiographical novel by a former navvy called Patrick Macgill which featured several chapters set at Blackwater. It stuck in my mind and I pursued an occasional, haphazard hunt for the book for over twenty years. References to it would crop up in other books in the odd places but the book itself did not surface. So God bless the rise of the internet where I found it first time and it arrived in my eager hands about 10 years ago. 
For a book written during the first war it  is a readable and compelling picture of a long gone and unlamented way of life. Macgill was the basis for the book's protagonist, the wonderfully realised Dermod Flynn. His harrowing descent into navvydom has a horrible inevitability about it as his few choices go wrong and every turn in the road leads towards the twilight world of the Blackwater dam. For Macgill things went differently and he eventually led the life of a successful author and journalist.  Many, many others were not so lucky and remain to this day in the strange, poignant graveyard just under the dam itself. 

Blackwater dam
Our long walk in April led in the end to the dam and the graveyard and I found myself after many years walking in Dermod Flynn's footsteps.  We approached from the north along the old path to the sunken Ciaran Lodge which now lies under the sullen leaded waters. The dam came into view wreathed in smoke from heather burning and framed by the snow plastered hills of Glen Coe.  We crossed the glen underneath the dam, and I wondered at the large amount of ironmongery scattered around,hoping that it represented a link across the century to Flynn and the Dead End.

The dead end

Dermod's cairn

Finally we were there at the gate of the graveyard. I found a large lump rising in my throat and drank a quick toast to Dermod and Moleskin Joe before turning away to the dam before my brother saw the mist form in my eyes. There can be few sadder places in all the deep sorrows of the glens.

Dermod's ghost was not done with me just yet. A week later, I was browsing my father-in-law's bookshelf when I saw Macgill's name on the spine of a book. It was The Rat-pit, the  even rarer companion piece to Children of the Dead End. It had been on that shelf for twenty years and I had never noticed it. It was a difficult read covering the life and living death of Nora Ryan, Dermod's childhood sweetheart. Your heart will break for them and I highly recommend it. 

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