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ATOMIC HOUSING

Thurso Transformed



INTRODUCTION

In 1954, Dounreay in Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland, was chosen as the site for a new type of nuclear reactor. The aim of the project was to assess the effectiveness of fast breeder reactors in generating power for electricity. It was a huge undertaking that would require a sizeable labour force to be imported into the sparsely populated county.

The decision to site the project in Caithness was a great boon for the area. As a county that relied on farming and fishing for its employment, modernisation meant jobs had become scarce. Stephen Cashmore explains that:

‘Caithness had long been exporting its finest product- people. Dounreay, it was hoped, was about to change all that. It did that and more, bringing back homesick exiles and introducing a new breed of Caithness resident- the “Atomics”.’[1]

The building of ‘atomic’ housing was vital to the fast breeder reactor programme at Dounreay. Without the allure of modern, attractive houses at reasonable rents, drawing skilled workers to the far north would have been near impossible, given the perception of the area as bleak and remote.

Throughout this exhibition we’ll be showcasing high resolution photographs from the air, ground and inside of some of the houses themselves, exploring wonderfully detailed architectural plans, displaying the Dounreay Householders Handbook in its entirety and hearing the recollections of those who lived and worked in Thurso in excerpts from the Dounreay Oral History series.

There is much to see and hear so please take your time, browse at your leisure and explore the fascinating history of the ‘atomic’ houses.



FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The image below shows the construction of the fast breeder reactor at Dounreay, or the golf ball as it is affectionately known. It represents the science that drew so many to Caithness and the propulsion behind the extensive construction of new houses . Click on the images throughout the exhibition to enlarge and zoom in for more detail. Simply click the back button to continue exploring.

Construction at Dounreay site

10046 – Copy – Dounreay Nuclear Image Archive

In the following excerpts from the Dounreay Oral History series, held at Nucleus, David Broughton and Dave Sprague talk to interviewer James Gunn of their first impressions of Thurso and the character of the town. Click the links and the recording will begin playing in a separate tab, you’ll then be able to continue browsing whilst listening.

Excerpt of David Broughton discussing his first impressions of Thurso, recorded 14th Aug 2014

 

Excerpt of Dave Sprague discussing his first impressions of Thurso, recorded 14th Dec 2011



THURSO 

PRE CONSTRUCTION

Thurso, 9 miles east of Dounreay, was the nearest town to the planned nuclear reactor. In 1951, the town’s population was 3,249. This was to grow to over 9000 after the completion of the building programme to house ‘atomic’ workers.

The image below shows the site at Thurso South East where open fields dwelt before construction began.

Thurso South East site

Thurso South East site – P817/9/10

Some of the first houses to be built were on Castlegreen road, opposite Ormlie Lodge, shown in the image below.

Castlegreen Road Type A Street View

Castlegreen Road Type A Street View – P817/9/3

In this oral history excerpt John Walford describes an early visit to Thurso when these houses were the only ones yet in construction. He also tells of the later construction of the timber houses he would soon occupy himself and mentions Hugh Macdonald, the architect, who we’ll explore in more detail soon.

Excerpt of John Walford discussing an early visit to Thurso, recorded 16th Aug 2013



AERIAL VIEWS OVER THURSO

POST CONSTRUCTION

Aerial view over Thurso

Thurso 3 Aerial View – NDA COPYRIGHT

Aerial view over Thurso

Thurso 2 Aerial View – NDA COPYRIGHT

Aerial View Ormlie

Aerial View Ormlie – NDA COPYRIGHT

Aerial view over Thurso

Aerial View Ormlie 2 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Aerial view over Thurso

Thurso Aerial View – NDA COPYRIGHT



BURGH OF THURSO MINUTES

6th MAY 1954

Thurso Burgh Council were keen supporters of the scheme from the beginning, and built a strong relationship with the UKAEA, which was vital in delivering not only the housing project, but the associated infrastructure within a very tight timescale.

The initial discussion and unanimous approval for the UKAEA building scheme in principle is shown in these pages from the Burgh of Thurso Minutes.

Burgh of Thurso Minutes 6th May, 1954

BT/1/16

 



ARCHITECTURAL PLANS

Sinclair Macdonald & Son

Thurso architectural firm Sinclair Macdonald & Son was chosen to oversee the atomic housing project.  Architect Barbaretus Sinclair Macdonald (generally known simply as Sinclair Macdonald) started the practice in Thurso in 1889. Sinclair Macdonald’s son, Hugh Sinclair Macdonald, followed in his father’s footsteps. Born on 18th June 1903, he commenced his apprenticeship in his father’s office in October 1921.  He left to continue his studies in Edinburgh and Europe but soon returned to Thurso to join his father in his practice, becoming partner in 1931. After his father’s death in 1936,  Hugh continued as senior partner.

Hugh Sinclair Macdonald, along with Thurso’s town clerk, pushed the UKAEA to be clear on how many workers would need to be housed from the beginning, so development could be well planned. Sinclair Macdonald was responsible for site layout and project managing the construction work. He was also the liaison between the UKAEA and the local authority.

