By Louise Boreham & Hilary Calvert

We are two friends with a shared interest in the life and work of Mary Seton Watts (née Fraser-Tytler) and her potteries at Compton and Aldourie. You can see information about our book in the Publications section of this website. It contains a whole chapter devoted to the Dores Pottery at Aldourie.

This article began with the discovery of an exchange of letters between Mrs G. F. Watts and Lord Grey about the village of Foyers. We thought it might make an interesting piece for the website, but when searching on-line, it became obvious that Mary Watts was not the first female artist to be interested in it. Mary Rose Hill Burton had campaigned against what she considered to be the despoilation of the famous Falls of Foyers some years before. That led on to further discoveries about the origins of the British Aluminium Company Ltd. and its personnel.

The British Aluminium Company Limited was registered in London on 5 May 1894 by its founders, Dr Emmanuel Joseph Ristori (1857-1911) and Roger William Wallace KC (1854-1926). Ristori was an Italian Civil Engineer, who came to the UK in 1882, was naturalised in 1887 and married an English woman, Frances Wodehouse, in 1890. Wallace was a Glasgow-born barrister, who had interests in motoring, aeronautics, railways and chemical experiments.

When the Prospectus for the British Aluminium Company was published in December 1894, the initial capital sought was £300,000, made up of twice as many preference shares as ordinary shares.  The Directors listed were Ristori, Wallace, Dr Andrew Ainslie Common (1841-1903), an English sanitary engineer, plus Alfred Bolton, a copper smelter; Harvey du Cros (1846-1918), a Dublin-born financier, with a keen interest in airships, and Chairman of The Pneumatic Tyre Co. (which went on to be the Dunlop Co.); Robert Heath (1851-1932), Ironmaster, Tunstall; and W. L. Thornton, Esq., of Sunnymead, Chislehurst, Kent, apparently a member of a family which made its money in Russian woollen mills.  Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) was listed as Scientific Advisor.

Charles Innes (1838-1899), an Inverness solicitor, smoothed the way with the local landowners, comprising Lord Lovat; Alexander Cunninghame, of Foyers estate; Mr Sopper of Dunmaglass and Captain Fraser of Balnain; to enable the British Aluminium Co. to purchase the western part of the Foyers estate and other land which would be flooded by the creation of the necessary reservoir above Foyers. He was pictured with Common, Ristori and Wallace on the shore of Loch Ness in September 1895.

l. to r. Dr Andrew Common, Emmanuel Ristori, Charles Innes and Roger Wallace. Photo courtesy of University of Glasgow, Archives & Special Collections, UGD347 BRITISH ALCAN UGD 347 21/53/129. Sepia photograph, dated 5th September 1895.
Fig 2 l. to r. Mr & Mrs Ristori, Lord & Lady Kelvin, friends, forester (bearded, in distance) and Johnston at Foyers site. Two site workmen in left background. Note pipes in trenches on slope behind visitors. Photo courtesy of University of Glasgow, Archives & Special Collections, UGD347 BRITISH ALCAN UGD 347 21/53/131 Sepia photograph, dated 5th September 1895.

The recruitment of the engineers, Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) and his protégé William Murray Morrison (1873-1848) in that early period was to prove crucial to the company’s development and long-term survival. Morrison was the nephew of Charles Innes, the solicitor, and was a local lad, educated at Inverness College, coming top of his class in 1883. He studied Natural Philosophy (natural science especially physics) at Edinburgh University from 1889, followed by a year at the West of Scotland Technical College (now Strathclyde University) from 1892-3. The following year he got the job with the British Aluminium Company Ltd.

