Electricity in the North

MFC Paper 15 by Ian Keillar 1981


A feature of the public supply of electricity, from its introduction into Britain in the 1880's until 1971;, has been the doubling of the demand every ten years. This means that every decade, as much new plant must be installed as the sum total of the plant installed since 1880. Such rapid development means that little old plant has been preserved. Old plant is uprooted to make room for new and more powerful equipment. New plant means new drawings and documentation and to make room for the new, the old is ruthlessly flung out. Old in this context may mean something just ten years old. The result of all this change is that original documents on the early days of the electricity industry are few and fragmentary.

Another difficulty in the study of the early electricity supply industry is that all the pioneer companies were small and isolated and merged successively into larger and larger units. For instance the technologically advanced Strathpeffer and Dingwall Electricity Supply Company Limited was taken over by the Ross-shire Electric Supply Company Limited in 1926. In 1931 ownership passed to the Scottish Power Company and then to the Grampian Electricity Supply Company and eventually in 1948 to the Hydro Board. Each time there was a merger there was a disposal of records, while the two world wars also resulted in many valuable records being pulped.


In October 1878 a football match was played under electric (arc) lights before 30,000 spectators at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. In London, Jablochkoff candles (arc lamps) were used to light the West India Dock, Billingsgate Market, Holborn Viaduct and part of the Thames Embankment. In 1882 Dr. John Hopkinson introduced the use of a storage battery with his three wire system for low voltage direct current distribution. This three wire dual voltage d.c. system became standard in most of the urban electricity schemes in Britain. In the same year Parliament passed the Electric Lighting Act, 1882. This allowed the Board of Trade to authorise the supply of electricity by a local authority or any company or person. It also gave the authorised company the right to break up the streets and pavements. Other provisions in the Act provided for the protection of Post Office telegraph lines and made it a felonious offence for any person who "unlawfully and maliciously cuts or injures any electric line or work with intent to cut off any supply of electricity".

In 1882 the Holburn Viaduct power station was opened on January 12th and the next month, at Brighton, the Hammond Electric Light Company provided a permanent electric supply to any private consumer who wished to become connected. This was the first viable public electricity supply in Britain.


One does not expect followers of the Rule of Saint Benedict to be in the forefront of technological advancement, but in contrast to the feverish activity in England, it was at the remote and peaceful Abbey of Fort Augustus that the first public electricity supply system was installed in Scotland, in 1890. An 18kW water turbine delivered power at 130 volts and this served first the Abbey and then the local community. Later, an 18kW oil engine was added as a standby. The monks were certainly not unwordly, for in the mid thirties they charged 10d (4.2p) a unit for lighting and 7d (2.94p) a unit for power. Fort Augustus was supplied by the Abbey until 1951 when the Hydro Board took over and introduced alternating current.


Across the waters of Loch Ness the British Aluminium Company Limited commissioned some 5 MW of d.c. generating plant at Foyers in 1896. The beautiful Swiss made machines ran until 1968 when the Company sold the site to the Hydro Board who then erected the existing 300 MW pumped storage scheme.


Four years after the monks at Fort Augustus had started to generate electricity the first private consumer in Aberdeen was supplied in March 1884. The supply was given under the Aberdeen Order of 1890, which gave powers to the Corporation of the City and Royal Burgh to generate and supply electricity within the city boundaries. The Hopkinson 3 wire d.c. system was used at 220/110 volts and the current was carried by copper strips laid on insulators within culverts. Demand increased rapidly and by 1899 the original 35 consumers had grown to 480, while the plant capacity had increased sixfold from 190kw to 1.2 Mw. The generating station was situated at Cotton Street, adjacent to the gas works and as the site was very restricted it was decided to build a new station at Ferryhill.

