Welcome to the HI-energy blog
HI-energy is an industry brand for all those involved in the energy sector here in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Here, the Energy team at Highlands and Islands Enterprise and other key figures from the energy industry in the Highlands and Islands will share their views and experiences. We look forward to hearing your comments. Please do get in touch with any suggestions for topics you would like to see covered or with posts you would like to contribute to this blog.

We’ve come full circle

avatar September 30th, 2016 by Rona Campbell

Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, concludes his five-part series about energy – past and present – and its relationship with the landscapes of the North Coast 500 touring route

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 famous 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.


When the north Highlands were fuelled by peat

avatar September 5th, 2016 by Rona Campbell

The fourth of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who earn a living from them – fit in with the unique landscapes being promoted through the North Coast 500 touring route

JULY 2016 was the hottest month recorded globally since records began, according to data published by NASA. Parts of the Middle East had daytime temperatures over 50C, which for those of us from the cool, damp north almost beggars belief. For folk travelling around the NC500 this summer it was certainly cool and damp, with the NASA temperature maps showing a cold blue blob over the North Atlantic, demonstrating that climate change driven by increases in CO2 affects differing parts of the globe in quite different ways. While some sweltered in the desert, and Louisiana flooded as the Mississippi broke its banks, households in the north were lighting open fires and stoves to keep the Highland summer damp and chill at bay. People burn wood, coal and sometimes blocks of peat. Visitors often remark on the distinctive aroma of peat fires that you can smell in crofting townships across the north and west, the heavy blue-grey smoke drifting in damp still evenings.

Peat pretty much fuelled the north Highlands for most of the past two thousand years, providing heat for cooking, metalworking and lime production and warming buildings from the meanest cottar’s hut to Dunrobin Castle itself. These days, while the use of peat as a fuel is marginal, the vast peat mosses, the thousands of square kilometres of blanket bog, “the Flow Country”, are now playing an important role in Scotland’s efforts to mitigate CO2-induced global warming.

Peat bogs and mires are one of the defining landscape features of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. Peat itself is the accumulation of partially decayed vegetation (heather, moss, grass) built up over thousands of years in the dampness of peat bogs and mires. Peat occurs in damp conditions, with water preventing the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere, slowing rates of decomposition. Blanket bog, the landscape companion of the NC500 traveller, occurs where the average rainfall is higher than the average evaporation, leaving a damp landscape where peat forms at the rate of 1mm a year, growing to form deep bogs of wet, dark, decayed vegetable matter. Peat has played a critical and now almost forgotten role in the human history of the north Highlands.

Just about halfway around the NC500, on the flank of a modest hill, is a peat bank where my family has been cutting fuel for over 50 years. We don’t cut much these days, just putting in a few hours here and there on nice spring days, so the bank now grows slowly. Its position, however, is classic north coast, with a gleaming sea loch to the north, fringed by crofting townships and overshadowed to the west by dramatic mountains. South are the broad deserted straths of central Sutherland, under skies that are almost otherworldly in their vastness. Beyond them are the miles and miles of Flow Country blanket bog.

It’s a good bank, on a slight slope, naturally draining and deep, two cuts deep. When you flay the top turf of heather and moss, and carefully set it down on the floor of last year’s scar (to start the process of peat formation all over again), the first cut of the tusker (or peat spade) gives you a light, slightly fibrous peat, good for catching a fire, and for bright yellow flames.

But it’s the second cut that’s the real prize. You lift a dark, dense, solid peat, exposing glacial clay and ancient bedrock that has not seen the light of day for three or four thousand years. When dried after a few months of Sutherland sun and wind, you get a dense fuel, of the deepest and darkest blue, that burns almost as hot and smokeless as the best Welsh steam coal.

In the nearly treeless north Highlands, peat was almost the only fuel available until quite recent times.

The effort required to cut it, dry it and transport it home was quite intensive, requiring weeks of work in the spring to cut and lay out for drying, days spent turning and stacking the peats, then the effort of carrying them home. If you look at crofting townships carefully you can often see a distinct but overgrown path leading from the houses up the hill to the historic peat bank. People, especially women and children, would make daily trips of several miles to collect a basket of peats for the household fires.