The reason the company wished to set up in Foyers, hardly the most obvious place to site an industry, was to harness the power of the longest falls in country to generate electricity, to smelt aluminium. Before any development could take place at Foyers, the managers had to gain the support of the local population. This was the subject of a meeting of interested parties, held in Boleskine School on 22 March 1895 and was fully reported in the Inverness Courier, ‘The room was filled to overflowing. Two lady residents were present and took an active part in the proceedings. Mr Campbell, Garthbeg was called upon to take the chair, which he did amidst applause. The gathering included Miss Hill Burton, Boleskine House; Miss Currie, do; Rev. Mr Macarthur, parish minister; Rev. Mr Macleod, Free Church; Rev. Father Macdonald; Messrs Davidson C.C., Ruthven; Ross, Garthbeg; Campbell, Dall; Mackay, Drummond; Campbell, Dalcrag; Fraser, Mulruich; Fraser, Treonlist; Trail, teacher; Angus Fraser, Mussady; Macgruer, John Cameron, carpenter; Hugh Fraser, gamekeeper; Urquhart, inspector of the poor; Tavish Cameron, James Maclean; Bethune, Garthbeg; D Mackintosh, Loch Garthside; Duncan Chisholm, Muirich; Ramsay, Glebe; D. Shaw, Croftdhu; Fraser, Leadclune; Duncan Fraser, Muirich; D. Fraser, Lochgarthside; H. Macdonald, Knock; Goldie, blacksmith; Fraser, Lyne; Pirrie, Tomvoit; Chisholm, Lochgarthside; Chisholm, crofter, do; Macdougall, postmaster; Maclaren, Lochgarthside; Fraser, Farraline; Mr Muir and others.’ The Rev. Macleod moved the first resolution, “That the founding in the Highlands of manufacturing or other industries calculated to develop local resources and to provide employment and increase the resident population, is deserving of warmest encouragement and support.” He went on to describe the underuse of the land and the lack of local employment to repeated applause. His own manse and steading was the nearest to the shore of the new reservoir, yet he heartily supported the approval of the British Aluminium Co. Ltd. plans for Foyers and its hinterland, pointing out that the area between Loch Farraline and Loch Garth was largely marshy swamp, often difficult to cross, even on the existing roads. If his own land were flooded, there would be compensation, but he hastened to stress that he was above all considering the future of the young people, who were forced to leave Stratherrick in ever increasing numbers to find gainful employment. Unanimous approval for the resolution was declared. Everything was moving along swimmingly, amid great good humour, until Mr Davidson, Ruthven, a member of the County Council got carried away and joked that the Falls would still be available for the tourists to view, after the company had diverted water into a huge pipeline which was to be built from the reservoir down to the power plant. He went so far as to suggest the tourists might be asked to pay for the privilege, if anyone would be so daft as to travel to Foyers specially to see the Falls (much applause). Then, to the surprise of the meeting, Miss Burton stood up and declared that there were plenty of people who would be willing to pay and what would the Council do with the money it took? Mr Davidson, encouraged by the obvious support of the rest of the meeting declared that he would give it to whoever owned the land or who had paid for the development of the Falls. [The Falls of Foyers were famous for being the longest in the UK and much visited by tourists who landed from steamers at Foyers Pier.] Warming to his new role of stand-up comedian, Mr Davidson went on to point out that one industry created another. ‘The incomers would require shoes, clothing, a baker to give them bread and a doctor to keep them alive. Laughter’. He pointed out that the District Committee had already approved the new roads the company would build and was sure the County Council would do the same. Applause. However, Miss Burton would not be squashed so easily. If the company must come, then the Council should make sure it was on favourable terms to the existing people and insist on the employment of ‘Stratherrick men at a fair wage and not import ex-convicts and other undesirable people and unless the company guaranteed that the company would continue in existence for more than six months’. This was greeted by interruptions, so that Miss Burton had to explain that she did not wish to say ill of the company, but that the people were in a strong position to make terms to their advantage. Miss Burton then moved an amendment, “That guarantees be extracted of the solvency of the company and that they should employ Stratherrick men at fair wages and not injure the Falls of Foyers”. Miss Currie seconded it. Positively bristling at this unexpected turn of affairs, Davidson went on to point out that Mr Innes (the Inverness solicitor) had got a promise from the company that Stratherrick men would get the first chance of work and so the meeting should take Mr Inness’s word of honour that it would come to pass. ‘Miss Burton said that Mr Innes was not the company, and she did not know how much influence he might have over an Italian manger. They should have something more substantial than a verbal promise from Mr Innes. The Chairman put motion and amendment to a show of hands. The latter was supported by the two ladies only. The masculine vote was solid for Mr Davidson’s motion, which was declared to be the opinion of the meeting.’ Miss Burton was furious at a further motion that the grateful thanks of the community be offered to the proprietors for the prompt and heartfelt way they had facilitated the comprehensive scheme proposed by the British Aluminium Company. She knew only too well how they were to be compensated for the loss of unproductive land, but was obviously too much of a lady to voice those opinions. Instead, she proposed a further amendment that thanks were not due to the proprietors. This time Miss Currie did not second it and the original motion was agreed to. The meeting continued with various speakers welcoming the company’s proposals, especially the new road which would be a great improvement on the existing one, which tended to flood in winter. Rev. Mr Macarthur sounded another note of caution about the promise of untold riches for the community, but he would not stand in the way of the wishes of the people, adding ‘They knew the ruffianism and drunkenness connected with work of the kind and they must bargain for these and put up with them’. Another speaker pointed out that for the size of the local population, there were more than enough clergymen to reform the incomers. The Rev. Mr Macarthur was at pains to dispel any notion that he might be influenced by any promise of compensation. There was some discussion about Captain Fraser of Balnain not attending the meeting, but his long letter was read out. He listed what he saw as the pros and cons of approval, many more pro, it must be said, than the rather half-hearted cons. No comments on his letter were reported in the newspaper, possibly because the assembled company knew that he was one of the landowners who was in line for generous compensation. The meeting ended having approved several motions welcoming the British Aluminium Company and its proposals for the area.