Ferryhill was opened in 1903 under the charge of an Electrical Engineer. The Cotton Street station had been under the charge of the Gas Engineer. The station was equipped with twelve triple expansion engines with a total capacity of 3.6 Mw . Generation was at 440/220 d.c. By 1908 alternating current was necessary to supply rural Deeside and this was at first produced by a motor alternator set. The first turbine alternator was introduced in 1912 and this generated 6.6kV, 5OHz, 3 phase, with a capacity of 1 MW. Thirty years after Ferryhill was opened the station was supplying the City of Aberdeen and the parishes of Nigg, Banchory-Devenick, Maryculter, Peterculter, Newhills, Dyce and Oldmacher. The rural parishes were supplied with 230 volts a.c., but the town network used the original 3 wire 440/220 volt d.c. system. The tramway network was separately supplied at 500 volts d.c.

The plant was a gloriously unrationalised mixture of  twelve Babcock and Wilcox, two Stirling and two Vickers boilers with chain grate stokers feeding: one 1 Mw Willans-Siemens dc turbo-generator, one 1 Mw Richardson-Westgarth-Siemens a.c. turbo-generator, one 3 Mw Oerlikon turbo-alternator, one 5.5 Mw Parsons turbo-alternator, one 5 Mw British Thomson Houston turbo-alternator, one 10 Mw and one 12.5 Mw English Electric turbo-alternators. Although most of the generation was alternating current, much of the city load was at d.c. and rotary converting plant was required to change from one form of electricity distribution to the other.

In 1933/34 the Corporation generated 55,371,310 units and sold 43,862,286 units. The balance of some 11,500,000 units was used in the generation and conversion processes. Lighting was charged at 3d (1.25p) per unit, but if you used electricity for cooking there was a sliding tariff of between 1d (0.42p) and halfpenny (0.22p) per unit. The cost of each unit to the Corporation was 0.55d (0.23p) and the average revenue was 1.3d (0.55p) so that the Corporation ensured a healthy balance in their electricity account.


Few local electricity companies were as efficient as Aberdeen Corporation. The Fort William Electric Lighting Company was registered on 16th December 1895. Supply commenced in August 1896 at 300/150 volts d.c. generated at the clachan of Blarmachfoldach some 3 miles from the town. Two Gilkes Vortex 100 H.P. water turbines were directly coupled to two General Electric 60kW generators. As the load increased a 165kW diesel set was installed at Bank Street, Fort William. In 1933 the prices charged for electricity to the 530 consumers were, lighting 9d (3.78p) per unit and power 4.5d - 2d (1.89p - o.84p), depending upon whether it was winter or summer. These high charges, high even by to-day's (1976) standards, allowed a dividend of 6% to be paid. This must have been some consolation to shareholders who had received no dividend for 11 years of the Company's existence.


Fochabers electricity supply was provided privately by the Gordon- Richmond Estate Company. Supply commenced in 1906 at 400/ 200 volts d.c. provided by 62kW and 33kW generators driven by turbines drawing their water from the Spey through a mile long aqueduct. Later a semi-diesel capable of delivering 76kW was installed. Supply could be a bit erratic. During the night the load was supplied by batteries and by morning, as the batteries became exhausted, the duty electricity worker would be rudely awakened by the baker shouting up to him to do something about the electric. Following hard frost, floating ice would block the turbine intakes so the village bellman would mount his tricycle and pedal through the streets shouting "There will be not electric to-night because there is grue on the river". Electricity, when available, was not cheap. Lighting cost 6d (2-5p) a unit and power 3d (1.75p) a unit.


Inverness was first given an electricity supply in 1905. The Company responsible was Edmunson's Electricity Corporation, a holding Company registered in London which controlled many local electricity companies throughout Britain. In 1905 the installed plant capacity was 555kw 's and by 1926 when the undertaking was acquired by Inverness Corporation the installed capacity had increased five fold to 2.7 Mw. A very  interesting point is that 60% of the steam required for generation was provided by the burning of the town's refuse.


All the electricity schemes so far described had set off up the evolutionary blind alley of d.c. generation and distribution. But the Strathpeffer and Dingwall Electricity Supply Company Limited blazed a new and initially lonely trail into the use of a.c. generation and distribution.

Electricity generated as direct current can be conveniently stored in batteries. During the night the batteries could supply the load and during the day they assisted the generators. with alternating current, storage is impossible and the electricity must be generated as required. It is an intriguing thought that every unit of electricity used in this country is made on demand. When one switches on an electric kettle the units used to boil the water are generated there and then.