The availability of tractors and lorries in the interwar years did a lot to reduce this human effort, but it is important to remember that a lot of families cooked and baked on peat-fired stoves until the 1970s. In fact as late as 1964 my family moved into a brand new house, with a gleaming new peat-fired Rayburn providing all the cooking and hot water. In a curious gender role reversal my dad would stop by the bank on the way home from work and put a bag or two of peats in the back of the car for the next day’s cooking needs.

Of course there is one Highlands and Islands product that literally could not exist without peat: malt whisky, whose distinctive flavour is underpinned by the peat smoke used to dry the malted barley. Distilleries are common on the eastern flank of the NC500, from Inverness to Wick, with a strong cluster in Easter Ross. A proper tour from Glen Ord in Muir of Ord, through Dalmore, Teaninich, the grain plant at Invergordon, Glenmorangie, Balblair, Clynelish and Pulteney, to the north’s newest at Wolfburn just outside Thurso, would probably take as long as a complete trip round the whole NC500. Peat was used traditionally to heat the whisky stills, but its smoky flavour comes from its use in drying the sprouting barely, which is then fermented to start the whole process.

Very few distilleries produce their own malt these days, preferring to buy differing “strengths” of peated, malted barley from one of the specialist producers. By a strange coincidence one of the north’s larger malting plants lies just at the start of the NC500 route in Inverness. Visitors waiting at the Kessock Bridge lights often head north or west through a faint fug of peat fumes as the whisky industry’s key raw ingredient is prepared.

With such a huge potential resource, it is no surprise that there have been a number of attempts to industrialise the use of peat, both as a fuel and as a chemical feedstock. There was an experimental peat-fired power station at Altnabreac in Caithness in the ’50s (using a modified jet engine!) and historically peat has been extracted at large scale for use in biomass plants, and for creating activated charcoal for medical use. Countries such as Finland, Russia and Ireland have quite extensive peat extraction industries. This type of use is declining, however, with the realisation that peat, and peat bogs, are actually more valuable left in situ, as healthy peatlands have a very important role in fixing atmospheric carbon, i.e. being a “carbon sink”, supporting freshwater quality, and have a major role in being the home for specialised bog plants, birds and other wildlife.

The 1980s saw quite extensive tracts of the Flow Country developed for large-scale forestry – in retrospect probably not one of the cleverest land-use decisions of the 20th century. Deep peatlands are not the best place for commercial planting, producing indifferent timber and severely damaging the peatlands themselves. Paradoxically, peat bogs that are in a poor state through ill-considered drainage and erosion are in fact significant carbon (and methane) emitters, so a major programme of restoration work is under way at locations across the north. Once ditches are filled and roads blocked, allowing water levels to rise within the mire, it’s remarkable how quickly the bogs recover and grow, enabling the dramatic landscape of the NC500 to play a quiet yet important role in combating global warming.

Hub of the Highlands’ own industrial revolution

avatar July 29th, 2016 by Rona Campbell

The third of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who earn a living from them – fit in with the unique landscapes being promoted through the North Coast 500 touring route

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 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.




North Coast 500 – a road which is the product of the fossil-fuel age

avatar June 23rd, 2016 by Rona Campbell


The second of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who earn a living from them – coexist with the nature, heritage and landscapes that are attracting so many visitors to the North Coast 500 touring route

THE North Highlands are old – geologically ancient, with some of the oldest rocks on Earth forming what is now north-west Sutherland. It’s an area that is rich in primeval fossils, with Caithness having been part of a huge lake, teeming with long-extinct armoured fish. Mountains were scoured by glaciers, leaving long sea lochs and wide sandy beaches. Limestone caves concealed the bones of wolves, bears, lynxes and arctic foxes, Ice Age animals no longer found in Scotland. Yet people have been here since the end of that Ice Age, 8000 years ago, although we only started making a permanent impact on the landscape with the introduction of farming in the late Stone Age, leaving a wealth of archaeological features, standing stones, chambered cairns, brochs and cliff-top castles.