Mary Rose Hill Burton (1859-1900), who spoke against the proposal, was an artist born in Edinburgh on 10 July 1859. Her mother, Katherine Hill Burton, bought Boleskine House around 1894. Sadly, Mrs Hill Burton died on 29 November 1898 at home. She was buried in St John’s Catholic Cemetery, Whitebridge, Foyers.

Katherine Hill Burton gravestone. St. John’s Catholic Cemetery, Whitebridge . Photograph courtesy of Alister Chisholm

Once the Council had approved the project, dams had to be built across two small lochs in the valley above Foyers, forming Loch Mhor, so that there would be a sufficient and consistent head of water, which was then channelled into large pipes down to the turbine house where electricity was generated to smelt the aluminium. The British Aluminium Company began to accommodate the construction workers in a type of barracks in the shell of Foyers House, which had a roof installed to make it weatherproof. It was never a satisfactory solution and wooden huts were built further up the hillside. A workforce drawn from Scotland, Northern England, Wales and Ireland was housed in five wooden huts (40 men in each), Foyers House (60 men) and parts of farm buildings at Foyers and Glenlia (60 men). A sanitary inspector daily visited the basic facilities of latrines and earth closets, so that very little illness occurred. A small hospital and doctor were provided, towards which the men contributed two pence a week. Foyers Club ran the community premises consisting of a reading room, canteen and large hall. By the end of 1895 the 120 temporary workmen from furth of Scotland had left and were replaced by Scots.

Pipe line construction at Foyers

Bauxite, mined near Larne in Northern Ireland, was processed into alumina at a plant near the harbour before being shipped to Foyers by the S.S. Loch Etive. On its return voyage the ship picked up coal from the Ayrshire coalfield and headed for Larne, where the coal was unloaded and alumina loaded, whereupon the ship set off again to Foyers to land its new cargo.

The British Aluminium Co. prospered at Foyers and the first aluminium was produced in June 1896, an event commemorated by the issue of a medal containing the ‘Gaelic’ motto, TIr Nam Bean nan Clean s’nan Gaisgeach’, which should be ‘Tìr nam Beann, nan Gleann ‘s nan Gaisgeach’, The Land of the Mountains, of the Glens and of the Heroes, on one side.  According to Professor Hugh Cheape, ‘this was a piece of 19th century Gaelic Romanticism and was very popular in motto-production until around the start of WW1. It appears in pseudo-heraldry and on buttons and badges.’ On the other side of the medal is an image of St Andrew with his Cross. Both sides feature the thistle, rose and shamrock.

Medal commemorating first production of aluminium at Foyers 1896. Photograph courtesy of Louise Boreham

