BLACK HILL - THE FIRST 40 YEARS
by Colin Dalziel
What’s in a name?
They say, what’s in a name. Somehow Black Hill invokes visions of dark satanic mills, slag heaps, an altogether rather dismal mental image. If it had been called Primrose Meadows, or Lavender Vale it would have started off on a better footing. Black Hill always had an image problem, it plagued the place from the start, and still today the name is confused with a broken bottle estate in Glasgow with the same unfortunate name.
Even the name was ambiguous! Over the years it has been officially both Blackhill and Black Hill as if indicating some sort of alter ego, a re-branding with the latter name triumphing over the former by some indeterminate date in the middle!
The Independent Television Authority’s fifth TV mast had a rather bad start in life. The first 750 foot mast on the site (built in 1957) was infamous for the duff aerial design that skewed the Band III signal polarisation and had to be torn down and replaced within 4 years. (It’s now at Selkirk!)
A record breaker
The site nevertheless did achieve something for the record books, in its heyday it sported the highest effective radiated power on Band III beaming a massive 475kW north east towards Dundee. It also used a relatively unusual design of vertically polarised aerial array to achieve this feat. Furthermore when UHF came along, unlike most contemporary masts which had a UHF antenna cylinder mounted on top of the lattice mast, at Black Hill the UHF appeared as panels attached to the side of the mast, considerably lower down, altogether very non-standard at the time.
The siting was no great surprise however, within a couple of miles of the BBC’s 1953 mast (Kirk o’Shotts), the Black Hill site was an ideal location on the plateau in central Scotland between the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, designed to serve them both with coverage extending north to Stirling, and south towards Ayr.
The service from local contractor STV started at the end of August 1957 but soon the parochial nature of the local programming meant that its output was rarely seen outwith Scotland. The famous remarks often attributed to one-time proprietor Lord Thomson of Fleet about “a licence to print money” was nonetheless indicative of the early days of Independent Television.
Transport and Shifts
Black Hill was a manned station from the very start and engineering staff were on site throughout the day and evening in a two shift pattern. There was also a non engineering contingent (known as the “manual staff” until PC awareness took over in the mid 80s) consisting of handyman/cleaner, two drivers, a weekday and weekend cook, and night-watchmen to complement (or look after depending on how you viewed it) the engineers. A clerkess and assistant handled the paperwork and wages. The engineering contingent was run very much on the BBC post-war pattern with an Engineer-in-Charge (EiC), Assistant EiC and a hierarchy of shift staff almost military in style less the uniforms! The EiC was to all on site a god-like figure in these early days.
A local big issue for the first 30 years was what was known as the “transport”. The engineers were expected to use the station transport which consisted of a Land Rover fitted out with bench seating in the back which would make a predetermined run morning, afternoon and night bringing the poor unfortunates (in some considerable discomfort) to and from the mast. The transport was the province of the locally recruited “drivers” and heaven help any of the engineers who fell foul of them!
The two nearest settlements, Salsburgh and Plains were not untypical of Scottish working class villages; streets of council houses, the local convenience store and the obligatory bookie, pub and off licence. The once-productive Lanarkshire coal field had long since ceased production, and apart from the Ravenscraig steel works 10 miles away heavy industry in the area was in its death throws. It was in this area that local staff had to find their homes and the “transport” wound a tortuous route daily through towns such as Coatbridge, Airdrie and Hamilton.
Black Hill gathered something of a grim reputation within the ITA in its earlier days. For some reason the Authority did not actively seek young engineers locally until the mid to late 1970s and staffed the place largely with “conscripts” from outside Scotland who accepted their posting with varying degrees of reluctance. For some years the station had a Welsh Regional Manager, a Yorkshire EiC, and incomers from various other parts of the British Isles, more Yorkshire than Lanarkshire. This reputation became somewhat infamous that the EiC ran a feature in the IBA staff magazine in the early 70s featuring the delights of the local area, including horse riding, golf and fishing from local lochs. It may have done little other than draw attention to the need for the article in the first place however.
Such a small and remote working place coupled with the somewhat paternalistic attitude of the more senior staff meant that few could harbour many secrets! A regular social side did exist from the summer outing to the staff children’s Christmas party. Doing daily reports for the met office supplemented the social funds. The site did have its characters over the years too. One Irish engineer became famous for his variant of the 20dB coupler, though how many coins of the realm were defaced in the prototypes will never be known! One EiC was known to retire to his office daily and enjoy a drink (or two)!
Onwards and upwards
The coming of the UHF transmitters in 1969, then the migration of ITA to IBA shortly after created a need for more engineers, and the first conscious effort was made in 1975 to recruit Scottish engineers for the Scottish stations. This was followed in subsequent years by a huge influx of young blood, again in the early 1980s when it was realised that local recruitment was not only possible but even preferable.
The site expanded in the 1980s with new transmitters (Ch.4 and more radio), a new regional operations and management centre, and the growth of shared services on the mast took off from this time as the revenue earning potential of mast sharing was now appreciated.