A few years ago I was chatting to a north farmer about an ancient burial mound on her ancestral property. She was showing us some artefacts that had been recovered from the site, mainly classic Neolithic pottery, with one item showing tiny marking around the rim. Closer examination showed it was made by the careful application of a thumbnail, repeated hundreds of times around the urn, in an intricate spiral pattern. Reflecting on the quality of the 4000-year-old pot, she then made a fascinating observation: “You know there’s probably only about 150 folk between the wifie who made that urn and me, hardly enough to fill a marquee at the County Show.” Four millennia seems a very long time, but defining it in family generations makes you think about the passage of years in a quite different way. All your ancestors just filling the floor at a wedding dance.

So looking at the NC500 in human terms, rather than as a 509-mile route of winding tarmac, does give a different perspective in both spatial and chronological terms. As a marketing concept it’s the same age as my two-year-old grandson; as a continuous route it was only completed in the past 40 years when, in 1975, the A8961 Shieldaig to Torridon road was finally opened to cars; for my grandfather it was driving along the north coast on single-track gravel roads, and for my great-great-grandfather, walking to Caithness after his family had been cleared from Strathnaver, it didn’t exist. The coastal road around the north Highlands is a product of the fossil-fuel age, where cars (and trains) have transformed the north of Scotland, and in the process fundamentally changed where people live and how they use the land and sea.

You get a glimpse of this in the first dramatic views you see travelling north out of Inverness, after the Tore roundabout and before you pass the Culbokie turn. The panorama here is a good indicator of what you will see as you drive on around the next 500 miles: a green verdant coastal strip, heather-clad uplands with trees marching away to the snow-capped mountains of the Highlands. The road snakes around the coast, passing through the occasional historic burgh, a series of small farms and crofting townships. The farther north and west you travel the cliffs get bigger, the roads narrower and the mountains seemingly higher and closer to the road. If you detour into the broad straths of the east or north, or pause to look up the Highland glens of the west, they are empty and deserted, with just the occasional ruined croft house, miles of peat bog, or the green of forestry plantations.

People tend to assume this landscape has been unchanged for the past couple of millennia – a populated coastal fringe; great beaches backed by farms and crofts, interspersed by dramatic cliffs; stone-built little towns clustered around historic harbours; all framing a wild, mountainous, empty interior. But no, it’s a pretty modern landscape, driven by the agricultural revolution of the early 19th century, the associated political upheavals of the clearances, and the hydro power, oil and gas, transport and renewable energy revolutions of the 20th century that created the modern Highlands and Islands.

So, for 145 of the 150 generations of that farmer’s families, the route of the NC500 wasn’t on the land, it was by sea, the movement of people and goods only really possible by water. And the fascinating paradox was that, unlike 2016, the vast majority of folk didn’t live by the coast but inland on the broad fertile straths, raising cattle, growing oats and barley. The mountains were a valuable resource for seasonal grazing, with summer houses – “shielings” –  found high on the flanks of hills now classified as “wild land”. The produce of this agrarian economy – meat, hides, tallow, butter – was shipped through the small trading burghs clustered round river mouths: Dingwall, Cromarty, Wick, Thurso, Inverness. The “humanscape” of the Highlands, from prehistory right up to modern times, was dependent on people’s ingenuity in maximising the fertility of the land, in capturing the power of the wind, and living with the power of the sea.

Now, as the Highlands and Islands starts to think about a future that is maybe not quite so reliant on fossil fuels, a future that includes both a healthy landscape and humanscape, we are entering a new era which will also depend on maximising the potential of the land, exploiting the power of the wind, and capturing the power of the sea.

TODAY people in the north Highlands interact with the sea and exploit its resources in a way unimaginable to past generations. One of the best examples can be seen looking out from the A9 once you pass the Berriedale Braes north of Helmsdale. In all but the murkiest weather, the oil platforms of the Beatrice and Jacky fields can be seen, unique in being the only North Sea installations that are visible from land. Beside them are the twin turbines of the Beatrice demonstrator wind farm, now 10 years old and the world’s first deep-water offshore wind project, built to prove that large, efficient turbines can be installed in deep water where the wind is strong and constant. The next few years will see this two 5MW turbine experimental technology demonstrator supplanted by 84 7MW turbines, producing 588MW. Considering that all Scotland’s hydro-power stations produce just over 1.5GW, that’s a lot of electricity from just one project.