The company then turned its attention to houses for those who were to become permanent workers. A hierarchy of provision resulted, with terraced houses for the factory workers, larger detached houses for the management and houses for the necessary ancillary services. A new school and schoolhouse, a doctor’s house and surgery, a community meeting room, all followed in quick succession. Most of these had been built by the time of the 1901 census which revealed that the majority of the 343 inhabitants were from the Highlands, if not from the immediate Foyers area. Of these 42 remained in the unsatisfactory Foyers House. The manager, William M. Morrison, was housed in the Manager’s House along with Percy R. Cobb (assistant manager) and supported by two female domestic servants. The initial group of houses, in Glenlia, formed an open square where a fountain was installed in the centre of the green.  Originally commissioned in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, it was not actually placed in position until after her death in 1901. It bears the original inscription, ‘Erected By local subscription to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the year 1897 and the foundation of this village’. The idea came from Mrs Ristori, who organised subscriptions from both the company and locals. She wanted it to be surmounted by an aluminium statuette of Queen Victoria which never materialised. The polished Peterhead red granite Foyers fountain was displayed in the Inverness premises of D. & A. Davidsons, sculptors, prior to its installation. Although now dry, it had provision for both humans and animals to drink at different heights.

Foyers Fountain 2020 Photograph courtesy of Alister Chisholm

From 1897 for ten years, invitations to tender for various types of buildings were usually advertised in the Inverness Courier, by the architects Cameron & Burnett. That for the block of shops & dwelling houses was among the later instances on 2 October 1906.

In an age when most lobbying and organisational work was done by men, there was another woman who took a practical interest in the British Aluminium Co. scheme for Foyers. This was Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938).  The family seat was Aldourie Castle, Dores, where Mary spent her childhood.

Mary continued to take an interest in the area and in 1900 set up Dores Pottery, to provide employment for local men. By 1902, a pottery building, a kiln and two houses had been built at Dores, but the enterprise survived at most until 1905.  Despite that failure Mary saw the arrival of the British Aluminium Co. at Foyers as another chance to improve conditions for local working people. It was suggested to her that good housing was needed for the workers and it was not in Mary’s character to ignore such a scheme. At Compton, near Guildford, she had organised the building of a Pottery, a substantial house for the manager and four workers’ cottages, so despite her position as the wife of the pre-eminent Victorian artist, (George Frederic Watts) her mind ran on practical lines. For advice on this Highland housing scheme, she turned to her friend, Lord Grey. He had succeeded to the Earldom in 1894 and inherited the family home Howick Hall, on the Northumbrian coast. He was a tireless advocate of co-operation between consumers and producers, industrial profit sharing, technical education, proportional representation, church reform, temperance and city beautification.

The main source of information about Mary’s plans for housing at Foyers comes from letters written by her to Lord Grey. They start about 1898, by which time the British Aluminium plant at Foyers was built and working. In an undated but very early 1900s letter to Lord Grey, she wrote: ‘I want to tell you about an opportunity there is for building an ideal Highland village, and to consult you about the sort of first steps in the matter. …. Now by Foyers – close to the Falls, an industry has sprung up and the Company in London are just about to build a hideous village of barracks! to house 200 workers’. She went on to say that she had visited the Cadburys at Bournville to see the new village built there, and enthused about the possibility: ‘for once getting something done beautifully in such a spot. Think what 200 homes on those hills would mean in the next generation. I want it to be a sort of example. For though so far away, that spot is visited all the summer and autumn by everyone who passes through the Caledonian Canal. It is therefore not a light that would be hidden, but a village ‘set on a hill!’ It all depends on how the wheels are set in motion whether it can be done or not.’ What she did not seem to be aware of, and never mentioned in her letters, is that by this time a considerable amount of new housing had already been built at Foyers by the British Aluminium Co. She ploughed on trying to get the Garden City Association involved in the creation of a planned village, on the lines of those being set up in England. The British Aluminium Company was willing, subject to reasonable conditions, to give control of the buildings and development to a syndicate which would receive a 4 or 5% return on its investment. Architects were invited to compete in designing plans for houses and the Garden City Association would provide advice and supervision of the scheme.

A letter reported in The Inverness Courier on 13 October 1903, referred to an interview with Walter Crane, in which he advised the use of local materials for country cottages. He suggested local grey granite [which would be expensive to dress] and heather thatch [pretty, but a fire risk as found at the Compton Pottery where a heather-thatched workshop burned down] for Foyers, which makes it seem unlikely that he had ever visited the area. Walter Crane was an illustrator and artist but his son, Lionel was an architect who had worked in the practice of Sir Ernest George [the designer of the Wattses’ house Limnerslease]. In January 1904, Mary Watts was at a meeting in London and persuaded Lionel to ‘take the matter up’, but the Garden City Association objected when the British Aluminium Co. stipulated that they must reserve the right to evict tenants in the case of a strike. The Association then withdrew its offer to form a syndicate. They did, however, agree to advise on the project if the Company continued alone. The British Aluminium Co. then agreed to accept plans for well-designed cottages if they cost no more than those already erected. Of several designs submitted, Lionel Crane (who had already designed one cottage for Letchworth Garden City) and his business partner Detmar Blow were selected as architects. They designed a block of four cottages for the site, plans for which were later exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1907, and the British Aluminium Co. accepted the designs.  In March, and again in September 1904 Cameron & Burnett invited tenders from various building trades for a block of four cottages. This must have been for the Crane & Blow cottages, to be overseen on-site by the Inverness-based architects. By 1905, one block of four linked cottages in the Arts and Crafts style was built in Foyers on the edge of Glenlia.