Re-engineering was the buzz word for a time from the late 80s when the old Band III set was removed to make way for revenue earning space, and the first generation UHF transmitters made way for the next, smaller and more efficient. Mast space was rationalised though the top of the structure never sprouted any new antennas other than the lightning discharge mat that perched on top of the entire caboodle.
|right: the top of mast profile in the early 1990s, aerial panels had been fitted wherever space became available, no master planning|
There were three phases of control room on site over the years. The first was the traditional through-the-glass window view on the VHF transmitter hall. Constant monitoring of the state of the valves coupled with pre-programme alignment was par for the course in these early days. The coming of the UHF service in 1969 involved the first of several extensions to the building and the “Colour Control Room” was born. This was one of 20-plus such control rooms at main ITA/IBA masts and controlled all operations in the local area, including the burgeoning network of relay stations which had been coming on stream in the 70s.
The Colour Control Room 1969-1980
The “Colour Control Room” gave way to the Regional Operations Centre, or ROC, in 1980. It did undergo a mid-life make-over but between 1980 and 1998 four such ROC’s monitored and controlled a huge area of unattended transmitters, in this case from the Lake District in the south to the Shetland Isles in the north, and including Northern Ireland and the Borders.
Against a backdrop when Scotland (and Wales) achieved a greater sense of national identity through devolution, the regional ROC’s were nevertheless doomed, control was duly transferred to a single “national” centre in England before the end of the millennium.
The Black Hill “patch”
The old Band III (Channel 10) transmitter had 3 low power relays and these were all located to the west of the service area, one in southern Ayrshire, and the other two on the Clyde Coast.
UHF and local radio commitments expanded the scope of mobile maintenance and the Black Hill maintenance patch became wide and diverse from the pine forested hills of Argyllshire to high-rise flats of Glasgow city, to the beautiful undulating Ayrshire countryside with its disappointing towns. Several island sites meant negotiating the vagaries of the perverse CalMac Ferry timetables, and overnight stays were not uncommon at the more distant sites.
Specially fitted Range Rovers became the standard mobile maintenance vehicle, though for a number of years a 4WD Subaru Estate purchased from a local dealer was surprisingly effective. Volvo and Peugeot Estate cars were regularly bought to complement the fleet, but rarely seemed “man enough” for some of the more challenging remote hilltop sites especially in winter.
IBA tuning caption from around 1974
A changing world
The end of the 1980s saw the end of an era. The name change to NTL was only the start of a revolution that was taking place in UK broadcasting transmission. Privatisation firstly of the IBA and later of the BBC transmission arm meant a 180 degree culture change from regulator/manager to service provider of choice.
From wielding the regulatory hammer to prostrating itself at the foot of its previous subservients in a grotesque beauty contest, the boot was now on the other foot!
Black Hill was never the same again. Rounds of redundancies became what seemed like an annual “cull” of staff. Anyone aged 50 or over became fair game for a “package”.
Memories of a Monday morning in (I think it was 1993) when all staff were summoned to a sacking meeting in the library where the EiC (he was called Area Engineer by that time) read out the names from the culling list. Those spared that year could only speculate about the next round!
The non engineering staff numbers reduced, the infamous “transport” was gone, night security became high-tech and automated, secretarial staff reduced in number, and gone were the cooks!
This was not unique to Black Hill of course, the winds of change were blowing throughout the industry in general as the full market economy hit TV and radio transmission like a sledgehammer. New foreign owners in the mid 1990s wanted a young dynamic image, a far cry from the paternalistic regulation of the 1960s ITA.
With the boot being firmly on the other foot, the TV and radio channels now could take their transmission contracts elsewhere, the cosy world of licenced money making was swept away for ever.
The brave new world was not just about TV and Radio any more. The culture shock of having to get to grips with technology that was not related to public broadcasting, possibly even being a subcontractor took quite some getting used to.
With plans for the digital switchover well in hand, tucked away amongst the small print was spotted the fact that Black Hill was destined as one of a couple of sites earmarked for a new mast.
A staff group photo taken in 1986, the final halcyon years before the changing world of the 90s
I witnessed the somewhat cosy paternalistic early IBA days where the machinations of the “transport” sometimes seemed only slightly secondary in importance to whether an incoming programme was graded a 3.5 or a 4 out of 5 for technical excellence. The overarching importance of keeping “on air” regardless was never lost over the years however. The professionalism and dedication of all the staff over the decades regardless of the politics was second to none.
I saw the influx of locally recruited staff (I was amongst the first), I saw the heady days of rapid expansion, new equipment, the expanding network of relay stations, the building of the ROC, the re-engineering and the excitement of diversification into new business areas.
Next came the privatisation, the redundancies, the cut backs, the culture change and the changing owners.
I baled out myself in ‘98 to continue my career but in the public sector. I still hear from some of those that are left from time to time, but regrets? – happy memories, but no, not regrets!