Led by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), the impact of the Beatrice Offshore Wind Limited (BOWL) project – with a capital expenditure of £2.6bn and a three-year construction period starting in 2017 – will be seen right up and down the east coast of the NC500. Nigg Energy Park at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth will be the construction port, where components from all over Scotland and Europe will be delivered, stored and assembled into complete wind turbines. The firth’s usual ranks of oil rigs will be joined by strange hybrid offshore wind farm construction vessels, part ocean-going barge, part jack-up rig. These will load up with half a dozen Siemens turbines at a time, and sail out through the Sutors to install what are some of the world’s largest machines in the seas of the Moray Firth.

But it will be the town of Wick that will best feel the long-term impact of what is effectively an offshore power station. The old fishing harbour will be the operations and maintenance base for the BOWL project and SSE is building a new control office right on the quayside. It will also be the home to a fleet of fast workboats that will ferry engineers out to the turbines in almost all weathers, and Wick John O’Groats Airport will be the base for helicopter operations. With an initial planned lifespan of 25 years, the effect of this wind farm will resonate across the north of Scotland for decades to come. And, in a curious way, especially for a town whose glory days were in the herring boom of the 19th century, it will mark a return to a more marine-based way of life for the engineers and technicians who will maintain and repair these enormous machines.

The route of the NC500 passes many monuments left by the generations who have lived in the northern Highlands. Some, like the set of thirty 5000-year-old cup and ring stone carvings at Loch Hakel under Ben Loyal, you have to work very hard to find. Some, like the dome of the Dounreay Fast Reactor, are pretty hard to miss. The Beatrice wind farm will be a distant monument for folk travelling that stretch of the NC500, glimpsed on the horizon, moving in and out of sight of the A9 as the wind, rain, sun and mist change with the time of day, and the season.

There is a final sting to the tale. As the Beatrice wind farm is being built out, the Beatrice oil complex will be decommissioned and eventually removed, having reached the end of its hydrocarbon-producing life. Fossil fuel replaced by renewable energy, with the power of the wind once again being at the centre of how people live and work around the NC500.


North Coast 500 – industry and nature side by side

avatar June 23rd, 2016 by Rona Campbell

The first of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who make a living from them – coexist with the nature, culture, heritage and landscapes that are making the North Coast 500 road trip such a tourism phenomenon


ONE of the cleverest marketing concepts I’ve seen in recent years has been distinct in its simplicity, and has been promoted almost exclusively through social media. It’s deceptively straightforward, at its core a rebranding and repackaging of existing features of the north of Scotland. In this case it’s the network of roads and their associated landscapes and peoplescapes that define the coast and hinterlands of the Highlands north and west of Inverness.

It is, of course, the North Coast 500 – or, for the Twitter-savvy out there, the #NC500.

Dreamt up by those clever people at the North Highland Initiative in Caithness and billed as Scotland’s answer to the USA’s Route 66, the North Coast 500 has only been around for just over a year and already is recognised as one of the world’s top 10 coastal road trips. Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor and YouTube are all full of people’s blogs, reviews, videos and photos of their travels along the route. Vintage car convoys, TV teams, endurance cyclists, walkers, runners and old-fashioned tourists have all recorded online their experiences of Inverness, Wick, Durness, Ullapool, Applecross and all points between.

I must admit I’ve watched this developing phenomenon with real interest, as I’d consider myself a real north coast boy, born in a house that looked north over the Pentland Firth, and apart from brief sojourns in Shetland and Glasgow I’ve lived and worked on or by the blue line of the NC500 for all my life. I guess I’ve also driven all its 519 miles (some sections many, many times), often flown over it en route to Stornoway, Benbecula, Wick and Kirkwall airports, taken ferries to the islands from Scrabster, Gills Bay and Ullapool, walked large chunks, and climbed quite a few of the hills and mountains that overlook its network of A and B roads.

For someone like me who lives and works in the north Highlands, reading or viewing people’s experiences of northern Scotland through the prism of the North Coast 500 is a fascinating experience. Words such as “landscape”, “heritage”, “whisky”, “sea”, “sun”, “beaches”, “archaeology”, “remoteness”, “drama”, “roads”, “local produce”, “midges” and “green” tend to predominate. There is also a lot of discussion about “wild land”, “wilderness” and “living on the edge”, as you would expect from a group of visitors who are mainly from urban areas and for whom the attractions of the Highlands and Islands are often nature, culture, heritage and landscape.