John Lawes was a member of the Housing Committee. In the following excerpt he describes the rules surrounding the acquisition of an atomic house.

Excerpt of John Lawes discussing Thurso Housing Committee, recorded 27th Apr  2016

Below are architectural plans for the hierarchy of different house types that were to be built. Houses were allocated according to staff grade; with the best quality houses going to management, but streets contained a mix of the different types of houses to avoid enclaves of particular grades. It was hoped this would encourage communities to evolve naturally. The most senior managers were housed away from the estates in Thurso, in Scrabster and Castletown.


Type A

House Type A

BT/6/2/1/83 Scientific Staff Plan and Elevation

House Type A

BT/6/2/1/88 UKAEA Traditional Houses Type A


Type B

House Type B

BT/6/2/1/88 UKAEA Traditional Houses Type B


Type C

House Type C

BT/6/2/1/88 UKAEA Traditional Houses Type C


Type D

House Type D

BT/6/2/1/88 UKAEA Traditional Houses Type D


Non Traditional

House Type Non-Traditional

BT/6/2/1/80 UKAEA non- traditional houses Floor Plan

House Type Non-Traditional

BT/6/2/1/80 UKAEA non- traditional houses (elevation)


Mount Vernon

House Type Mount Vernon

BT/6/2/1/250 Mount Vernon 1

House Type Mount Vernon

BT/6/2/1/250 Mount Vernon 2

House Type Mount Vernon

BT/6/2/1/250 Mount Vernon 3

House Type Mount Vernon

BT/6/2/1/250 Mount Vernon 4


Flats

House Type Flats

CC/9/1/3/4/2/14 3 story block of flats

House Type Flats

BT/6/2/1/131 3 story block of flats plan



BUILDING WORKS

Construction Begins

The first phase of construction began in 1955 with 50 two-storey semi-detached timber houses to accommodate the first cohort of Dounreay staff.

When the building programme ended in 1963, 1007 houses had been constructed. There were four ‘atomic’ housing estates in Thurso- at Castlegreen, Ormlie, Pennyland and Mount Vernon. Most of the houses were semi- traditional, with prefabricated timber frames and harled brick exterior walls. Four blocks of flats were also built to house large numbers of workers within a smaller footprint.

Listen to Ernie Lillyman describe the ‘feverish’ building of houses in the Caithness winter weather below.

Excerpt of Ernie Lillyman discussing house construction, recorded 7th Nov 2013


Construction of Housing for Atomics

Housing for Atomics (002) NDA COPYRIGHT


Construction of Housing for Atomics

Ormlie (002) NDA COPYRIGHT


Construction of Housing for Atomics

Thurso construction (002) NDA COPYRIGHT


Construction of Housing for Atomics

Thurso construction (2) (002) NDA COPYRIGHT



EXTERIOR PHOTGRAPHS

Within eight years, Thurso had trebled in size and the population had risen to over 9000.

Street names were chosen by Donald Carmichael, Dounreay’s Reay born general secretary, and approved by the Burgh Council. A number were a nod to Caithness’  Norse heritage e.g. Thorfinn Terrace, Sigurd Road and Sweyn Road. The town had been changed as ‘atomic’ families settled into their new homes in Thurso.

Willie Sloss speaks of his wish to escape the city and subsequent move to Caithness. He lived in Halkirk whilst waiting for an atomic house and was the first to move into his estate.

Excerpt of Willie Sloss discussing his move to Caithness, recorded 13th Mar  2014


Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 2 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 3 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 4 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 5 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 6 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 7 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 8 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 9 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 10 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Estate

Estate Thurso 11 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Thurso Flats

Estate Thurso Block of Flats – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Housing at Castletown

Housing at Castletown (002) – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Mount Vernon Housing

Mount Vernon Housing -NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Mount Vernon Housing

Mount Vernon Pennyland (002) – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Mount Vernon Housing

Mount Vernon Pennyland Thurso (002) – NDA COPYRIGHT

Pennyland Estate from Rev School

Pennyland Estate from Rev School – NDA COPYRIGHT

Exterior Photograph of Pennyland Housing Estate

Pennyland Housing Estate – NDA COPYRIGHT

Photograph of Thurso from Mount Vernon

Thurso from Mount Vernon – NDA COPYRIGHT

Photograph of Housing at Scrabster

Housing at Scrabster – NDA COPYRIGHT

Thurso Housing

Thurso (002) – NDA COPYRIGHT

Pennyland Estate

Pennyland (002) – NDA COPYRIGHT



INTERIOR PHOTOGRAPHS

The expanded population not only needed houses, but the associated social infrastructure that supports a community. New schools were built to accommodate the large numbers of children who came north when their parents were employed at the plant. The social lives of the new residents were not forgotten either- the UKAEA acquired ‘Viewfirth’, a former residential home in Duncan Street in the town, turning it into the Dounreay Sports and Social Club.

Below are some interior photographs from a few of the atomic houses after families had made their new home in Thurso.


