Aluminium in Scotland: The Alcan Collection

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston Leave a comment

A staff post by Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant at The Hunterian.

The production of aluminium in Scotland stretches back more than a century. Harnessing hydroelectric power, it beckoned a new era of industry for the Highlands, seen previously as a remote and inaccessible part of the country. A lightweight and versatile metal, Scottish aluminium was exported all over the world.

Founded on 7 May 1894, the British Aluminium Company (BACo) established its first smelter at Foyers in 1896, followed by Kinlochleven in 1909 and Lochaber in 1929. Many years of prosperity followed, particularly during the First and Second World Wars, when great quantities of aluminium were needed for military purposes. BACo was taken over in 1958. Foyers shut down in 1967, but hopes were raised when a new smelter opened at Invergordon in 1971. However, after only 10 years of operation, this also closed. The world market for aluminium had changed dramatically. BACo was then bought by a Canadian company, Alcan. Between 1982 and 1996, the company was known as British Alcan Aluminium Plc. Kinlochleven remained open until 2000, leaving Lochaber the sole producer of aluminium in Scotland as of 2017.

The Hunterian holds an extensive collection of objects made from aluminium, including ingots and medals produced from the first taps of metal from Foyers, Kinlochleven and Lochaber, through to coins, tokens, badges, art medals, postcards, home and office ephemera, saucepans and even a spoon made from the remnants of a crashed German Zeppelin.

Aluminium Postcard
The first aluminium to be tapped at Kinlochleven took place on 31 December 1907. This souvenir postcard, dating from around 1910 – 1914, shows just how dramatically the industry changed the landscape. GLAHM:37976.

Zeppelin Spoon
On the afternoon of 5 August 1908, high winds blew Zeppelin LZ 4 from its moorings at Echterdingen in southern Germany. Despite the efforts of the sole crew member onboard to control the Zeppelin and bring it to earth, LZ 4 accidentally collided with trees and burst into flames. Witnessed by a crowd of tens of thousands, the airship was completely destroyed. This commemorative spoon was made from metal salvaged from the wreck. GLAHM:37715.

Metropolitan Police Warrant
This is the earliest example of an item made from aluminium in the collection. Probably struck in London, the warrant number reveals that it was issued in 1835. GLAHM:37843.

‘Aluminium Manufactured at Kinlochleven’ Medal
This medal was struck from the first aluminium to be tapped at Kinlochleven on 31 December 1907. The inscription in Gaelic on the obverse reads: ‘What water can not do, when it can make me’. GLAHM:37786.

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