Yet I guess I’m not alone in having a number of “mental maps” of the roads and byways around the northern Highlands. When I think about the view of the Cromarty Firth and Black Isle from the Fyrish monument above Evanton, I’m also thinking about the ranks of oil rigs marching up the firth towards Nigg, and the distant wind farms on the Struie. When I think about the vista of Caithness sea cliffs marching north from the Ord, I’m also looking east to the Beatrice offshore turbines. The road west of Thurso means those huge north coast skies, and flagstone dykes, but also Dounreay’s famous dome. Lochcarron is the gateway to the Bealach na Ba but also Kishorn Port. Beauly is a delightful Highland village, great for shopping, and is close to the most accessible hydro dam and fish ladder in the area.

Yet one thing I’ve noticed is that, in all the online reviews of the North Coast 500, I’ve yet to come across any real negative comments or observations around these human additions to the landscape, almost all designed to produce the energy without which any modern 21st-century society cannot function. Wind farms always come in for criticism, but I’ve not seen that evidenced widely in visitors’ reaction to the landscape of the north coast. There is the occasional letter in the local newspapers about the “clutter” of rigs in the Cromarty Firth, but I’m always surprised by the number of positive visitors on the photography sites I frequent, raving about the dramatic visual impact of large man-made structures in a natural environment.

I guess what I’m seeing is perhaps a growing maturity in visitors’ interest in the whole of the north of Scotland. Of course folk want to visit Smoo Cave and climb Suilven, and whale-watch at John O’Groats, but many of the visitors I speak to are just as interested in how people live and work in the Highlands and Islands. So when they learn that I’m involved in the energy industry in the region, I tend to get bombarded by questions. How do tidal turbines work? What happens when the wind does not blow? Why do people cut lumps of turf from a peat bog? Are those oil rigs fixed to the sea bed?

It’s evidence that there is a dramatic energy story right around the coasts of northern Scotland, and one that people – both visitors and folk who live here – are fascinated by. Let’s just list a few…

  • Brora, site of the UK’s most northerly coal mine
  • Kishorn, where the world’s largest moveable structure, the Ninian central platform, was built
  • Helmsdale and Dunbeath, where North Sea oil installations are visible from the shore
  • Loch Eriboll, where huge 19th-century limekilns produced agricultural products exported across the Highlands
  • John O’Groats – MeyGen, the world’s largest tidal stream development, is under construction nearby
  • Invergordon, where a combined heat and power plant also produces biomass pellets, using local timber
  • Scoraig, a completely off-grid crofting community accessible only by boat
  • Dounreay, the site of the UK’s nuclear fast breeder reactor programme that transformed Caithness during the 1950s
  • Applecross, where the community-owned filling station is run completely by volunteers
  • Forsinard, the heart of the Sutherland peatland flow country, one of Europe’s largest potential carbon sinks
  • Novar in Easter Ross – home to the Highlands’ first commercial wind farm, and one of the first with a dedicated community benefit scheme
  • Kylesku, where a modern run-of-river 4MW hydro scheme is almost invisible within a highly scenic landscape
  • Wick, once home to hundreds of sail-powered fishing boats, now home to an oil and gas pipeline fabrication facility producing bundles up to 8km long


SO, over the next few Energy North editions, I’m planning an energy journey around the North Coast 500, from Inverness to John O’Groats, onwards to Durness, stopping off at Scrabster, then down to Applecross and back across to the Highland capital. I’m not promising to travel sequentially, but I hope to give an insight into how the impact of people, and how they gather and use energy of all types, whether it’s the muscles of people and their animals, peat, coal and wood, wind and water, oil, waves or the power of the tides, has shaped and will continue to shape northern Scotland.

Dramatic changes – and new opportunities

avatar December 17th, 2015 by Rona Campbell

From Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, HIE

RIGHT across the energy world 2015 was, by any measure, a pretty tumultuous year.

We saw dramatic changes in renewable subsidies; Brent crude slipping under $40; governments struggling to reach agreement in Paris at the UN climate change COP21 conference; the Cromarty Firth full of cold stacked rigs; the UK’s electricity capacity margin down to 1.2 per cent; exploratory drilling in the North Sea at its lowest for decades; community projects reeling from regulatory changes; the north-east suffering thousands of job losses; major wave companies entering administration… the list could go on and on.