In October 1904 The Garden City magazine published an illustrated article by Murray Morrison, titled ‘Foyers Industrial Village’. Although by then manager at the new British Aluminium plant at Kinlochleven, he had obviously maintained an interest in the Foyers village, possibly with the intention of interesting the Garden City Association in a similar undertaking at Kinlochleven. He briefly described the construction of village housing by the British Aluminium Co. and, in more detail, those designed by Crane and Blow. He wrote that ‘Mrs G.F. Watts showed her keen appreciation of her native Highlands by interesting herself in the housing of the new population at Foyers’ and described how these particular architects had become involved in the project. The plans and a front elevation drawing were included in the article.

60-63 Glenlia Cottages, designed by Crane & Blow Photograph courtesy of Alister Chisholm
60-63 Glenlia Cottages, designed by Crane & Blow Photograph courtesy of Alister Chisholm

The building consisted of four self-contained cottages with gardens at the back and front. The middle two had two rooms each, at one end of the block there was a cottage with three rooms and at the other, one with five rooms, having two bedrooms on an upper floor. Each cottage had a porch, back entrance, washing room and cupboards and a W.C., although from the plan it appears that the two small middle cottages shared one. The interior walls were of lath and plaster and the exterior of local granite with freestone dressings and a rough-cast cement finish. The windows were of the casement type, each divided by astragals into eight panes which gave an ‘Arts and Crafts’ look, but which made window cleaning a difficult task. The roofs were tiled with slate, not thatched as Walter Crane had suggested, but particular attention was paid to the colour. The Art Committee did not want the local ‘cold blue slate’ to be used, preferring a green tint, and after much discussion blue/green mottled slates were imported from North Wales. It was intended that further houses would be built in similar, but not identical styles. The photograph which illustrates Morrison’s article shows scattered wooden huts which accommodated the temporary workers and were only required during the construction phase of the factory. The stone-built houses were intended for the permanent workers. Morrison was at pains to show that the British Aluminium Co. had already built five blocks of houses, two to the design of Messrs. Cameron & Burnet, architects from Inverness, and three designed by British Aluminium Co.’s engineers. These were all two-story ‘Edinburgh colony’ type houses, with one flat on top of the other. Each had a garden, either front or back, and the upper flat was accessed by an outside staircase to the rear of the building. The site at Foyers was steep, with the Aluminium factory at shore-level and the workers’ houses 500 ft higher. It was considered ‘that the somewhat arduous ascent from factory to village is amply compensated for by the invigorating hill air’! The article concluded with a brief mention of more prestigious housing for the manager, his staff and the head foreman, built nearer to the factory and also of shops, a school, a workmen’s club, library, doctor’s house and church, about to be built. Sadly, on 1 July 1904, Mary’s husband died and she was too devastated and then too occupied with the complications of his will to continue with her project at Foyers. Her still-frequent letters to Lord Grey did not mention the subject again until October 1908 when her sister motored her along the shores of Loch Ness in one of the family cars to ‘that lovely place, Foyers’. The village was not quite as she had hoped and imagined, and many other houses of varying styles had been built. Nevertheless, the result pleased her, particularly the thriving school and well-tended gardens. She wrote to reassure Lord Grey that the village was well laid out, that his ‘influence and help have not been squandered’ and that ‘All is prospering at Foyers’.

Foyers Village Photograph courtesy of Hilary Calvert

William Murray Morrison oversaw the building of a planned village at Kinlochleven, became Managing Director of the entire company, then Deputy Chairman and was knighted in 1945.

Copyright Louise Boreham & Hilary Calvert 2021