The village of Foyers owes its presence to the coincidence of a remarkable set of
circumstances during the period of bold inventiveness of late Victorian times. The
outcome was the rapid construction of the Foyers Aluminium smelter and associated
Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust but exists only
in combination with its many ores as oxides or silicates. It has a tenacious grip of
oxygen. The most common ore is bauxite. Aluminium is present to some extent in all
soils except those derived from limestone or sandstone.
The metallic form of aluminium is very difficult to separate from its ores and was
originally obtained in only small quantities by chemical processes. By 1885 the world
production was only 15 tons despite improvements. It was more precious than gold or
In 1886 a method of extracting aluminium from its ore by electro-chemical means
was simultaneously discovered by Charles Martin Hall with his sister in America and
by Paul Louis Héroult in France. Both were given credit and the process became
known as the Hall-Héroult process. This discovery was one factor in the growth of
In 1887 the Austrian chemist Carl Josef Bayer perfected a process for producing
aluminium oxide (alumina) from bauxite. This was initially for use as a fixative for
dyes in the textile industry but its availability on an industrial scale was another key
element in the development of aluminium production.
The British Aluminium Company (BA) was founded in May 1894 and had exclusive
rights to use the Hall-Héroult process. Lord Kelvin was retained as scientific advisor.
Kelvin (a Scots-Irishman, born William Thomson in Belfast) was a Glasgow-based
mathematician and physicist with much research into electricity and
electromagnetism, and so was eminently suited to the company’s proposed objectives.
A ready and sustainable source of electricity is fundamental to the production of
aluminium and when the estates of Upper and Lower Foyers, including the Falls of
Foyers came on the market, interest was focused on this location with its potential to
generate cheap electricity using water power The first UK hydro-electricity
production had been in 1878 powering just a light bulb, and larger scale hydro-electric
power stations were evolving in the USA and Canada. The Falls and hydro-electricity
were thus further factors in Foyers development.
Access to Foyers for transport of raw materials using the Caledonian Canal (upgraded
to its present form in 1847) and the pier at Foyers (built 1890) were the remaining
parts of the jigsaw.
The Foyers Estate was purchased and negotiations took place to purchase additional
land in Stratherrick. This was to enable the construction of a dam which would create
Loch Mhor by increasing the levels of Loch Garth and Loch Farraline and flooding
the land between them so helping guarantee an adequate and regular supply of water
to produce the electricity used in the smelter.
When the proposals were made public, there was much alarm and outcry about
spoiling the Falls, flooding the glen and the intrusion of industry. Both local and
national campaigns were set up opposing the venture. Public meetings took place to
try and reassure the locality, one of which took place in Boleskine School on the 22nd
March 1895. Despite some vocal opposition the majority were in favour of work and
income coming to the area.
The Inverness County Council duly approved the scheme with certain conditions (one
of which was the vernacular design of the smelter buildings, bequeathing us with what
we have today!). The construction of the smelter and the associated water supply went
ahead very rapidly with production of aluminium being formally celebrated on June
15th 1896. The centenary of the inauguration was recognised by several events in
Foyers in June 1996.
The smelter at Foyers thus became the first of its type in Britain and possibly the
largest in the world at the time. Two others already existed. Héroult was involved in
setting up one next to the Rhine Falls in Neuhausen, Switzerland in November 1888,
and Hall formed a company to establish a facility at Kensington outside Pittsburg in
the USA in September 1888. This was called the Pittsburg Reduction Company and
soon moved to a larger smelter near the new Niagara power station and was renamed
the Aluminium Company of America (ALCOA) in 1907.
The Foyers smelter consisted initially of four lines of cells, then six, for dissolving
alumina in molten cryolite and electrolysing the molten salt bath. Each line was
supplied with electricity at 65 volts and 8000 amps by its own generator and turbine.
These were Girard vertical shaft Pelton wheels, one of which can be seen on display
in the forecourt of the present Foyers power station. Most of this original machinery
was still in use up to the closure of the smelter in 1967.
Initial production of aluminium was 200 tons per year as there was limited demand
for the material. About half of the available electricity was surplus and was leased to
The Acetylene Illuminating Company Ltd for production of calcium carbide. This
reverted to BA after 3 years who also produced calcium carbide but soon increased
aluminium production as they wanted to consolidate their position on the world
Annual world production of aluminium in 1900 was around 6000 tons of which
Foyers contributed 1000 tons. Today it is around 50 million tons. Aluminium had
moved away from being a precious metal and had become a vital commodity. During
the First World War the smelter was heavily guarded by police and the military.