However, as the old joke goes: “But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?”

Drilling under the rhetoric and spin (if you will excuse the pun), 2015 has been a year where for many everything has changed, but for others very little has changed – and for some, change is bringing significant opportunity.

Onshore wind seemed to be the biggest loser, with early closure of the Renewables Obligation Certificate support mechanism and a clear exclusion of onshore wind from future subsidy schemes sending a storm through the sector. However, and despite a real loss of investor confidence and future uncertainty, it seems that there will be a bit of a wind-farm boom over the next couple of years as developers rush to build projects in the face of looming deadlines.

Yet when the rush is over, and the industry contemplates a future without government support, it will be looking to locations with high wind speeds and good grid connections. And that will be the north of Scotland, with the Beauly/Denny upgrade now complete and the Caithness/Moray link under construction.

Paradoxically, these dramatic changes to onshore wind support could be the catalyst for solving the ongoing problem of getting grid to islands. Through strong lobbying from Scotland, onshore wind projects in the Scottish islands will be eligible for future subsidy through the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, where they will be treated the same as offshore wind farms. This means that planned wind farms in Orkney and the Western Isles could finally proceed, triggering the laying of those critical subsea cables.

Offshore wind also had a year of uncertainty, with some Scottish projects under judicial review, and until the Autumn Statement at Westminster no confirmation that there would be a CfD auction in 2016. So assuming that the industry can get its costs down – and insiders seem pretty confident – it looks like there will be a pipeline of projects around the UK up to 2020. Of course, SSE’s Beatrice wind farm already has a contract for support from the UK Government, and planning for its construction is in the final stages. For the Highlands and Islands this is a huge project, starting in 2017, and in value is worth at least two Forth crossings.

The past month also saw the approval of the Hywind floating wind project, the world’s largest yet, and although it is being built in Norway, Scottish companies are winning some important contracts, with the suction anchors being supplied by Global Energy Group at Nigg.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that some sectors have been hard hit, solar PV in particular. In the north it’s community-scale projects that have an uncertain future, with unexpected changes to the Feed-in Tariff, VAT hikes and more expensive project finance.

These problems pale almost into insignificance, though, beside the issues facing the oil and gas sector. A perfect storm of low oil price, ageing offshore assets, high costs and an almost complete cessation of exploration drilling suggests that this downturn is just a little bit different from the cyclical low-oil-price episodes of 10 and 20 years ago.

Yet every cloud has a silver lining, and a relentless focus on cost reduction brings opportunity for smaller players further down the supply chain. Majors are bypassing tier 1 companies and looking to their suppliers for cheaper, more flexible solutions. Highlands and Islands ports nearer the northern and western oilfields are seeing renewed interest in their service base potential, and a lower cost base and smaller margins are now a critical part of any tender.

It was the marine renewables sector that saw the most positive developments in the past 12 months: 2015 was the year that Wave Energy Scotland got going, restarting the Scottish wave sector after the disappointment of the administration of Pelamis and the major downsizing of Aquamarine (which eventually closed in November). Two major calls and a dozen contracts awarded, in the areas of novel wave devices and power take-off systems, saw Scottish companies and universities win a major share of multi-million-pound contracts.

Yet is the far north that saw real projects “getting metal wet”, with Nova Innovation installing its three community-scale tidal turbines in Shetland and MeyGen completing its onshore substation, directional drilling and cable installation in the Inner Sound in Caithness. JGC in Caithness has finished the huge weights that hold the structures to the seabed, ready to be loaded out from Scrabster. Nigg Energy Park in Easter Ross is busy completing the turbine foundations, and the four turbines will be ready for installation in the spring. Indeed the Atlantis turbine is being built at Nigg, using a workforce able to move between oil and gas, nuclear, offshore wind and tidal structures.

With Scotland now producing 50 per cent of energy from renewables, we are well on the way towards the 100 per cent target for 2020. Attention is now turning quite rightly to strategies and policies focused on decarbonising the nation’s domestic and industrial transport and heat markets, and major investments in energy efficiency. This is a significant change for organisations across the Scottish public sector, and poses a quite different challenge for regions such as the Highlands and Islands – rural, off the gas grid, car-dependent and with a housing stock comprising older, stone-built dwellings.