Authority House Kitchen

Authority House Kitchen 2 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Authority House Kitchen

Authority House Kitchen – NDA COPYRIGHT

Bedroom in New Wing Ormlie Lodge

Bedroom in New Wing Ormlie Lodge – NDA COPYRIGHT

Bedroom Ormlie Lodge

Bedroom Ormlie Lodge – NDA COPYRIGHT

Kitchen Pennyland Estate

Kitchen Pennyland Estate – NDA COPYRIGHT

Lounge Pennyland Estate

Lounge Pennyland Estate 2 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Lounge Pennyland Estate

Lounge Pennyland Estate 3 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Lounge Pennyland Estate

Lounge Pennyland Estate 4 – NDA COPYRIGHT

Lounge Pennyland Estate

Lounge Pennyland Estate 5 – NDA COPYRIGHT



DOUNREAY HOUSEHOLDERS HANDBOOK

The Dounreay Householders Handbook was issued to everyone who was allocated an ‘atomic house.’ It was a mine of practical information- from how often the chimney must be swept to how often the bins were emptied. It also contained information on local schools, doctor’s surgeries and places of worship, as well as details of local recreational clubs and societies.

The handbook gave detailed advice on growing a garden. It contained instructions for growing a lawn from seed and recommended hedges as effective shelter against Caithness winds. There was also a list of plants that could be successfully grown in Caithness, especially handy for newcomers who were used to a more agreeable climate!

The handbook represents a vivid amalgamation of the social/domestic life of workers and the scientific endeavours of the new science Dounreay brought to Caithness. In the excerpt below Don Ryan talks about the attraction of this ‘new frontier’ up north and the importance of the handbook to arriving ‘Atomics’.

Excerpt of Don Ryan discussing his move to Caithness and the Householders Handbook, recorded 2nd Dec 2011


Dounreay Householders Handbook Front Cover

Front Cover – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Adverts

Adverts – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Adverts

Adverts ii – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 4 & 5

Page 4/5 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 6 & 7

Page 6/7 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 8 & 9

Page 8/9 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 10 & 11

Page 10/11 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 12 & 13

Page 12/13 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 14 & 15

Page 14/15 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 16 & 17

Page 16/17 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 18 & 19

Page 18/19 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 20 & 21

Page 20/21 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 22 & 23

Page 22/23 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 24 & 25

Page 24/25 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 26 & 27

Page 26/27 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 28 & 29

Page 28/29 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 30 & 31

Page 30/31 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 32 & 33

Page 32/33 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 34 & 35

Page 34/35 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 36 & 37

Page 36/37 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 38 & 39

Page 38/39 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Pages 40 & 41

Page 40/41 – P879/4

Dounreay Householders Handbook Rear Cover

Rear Cover – – P879/4

 



DOUNREAY’S LEGACY

Photograph of old castle with Dounreay Sphere in the Distance 27th February, 1957

10767 – View Showing Old castle with Sphere in the Distance 27th Feb 1957

The nuclear project at Dounreay ran from 1958 to 1994. Work at the site now concentrates on decommissioning and environmental restoration.

Thurso Technical College was established in 1959 to complement Dounreay’s in house training facilities. Today, it is part of the University of the Highlands and Island’s network of campuses, and is still involved in training Dounreay apprentices.

Looking to the future Linda Ross has demonstrated that:

‘With the Dounreay site undergoing decommissioning and expected to be cleared of its infrastructure within the next twenty years, the visible remains of the fast breeder reactor programme will not be scientific: what will endure are the physical markers of community.’[2]

This seems very pertinent and timely, especially as this exhibition is being hosted by the archive team at Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives. The fascinating exhibits are all sourced from our extensive collections, from both the County of Caithness and Nuclear records. Our facility was purpose built in 2017 to hold both the Nuclear and County of Caithness archive records. This fusion seems reflective of the long and significant history between Caithness and the nuclear industry, and so it seems appropriate that the records pertaining to both be stored at one site. The atomic houses are a strong and permanent reminder of the lasting social and built environment impacts the project at Dounreay has had.



BEFORE YOU GO…

A huge thank you for taking the time to explore our online exhibition, we hope that you thoroughly enjoyed the history of the ‘atomic’ houses.  We welcome all feedback and comments on our Facebook page,  https://www.facebook.com/nucleuscaithnessarchive/.

 

More exhibitions to follow in the new year…



References:

[1] Cashmore, Stephen, Dounreay: the Illustrated Story, (Wick, North of Scotland Newspapers, 1998), p8.

[2] Ross, Linda M., ‘ ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966’, PhD Thesis, University of the Highlands and Islands, 2019, p. 145.



Sources:

Cashmore, Stephen, Dounreay: the Illustrated Story, (Wick, North of Scotland Newspapers, 1998).

Ross, Linda M., ‘ ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion’: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966’, PhD Thesis, University of the Highlands and Islands, 2019.

Fae Fields to Fuel: Caithness, before and after Dounreay, (Thurso, Thurso High Scool, 2009).