The great advantage of alternating current is that it can be converted into a higher or lower voltage very easily. In general, the higher the voltage then the lower are the transmission losses. with alternating current it becomes practicable to generate electricity remote from the point of consumption. The electricity can be generated at a high voltage and is then transmitted at this low loss voltage to the point of use where it is transformed down to a convenient voltage. For instance, by transmitting at 6,000 volts the losses in the transmission line are only one four- hundredth of what they would be if a transmission voltage of 300 were used.

Colonel E.W. Blunt-MacKenzie, husband of the Countess of Cromarty and father of the present Earl, put up most of the capital for the supply of electricity to the thriving spa of Strathpeffer and the adjacent county town of Dingwall. Not only did he choose alternating current a the means of distribution but, with remarkable prescience, he chose the distribution voltage of 415/240 which was many years later to become the National Standard.

Supply was generated by a Pelton Wheel driving a. 50kw set at Ravensrock and transmitted at 3,000 volts to Strathpeffer. Later a steam plant was added at Blairninich. By 1926 the original Company was re-organised as the Ross-shire Electricity Supply Company Limited and powers were taken to supply electricity over a rural and urban area of Easter Ross extending to 340 square miles.

A small dam was built across the River Conon where it leaves Loch Luichart and a 4 feet diameter pipeline was led to the power house, where two 500kVA hydro alternators were installed. Overhead power lines at 6,000 volts carried the bulk power to distribution transformers at Dingwall, Invergordon and Tain. From these beginnings at Loch Luichart arose the widespread transmission and distribution system which now exists in the North of Scotland.


Mr. Duncan, a native of New Leeds in Buchan, emigrated to South America, where, in partnership with Mr. Charles Penny, also of New Leeds, he successfully worked silver and tin mines. Returning to Buchan he lived at Tillycorthie, Udny and in 1914, trading as "Duncan's Electricity Supply Company" he supplied electricity to Ballater and Ellon, and by courtesy of the Town Council, Kintore.

At Ballater and Ellon, Fielding and Platt producer gas engines drove two 42kw sets at each town while at nintore, at what is now the  Torryburn substation, there were two Carrick and Ritchie water turbines with two 18kw Bruce Peebles generators. A 30kw paraffin engine provided a standby during periods of drought.


In 1920 the Strichen Gas Company went bankrupt and Mr. Penny, then residing at Skillymarno Strichen proposed that a Strichen Electrical Supply Company be formed. Unlike most private electricity Companies of the time, Penny wanted the shares to be bought by the villagers, so that they would have a keen personal interest in the success of the adventure. Unfortunately Mr. Penny succumbed to an attack of appendicitis and died before the 22.5kw, 220 d.c. producer gas powered plant went into service. However, the village was given supply towards the end of 1921.


Brora had steam generators in 1913 while Beauly had electricity in 1914 and Lossiemouth by 14th July of the same year. Kingussie was on supply by 1922 while Elgin also started that year by giving power to its first consumer on 18th December. Thurso and District Electric Supply Company Limited were first registered in November 1913 but supply was not given to Thurso until 1934. By this time the Company was controlled by the Somerby Electric Light Company Limited. Peterhead had an a.c. supply by 1929 while Kirkwall was generating electricity in 1923. Wick had a d.c. supply by September 1928, Buckie by September 1931 and Lerwick by September 1932. By the time the d.c. systems of Wick, Buckie and Lerwick had come on supply they were already obsolete. The use of 50 Hz a.c. inter- connected systems was rapidly pushing ahead. In 1930 a 132kV a.c. power line had been constructed from Rannoch to Abernethy and within the next seven years 33kV and 132kV lines would reach up 100 miles from Tummel to Keith in the heart of the North East. The isolated town d.c. networks survived until after the war, but by the early fifties rapid progress was being made in sweeping away the old schemes and replacing them by the a.c. 50 Hz, 415/240 volt system first pioneered 50 years earlier by Colonel E.W. Blunt-MacKenzie.

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