However, under the headlines, things that may seem small and incremental are fundamentally changing how energy – and, in particular, renewable energy – is used across the Highlands and Islands. CalMac’s latest low-emission hybrid ferry was launched last week. Silent electric buses are now a common sight on the streets of Inverness. Roof-mounted PV solar panels are so widespread that nobody gives them a second glance. Orkney has the highest concentration of electric vehicles in the UK apart from London. Small, farm-scale wind turbines are as numerous as silage towers. Wood-pellet boilers and air or ground-source heat pumps are de rigueur on any new or refurbished house. Even my Black Isle coalman now delivers clean packs of wood briquettes alongside the sacks of house coal.

The past 12 months have been a bit of a rollercoaster, but a funfair has highs as well as lows. Onshore wind has a steady pipeline of projects that need built out in the next 48 months, offshore wind will start construction in 2017, tidal projects are in construction, with more down the line.

There will be pain, but firms will adapt and reform, as they have always done. The great strength of the Highlands and Islands is that it’s not just a renewables supply chain, or an oil and gas supply chain, or a nuclear supply chain, but an energy supply chain.

But for me, 2015 was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, and I had enormous fun in researching and writing about the story of energy in the north of Scotland over the past half century. This culminated in HIE winning the prestigious Judges’ Prize at the Scottish Renewables Green Energy Awards, in recognition of our contribution to the energy sector over decades.

In lots of ways, 2015 was a good year. Now, let’s make 2016 even better.


Looking to the next 50 years of our energy story

avatar December 1st, 2015 by Rona Campbell

In the fourth and last of his series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how energy has been a major factor in turning the Highlands and Islands from a peripheral, underdeveloped corner of Europe into a modern, progressive region

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

WHEREVER you turn in the long corridors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) buildings in Boston, you will see glimpses of the future. HIE has worked with this world-leading technology institution since 2004, and this time last year I took a group of Highlands and Islands marine renewables businesses, engineers and scientists on a scouting trip. What we saw was quite remarkable.

Rugby-ball-sized autonomous underwater robots designed to inspect the insides of nuclear reactors… weird new ship hull and propeller shapes that dramatically reduce drag, increasing speed and fuel efficiency… clever new underwater sensing technologies inspired by the navigation methods of blind Mexican cavefish and harbour seals’ whiskers… a remotely operated vehicle that can be built for £100 by a group of bright 10-year-olds… suitcase-sized robots with sophisticated sonar that crawl around ships’ hulls… crazy new battery designs using chemicals that you may find under a domestic sink, powered by seawater… robots being trained to understand human emotions and body language… and a museum that mixes art, technology and innovation in a way that makes everyone pause and say “wow”.

But what I found just as remarkable was that the folk I’d brought from Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Ross-shire, Argyll, Inverness and the Western Isles were as engaged, knowledgeable and questioning as the bright young MIT researchers: “Why would anyone want to design a ship that travels at over 100mph?”, “Oh, so they are the people who invented that ROV back in the ’80s. I still use one”, “Mmm – we have a problem measuring strain on turbine blades, that’s an interesting approach”, “Very sensible not rushing into prototyping yet, needs more research into alternative designs. Wish we had done that.”

What we had here was a group of Highlands and Islands businesses that were inventing their own future, a future where Scotland is the centre of a new global industry built around marine renewables, generating clean, carbon-free electricity from the oceans.

However, developing a whole new industry from scratch is not straightforward, and the past 12 months have seen the industry facing a range of technical, policy, business and financial issues. Firstly, there is now clear divergence between wave and tidal technologies, with tidal having benefited from 30 years of onshore wind generation experience. Wave, on the other hand, faces major technology challenges, chiefly the twin problems of having to invent entirely new ways of creating electricity from the movement of water, and to engineer devices to survive regular extreme weather events.

However, the market for wave power is a truly global one, so in 2015 the Scottish Government asked HIE to establish Wave Energy Scotland (WES) which has been tasked with bringing together the best engineering and academic minds to collaborate on innovative projects that will accelerate the development of wave technologies.  A key objective is to ensure the intellectual property and know-how from device development in Scotland is retained for future benefit, and enable technologies to reach commercial readiness in the most efficient and effective manner.

