NC500 part 3

Calum Davidson
Jun 24 · 6 min read

THE Cromarty Bridge pauses at a couple of lay-bys, always full of visitors’ cars. It’s a popular viewing point for spotting wildlife, especially the seals that bask on the rocks by the shore, and for vistas over the Black Isle and the Ross-shire hills.

However, when the tide is completely out, something else can be seen: the sodden remains of ancient fishing boats, laid up when their crews, local Royal Navy reservists, were called up to serve in the First World War. When the survivors returned in 1919 the principal market for their herring, Russia, had collapsed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, so these boats were abandoned.

It’s difficult to visualise from a few wet planks and skeletal ribs, but these ships, Zulus and Fifies, were the height of technological development in the late 19th century. They were built to be fast and manoeuvrable to get perishable cargos to port and salted as quickly as possible, and had a huge single sail in the bow to maximise deck space.

Controlling this enormous amount of canvas, the peak of Victorian sailing technology, needed a small but powerful steam engine to help raise, lower and manage the sails. In fact, the steam boilers can still be seen in the bows of the wrecks at Ardullie Point, lost, rusty, weed-covered cylinders.

So these ships were hybrid technologies, mixing two power sources to maximise the impact of both. They were also the final flourish of thousands of years of sailing ships, the last descendants of the Viking longships that created the culture and societies of the North Atlantic, and which helped mould the links of kinship, clanship and power which defined how people lived in the north Highlands until all were swept by the twin impacts of politics and industrialisation.

Coal powered the donkey engines that made these sailing ships work, and coal drove the Industrial Revolution, and the huge profits from English collieries provided the capital that allowed the Sutherland estates to embark on their infamous programme of agricultural transformation, today known as the Sutherland Clearances. The landscape and human impact of these are still seen all over the route of the NC500, creating the empty straths and populated coastal fringe across Sutherland, Ross and Caithness.

So it was these new coastal towns, harbours and crofting townships that drove the route of the rails and stone quays of modern coal-fired technologies, steam trains and steamships, opening up the Highlands north of Inverness after the trauma of the clearances. The trains, with stations in Thurso and Wick for the north line and Kyle in the west, were critical for transporting the region’s natural products including fish, game, cattle and sheep to market, and enabling tourism to develop.

Large parts of the NC500 were of course untouched by rail, with over a hundred miles of coast from Thurso to Lochcarron still dependent on gravel single-track roads, and small steam puffers to move coals, building materials and agricultural products. Indeed, an Orkney company operated a grocery store on a small coaster that served west and north coast communities up to the 1940s, until replaced by the ubiquitous mobile shop in a Bedford van, most famously operated by Burr’s of Tongue.

Yet it was the train that allowed the opening up of the area’s natural deep-water anchorages for the huge iron and steel battleships and battle cruisers of the Royal Navy.

The Cromarty Firth, Scapa Flow, Loch Eriboll and Loch Ewe were all strategically vital for navy bases from the Crimean War to the Cold War. It was only when the nuclear threat removed the need for such steam-powered monsters that the region’s deep harbours turned their swords into ploughshares or, in this case, oil rigs.

The impact of steam was such that it even changed the nature of the seabed. Admiralty charts for the Cromarty Firth and Scapa Flow record bottom conditions as muddy ash and clinker, the detritus of thousands of tonnes of coal burnt to produce the high-pressure steam that carried the dreadnoughts to battle at Dogger Bank, Jutland and the North Cape.

Ships were also left on the seabed, victims of Britain’s notoriously unstable cordite explosive. HMS Natal and HMS Vanguard both succumbed to internal explosions at anchorage, with major loss of life.

The economic impact of military bases was transformational for Highland communities. Invergordon was a major dockyard in both wars, Cromarty and Poolewe major naval and army bases, and new fortifications were built on cliff-tops right around the NC500, many cheek by jowl with their Norse and medieval equivalents. Thurso was the terminus of the famous Jellicoe Express, trains carrying sailors and admirals from the south coast to the fleet in Scapa Flow.

The north Highlands had its own little industrial revolution, its own little Leeds or Motherwell — not that you would know as you drive through Brora today. Maybe you’d notice the strange red-brick terrace that lines the A9, buildings that would not look out of place in Plymouth or Newcastle. Or the collections of large industrial-scale buildings, looking sadly underused — the long-lost brickworks, and the still active distillery.

Brora and its industries were based on Britain’s most northerly and, in geological terms, most unusual coal mine. As a colliery, it’s completely vanished, unlike the bings and pit heaps seen elsewhere across Britain.

Most coal in the world comes from the carboniferous (coal-bearing) period. You might remember the illustrations from children’s books of the 1960s — great swampy forests of fern-like trees, with huge dragonflies, rotting down to fuel an empire.

Brora coal was much younger, from the Jurassic period, the time of dinosaurs, and also from the time that most North Sea oil was deposited. It’s no coincidence that the Brora coalfields are within sight of the platforms of the old and now exhausted Beatrice oilfield in the Moray Firth.

The exploitation of the Brora coalfields started in medieval times, when folk started digging out outcrops that were exposed on the beach, and in industrial times a number of deep pits were sunk. The mine enabled coal-powered salt pans (for preserving fish and game), a brick and pipe works (for agricultural improvements and field drainage), a woollen mill and a distillery. Brora was the hub of the Highlands’ own industrial revolution powered by its own little colliery.

There was a catch, however: Jurassic coal is just not a very good fuel. Smoky, dirty, ashy and full of iron pyrite (fools’ gold) it had the distressing habit of spontaneously bursting into flames on exposure to air. It was also full of fossilised plants, making Brora a place of special interest to Marie Stopes, the Victorian pioneer of birth control, whose other passion was, in a wonderful example of 19th-century eccentricity, the study of Jurassic flora in coal balls.

By the late 1960s, after a couple of centuries of indifferent coal production, the inevitable happened. With the mine shut for its annual holiday fair fortnight, and most of the workforce at the Highland Games, the mine caught fire. It was only put out when the fire brigade diverted the River Brora down the shaft to swamp the flames.

Even as a wee boy I remember the universal despair across Sutherland at the loss of the pit. A new shaft was sunk with the help of the HIDB, but it lasted only a few years before spluttering to an end in 1974. By then, North Sea oil and gas had started an industrial bonanza that in a few short years brought new wealth, jobs and investment to communities and crofts right around the NC500.

Miners to welders, labourers to riggers, coalmen to fitters, crofters and farmers’ wives to cooks, secretaries and in some cases specialist welders. Coal was dead. Long live the new king, oil.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade