THE other day, on a glorious September morning, I went for my morning walk along Cromarty beach and was struck by a fairly normal but, in retrospect, fascinating sight. It is the season of equinox tides, and at low water squads of folk, conspicuous in bright yellow and red waders, were out collecting shellfish. There were some locals searching for winkles and buckies for the pot, and others collecting commercially rarer molluscs for the restaurants of Paris, Madrid and Rome. I realised that what I was seeing, in the 21st century, was perhaps the continuation of the oldest human activity in the north Highlands. Foraging for seafood at low tide is something that has happened for over 8,000 years on the coasts and beaches of Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness and was the very first thing that Neolithic hunter-gatherers did as they followed the retreating glaciers and ice caps up the firths and sandy bays. Their middens of limpet, mussel and buckie shells were the first human activity to make a permanent impact on the coasts of the NC500.
Behind the rocks, sand and tangle of low tide, a jumble of plant, rigs, machinery and new structures at Nigg Energy Park was reflected in the still waters of the firth. The three white blades of an Andritz tidal turbine were prominent and their associated squat yellow foundations sitting on the quayside, now ready to be installed under the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth during the October neap tides. There, in one view, were 8,000 years of human progress in the Highlands and Islands, from the oldest method of exploiting the power of the tides to the newest.
From knowing the ebb and flow of the tides so you can gather shellfish to building and installing some of the most sophisticated subsea machines in the world is not a straightforward leap. Yet it is a journey that innovative Highland people have travelled via fishing, shipbuilding, hydro dams, nuclear power plants and the North Sea oil industry. Some small steps, some huge engineering feats.
The first stage in reaping the benefit of the tides was once quite a common sight in the intertidal flats around the NC500. Fish traps, low curved dykes of stone built so that the falling tide forced fish to a single exit point blocked with a wooden gate where saithe, flatfish and crabs could be collected. Such traps can still be seen as shadowy lines of seaweed and stones in the Kyle of Tongue, in the Dornoch Firth and on many west coast sea lochs. In season they could also capture trout, salmon and shoaling herring. One trap or “yair” in Loch Broom caught so many herring that it was reported that, after every family in the district had been supplied with fish, a thousand baskets were left to rot.
But for the folk of the north, the next stage in harnessing the power of moving water had to be back on land, in the area’s numerous burns and streams. The remnants of Norse-style “click mills”, the simplest possible corn mill, can be seen as piles of rocks in Wester Ross burns, while complex Victorian dams and corn mills can be seen in varying stages of repair right next to the road in east Sutherland and north Caithness. The oddest example can still be seen in the grounds of the Castlehill Heritage Centre, where high-pressure water was used to drive the huge stone-cutting saws that turned Caithness flagstone into the British Empire’s pavements. In order to maintain the “head”, a small wind-powered pump was built to allow the reuse of waste water, and its stone-built beehive-shaped tower is a distinctive feature of this little piece of industrial history.
Yet it’s still a long way from grinding barley, and cutting stone, to installing tidal turbines. The Industrial Revolution, the hydroelectric boom of the 1940s and ’50s, the north’s venture into Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology”, the Dounreay experimental atomic plant near Thurso and the discovery of huge deposits of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s led to an enormous oil industry bonanza right around the Highlands and Islands. All this encouraged the local engineering and marine services businesses to move away from simply supporting agriculture and fishing and develop the expertise that would allow the complex engineering problems of combining large metal structures, moving parts, electricity and deep turbulent water to be solved.
Teeth were really cut in the ’70s and ’80s oil business. The deep-water harbours and firths of the NC500 became the location for the oil platform construction industry. Sites to build the enormous structures needed for the extraction of oil and gas from some of the most challenging seas ever attempted sprang up on both the east and west coasts of the northern Highlands. And for every location that was developed for steel and concrete towers, topsides and modules, pipe-coating works, pipeline bundle yards, there were as many crackpot schemes that never saw the light of day. Concrete structures were very much the fashion in the ’70s following their early success in the Norwegian sector, and every sea loch on the north and west coast, Loch Eriboll, Loch Broom, Loch Kishorn, was examined for construction sites and for future service bases. My favourite wacky plan was the scheme to build 10-storey-high concrete platforms on Dunnet beach, right on the route of the NC500 in Caithness, which would then have been hauled off to deep water in the Pentland Firth. The principal objector was the local sand yachting club, now sadly no longer in existence, but I do have this mental vision of huge Martian-style “War of the Worlds” structures looming over the flat Caithness landscape like some sci-fi horror movie.
In the end only a few sites were developed for concrete platforms: two in Argyll and the most famous, Kishorn in Wester Ross, just at the base of the dramatic Bealach na Ba, the trickiest driving bit of the whole NC500. Kishorn built the 1978 Ninian Central platform, at 600,000 tonnes the largest movable structure created by man at that time. Lochcarron was like a west coast Klondike, as the French company Howard Doris mobilised a huge 3,000-strong workforce, known as the Kishorn Commandos, to build the complex concrete storage tanks and central tower. It was a bit like building a New York skyscraper in a Highland fiord.
Ardersier, just east of Inverness, and Nigg, at the head of the Cromarty Firth, became the locations for building some of the largest steel structures, giant-girdered platforms like underwater Eiffel Towers, and their associated topsides, the oil-drilling, processing and accommodation modules that give these deep-sea factories their particular visual signature. Steel structures were also huge, and in 1984 the Magnus jacket — at 44,000 tonnes the largest steel structure built for the North Sea — was floated out from the Nigg yard in the Cromarty Firth, drawing huge crowds of onlookers.
However, by 2000 the market for new Scottish-built structures of this type had passed and the big foreign companies shut up shop and moved on to China and Korea. Yet in a strange way this allowed local companies, that had long been subcontractors to the multinationals, to grow their expertise and build on their strengths of making small subsea structures and the maintenance and repair of floating oil-drilling rigs.
Now you could argue there is not much difference between building a subsea manifold, or a deep-sea wellhead, and building a tidal turbine foundation. Laying and burying high-voltage cables and installing and retrieving machines from fast-flowing tidal waters are not trivial matters but have been done many times over the past 10 years at the industry’s test site, EMEC in Orkney, and in many oil installations across the North Sea. Tidal turbines themselves are underwater generators, using the power of moving water rather than wind to generate electricity. For complex reasons of (in my opinion) the failure of UK industrial and energy policy, Scotland does not build wind turbines, but we are pretty good at installing and maintaining them, and their complicated gearboxes and electrical plant. All very transferable skills to the tidal sector.
Yet the real significance of the MeyGen project is that it moves tidal power from the plaything of the engineer and inventor to something that is real, is of scale, is of the mainstream; something that interests bankers, utility companies and civil servants planning 2050 carbon reduction strategies. Commercial roll-out will allow Scotland a quite different green electricity source, and the northern Highlands to be at the centre of a completely new global industrial sector — an industry embedded in a region which many people consider to be remote and unpopulated, a wild backwater of mountains, lochs and beaches.
Of course it’s not, and what I hope I have shown in these short essays on the humanscape of the NC500 is how Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness have been shaped by people: from the first hunter-gatherer families building their mounds of shells, through the hundreds of generations of drovers, crofters and farmers, and landlords who have through their actions, and the actions of their animals, created the green treeless landscape of crofts, farms, bare mountains and deep empty straths that form the backdrop to the NC500 road trip.
But underneath that landscape is a vibrant, growing, confident community of people who live, work and play in one of the best places in the world. Our lives are built on the hard work and vision of whole different communities: prehistoric communities; medieval communities; communities of fishermen, farmers, burghers, soldiers and sailors, coal miners, railway and textile workers. Deep-sea mariners, hydro boys and the Kishorn Commandos, and not forgetting the famous county road squads who built and maintained the fabric of the “A” and “B” roads that make up the NC500.
In a normal career it’s very rare to be involved in anything truly historic and ground-breaking. The development of Scotland’s marine sector is one of those, and I have been honoured to take HIE’s lead for the MeyGen project, although to be honest my contribution has been very modest. However, the other night I did take a lot of pleasure in sitting in the garden, with my wife, boys and daughters-in-law, eating lobster and scallops foraged by my son (a UHI researcher in marine energy) from the intertidal zone of Loch Eriboll, looking over to Nigg and the turbines and foundations of the world’s first commercial-scale tidal farm, ready to be installed in the waters of the Highlands and Islands.
Life, like the North Coast 500, sometimes is just one big circle