At its height it employed around 700 people in the Highland village off the A82 that only sees sun for half of the year, according to locals, because of the ten Munros that surround it.

Kinlochleven was the first village in the world to see every house connected to electricity thanks to the hydro-generating station that powered its aluminum smelter.

Workers were given a new home and a job for life. The British Alcan social club provided a host of events for families and the village main street had a butcher, a chemist and an ironmonger.  Kinloch, as it is better known, was multi-generational and thriving.

Like other areas that have suffered the loss of heavy industry, locals say the factory's closure in June 2000 after 90 years "was the beginning of the rot for the village" with many forced to leave to find other jobs.

Some relocated to Fort William, which is 20 miles away and home to the only remaining Highland smelter.
The Herald: Kinlochleven was built to house workers employed by the aluminium smelterKinlochleven was built to house workers employed by the aluminium smelter (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

New census data shows Kinlochleven's population dropped by 17% beween 2003 and 2020, from around 1000 people to 760. The high school has capacity for 288 pupils but its current roll is less than half that figure.

It is now tourism in the main that sustains the village, which is the penultimate stop on the West Highland Way and lies at the eastern end of Loch Leven.

“Depopulation has reached such a level now that only very strong measures from the governing bodies might have an impact

In the Summer months, the Coop supermarket can be almost cleared of its shelves due to the influx of around 100,000 visitors a year, which allows some B&Bs to live off their earnings during the winter months.

For those not involved in hospitality, however, locals say there is little encourage young families to move or entice school leavers to stay.

"It takes a brave person to move up here," says Jill Mills, who is a former home economics and guidance teacher in the village's secondary.

The Herald: A former factory building in KinlochlevenA former factory building in Kinlochleven (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"A lot of the boys got apprenticeships, ten years ago. Every year British Alcan would recruit apprentices in every trade for the houses of employees.

"If you have the mentality to work part-time jobs you can make a good living. If you are 17 or 18 you don't want that and that's the difficulty."

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Many buildings in the village lie empty. The closure of the Ice Factor - the world's largest indoor ice climbing facility - over a year ago was a further blow to the village although there are plans to take it over.

"We need people to come but in a strange way the village doesn't really benefit," says Mark Taylor, a retiree who worked in the oil and gas sector in Aberdeen.

The Herald: Kinloch resident Mark Taylor Kinloch resident Mark Taylor (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"The infrastructure doesn't get better because there are 100,000 people in the village.

"They use the facilities but the village itself as a community doesn't get the benefit."

Ingrid Prokopova, 16, moved with her family five years ago and volunteers with the community council. "There is nothing for older children," she says. "We can't go to the bar, we can't go anywhere," she says. "We've got nowhere to go.

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"Some people just go to each other's houses and drink because they are bored."

Locals say there is plenty of land for development opportunities or housing but ownership is complex and "no one really knows who owns what".  It is split between Highland Council, the private company Jahama Highland Estates and Kinlochleven Community Trust, which was set up to manage the village’s affairs.

The Herald: Kinlochleven's alumnium smelter closed in 2000Kinlochleven's alumnium smelter closed in 2000 (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

In 2019 more than 1000 people signed a petition objecting to a zip wire attraction in the area proposed by Jahama that was approved by Highland Council with conditions.

Kinloch resident Debbie O'Hara said efforts to redress the balance between the needs of tourists and permanent residents "require serious work."

She said: "For too many years the push to prioritise the need to attract tourists with private business provision of artificial entertainment above the needs of our existing community and its infrastructure has been aggressive and unfair.

"Centralisation of resources in Highland (for all ages) continues to manipulate populations away from outlying areas and force them to move closer to where resources are concentrated."

Sarah Arfaoui took a leap of faith six years ago relocating from Paris to Kinlochleven because she wanted to move somewhere in Scotland to run a B&B. 

She has a background in town and country planning and believes population decline in rural areas like Kinloch is "not inevitable".

The Herald: 'Population decline in Kinlochleven requires serious action from governing bodies and investment''Population decline in Kinlochleven requires serious action from governing bodies and investment' (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"Many residents are still nostalgic of the British aluminium era and later frustrated by the decision from the government to sell the land and smelter and hydro to Jahama which promised a lot and hasn't fulfilled the conditions of the sale since," she says.

“The depopulation has reached such a level now that only very strong measures from the governing bodies might have an impact, on top of investments. 

“Remote villages can't provide what the younger generation needs and wants.

"Young people can't afford housing and industrial jobs have been replaced by tourism which we are lucky to have but it's seasonal work so people don't get paid for four months of the year."

She says many who run B&Bs in the community feel that the Scottish Government's short-term licensing scheme was "unfair and badly handled".

"The policy was aimed at city issues and got put upon a small town like us," says Ms Arfaoui.

"The only people who are going to be able to keep running are bigger places. If the issue is second homes, then there are other ways for the government to tackle that rather than punishing businesses."

The Herald: 'Young people can't afford housing' 'Young people can't afford housing' (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

She said France "had much stronger local governance" which creates a better balance of businesses on ailing high streets.

She said: "The local authority has capacity through planning permission to angle the way villages are going

"We could have the power to say, if these shops are empty and stopping people from having business then the local authority can either force the person to rent it to someone or buy from them to then open a business. 

"There is also a practice where the community would buy houses for sale and then only sell it or rent it to residents who are going to be staying for a long time, rather than a second home that doesn't benefit the community.

"I don't see why such a system can't be put in place here."

Despite the challenges, she says she wouldn't want to live anywhere else and is part of the recently reconvened community council and a local action group that secured funding for a town planner.

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They plan to host an ideas day at the end of the month and will present their proposals to Highland Council. She says a 3500-member community Facebook group  "shows the love for this community."

Hairdresser Chloe Cameron, 28, has lived in Kinlochleven her whole life and says she would never want to leave. She was one of two out of 21 in her year that stayed after finishing school.

"If you are outdoorsy it's a good place to live," she says. "There is nothing better on a day like this going up the hill with your dogs.

"My brothers are in high school now and they have both said they are going to Glasgow when they leave. There's nothing for them.

"I was watching a video of when the factory was open and it was crazy how many people were in the village."

Jeanette Gordon moved to Kinlochleven a few years ago from Newton-le-Willows, near Warrington with her Scottish husband who was a chef in the armed forces before he retired.

She loves her life in the village but says health services are a mixed picture. She can get a doctor's appointment straight away but waited six months for an urgent cancer referral, which fortunately turned out okay.

"When they lost the Alcan factory that was the beginning of the rot for the village", she says.

"I do think Kinlochleven is one of the forgotten areas," says constituency MSP Kate Forbes. 

"There is a theme that runs through the Highlands of exploitation and of boom and bust and of industrial rise and fall and Kinlochleven knows it even better because the village hasn't had anything to replace what left.

"I think the answer is community ownership. Somewhere like Kinlochleven is a site where there is already but could be more renewable potential.

"If the local community owned the Hydro pipes behind the village and it wasn't a private company, I think it would be a different place. It's the answer to so much."

Four generations of Paul Green’s family lived in the village but “sadly” he says there will not be a fifth.

"Maybe if Jeff Bezos from Amazon was to build a huge distribution centre where the factory once stood and generated 1000 jobs, the village could thrive again," he says.

"Without such an investment, seasonal work and over-inflated property prices will continue to choke the village population."