Bauxite was originally mined near the town of Antrim in Northern Ireland and
processed into alumina at Larne using the Bayer process. From here it was shipped up
the west coast and through the Caledonian Canal to be unloaded at Foyers pier.
Carbon anodes which are consumed in the smelting process were manufactured at
Greenock and collected en route.
By the start of the First World War the supply of bauxite was coming from British
Guiana, then later from Ghana. A site at Burntisland in Fife with deep water access
was purchased for the production of alumina but hostilities delayed its commissioning
Initially the uses made of aluminium were limited but soon increased greatly with the
development of alloys and the production of motor vehicles and aircraft. Up to and
especially during the Second World War production increased, despite a bombing raid
by the Germans. In 1946 around 500 workers were employed at Foyers.
From its initial presence in the area the BA had a policy of housing workers and
providing welfare facilities. During the construction phase the old Foyers House was
renovated and used as a hostel and other temporary accommodation erected nearby.
As there were no other houses in Foyers at all, work began to construct housing for
workers and their families. These were at various locations in the area but mainly at
Upper Foyers and Park Terrace. Later Foyers House was demolished and the stone
used to construct the row of houses at Elmbank. The house on Kelvin Way
overlooking the smelter was the original manager’s house before his new house was
built, now Foyers Bay House. The Kelvin Way house became the chemist’s house and
laboratory and administrative office.
An item from the booklet produced for the Foyers Centenary in 1996 sums up the
growth and spirit of the village:-
“The coming of the British Aluminium Company to Foyers in 1896 brought prosperity
to a wide area. The village of Foyers grew up overnight. Around that time 600 men
were employed and for many it was their first real pay packet. Four shops were built,
and a four teacher school with 120 pupils. The Church of Scotland was followed by
the Roman Catholic Chapel.
Two passenger paddle steamers served the area in those days, sailing from Inverness
to Fort William – the “Glengarry” (Captain MacDonald) and the “Gondolier”
(Captain Grant). With the coming of road transport the steamers gradually
disappeared. Horses and carts provided the main transport for the works.
Before the Second World War a man’s wages were not paid until he attained the age
of 21 – unless he was able to carry two hundred-weights of alumina.
Foyers had one of the first welfare areas, with a small sum deducted from the
employee’s wages entitling him and his family to free care and medicine from the
doctor who had one of the first motorbikes – a Scott and a haversack on his back. The
nurse was not so lucky. She had an area of around 6 miles to cover, but in all
weathers she carried a wee black bag and used the Walker’s bus!
Foyers was a thriving community with a bowling club, tennis and badminton court,
football and shinty field and a workmen’s club. A hall held concerts, dances and
sports. Yes they were happy days in Foyers. My own family had four generations
working in the Foyers plant. We all salute these great men of wisdom and foresight
who made British Aluminium.
Willie Batchen, Foyers 1996
While Foyers pioneered aluminium production, it was soon overtaken in terms of
scale and efficiency by the construction of plants at Kinlochleven (1910) and Fort
William (3 phases, 1929, 1933 and 1943). In 1954 the Foyers plant was turned over to
the production of “super purity” aluminium using product from other plants and
remelting and removing impurities to give 99.99% pure metal. Super purity aluminium
has excellent ductility and much superior corrosion resistance.
In 1967 economics led to the closure of the plant at Foyers. The buildings, water
infrastructure and much of the landholding were subsequently bought by the Hydro
Board (now SSE). The existing intake and pipelines were used to power a 5 MW
generator installed at the south west end of the main building. In the early 1970s Loch
Mhor was used as the upper basin for the construction of the 300 MW Foyers
reversible pumped storage hydro-electric scheme.
For a time parts of the building were leased out to local businesses. At the east end
Andrew Munro set up a salmon hatchery in the building with the outdoor tanks for
smolts opposite on the loch side. At the other end of the building Colin Evans ran a
business building fibreglass boats and related objects. Colin’s father, Len was one of
the chemists who developed the production of super purity aluminium at Foyers.
Both of these enterprises ceased in the early 2000s and the building is now entirely
used by SSE.
In 2019 the local Community Trust acquired a long term lease on the land opposite
the building and plans are in place to build a boating facility with a new slipway on to