But, challenging as issues facing the wave and tidal sectors undoubtedly are, these are nothing to what the early planners of the HIDB had to face back in 1965. A ports and harbours infrastructure that had hardly changed since World War One, a road network that was often still single-track, a rail network that had just escaped the Beeching cuts and still used the occasional steam train, a rural largely unskilled workforce, and with high unemployment. All in all, an area blighted with chronic outmigration, with the young and educated leaving in droves.

The HIDB worked hard in developing tourism, fishing and farming. Aquaculture was invented with the strong support of the board and had a significant impact, but it was the development of large-scale energy industries that turned the economy around.

First Dounreay, then Corpach and the Invergordon smelter, followed by the North Sea oil bonanza, all providing new skilled jobs, training and the encouragement of women into the workforce.

It drove investment in new infrastructure, but crucially created a whole new supply chain. Blacksmiths became fabricators, electricians learnt how to rewire oil rigs, fishermen became tugboat and supply ships operators, and it was this cohort of locally based businesses that grew and developed new markets when the energy industry went through its periodic cyclical downturns.

As a result, the 21st-century Highlands and Islands has major oil terminals, strategic energy fabrication facilities, modern ports and harbours and significant hydro and onshore wind industries, while the waters around the region are home to Scotland’s embryonic but world-leading wave and tidal industry and will host a significant proportion of Scotland’s offshore wind industry as it is deployed during the rest of this decade.

At the same time the oil provinces of the northern North Sea and west of Shetland will continue to drive significant oil and gas investment for the next 50 years, both for new developments and long-term decommissioning, even though the current low oil price is causing the sector real difficulty.

The Highlands and Islands is one of the most energy resource-rich parts of Europe. Our islands are hot-spots of wave, wind and tidal power with 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind, 25 per cent of European tidal resource and 10 per cent of European wave power. The Beatrice offshore wind project in the Moray Firth, scheduled to start construction in 2017, could trigger an investment of over £3bn – that’s two Forth bridges. MeyGen, Europe’s largest tidal-stream project, will also lead to hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of investment in the Highlands and Islands economy as it is built out over the next 10 years in the Inner Sound of the Pentland Firth, with other projects either under development or planned in Shetland, Orkney and Argyll.

As I’ve been stressing, an extensive supply chain has developed in the Highlands and Islands, with a cluster of local and global companies, with varied strengths in environmental services, engineering, fabrication, marine services, project management, subsea activities and training services. HIE actively account-manages 150 energy businesses, and we estimate that the energy industry employs over 15,000 people in the region across renewables, oil and gas and electricity generation and transmission.


Looking back over 50 years does allow the benefit of perspective, and the ability to put recent issues in a more historic context. With the current low oil price the third major industry bump since 1965, it’s important to note that despite low oil prices in the ’80s and ’90s the Scottish supply chain grew through innovation and international sales. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the Danes, faced with the difficult early days of wind power in the 1980s, kept their nerve – and created a multi-billion-pound global business.

The growth and decline of major industries in Caithness, Lochaber and Easter Ross left an active supply chain and a skilled and ambitious workforce able to move between, nuclear, oil and gas and renewables as opportunities present themselves.

Yet it’s the growing population of the Highlands and Islands, the dramatically changed attitudes of the region’s young people, and the success of the University of the Highlands and Islands that perhaps would surprise and please the early pioneers of the Highlands and Islands Development Board most. Over the past 50 years, the energy industry has been a major factor in turning the Highlands and Islands from a remote, peripheral, disconnected and underdeveloped region to a modern first-world European region, with a successful and growing economy.

The next 50 years of the region’s energy story is yet to be invented, but the seeds are already there in the UHI research centres in Thurso, Oban, Stornoway and Inverness, in Heriot-Watt’s Stromness campus, in college engineering and training facilities from Shetland to Argyll.

It will be driven by the growing and increasingly innovative local supply chain, harnessing the power of the region’s water, winds, waves, tides and mineral riches, creating wealth, jobs and low-carbon power, and then exporting that expertise right across the globe.


We are an enormous energy laboratory

avatar October 29th, 2015 by Rona Campbell

In the third of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how the north of Scotland became a world leader in some aspects of energy technology


SCOTLAND is big on world firsts: penicillin, pneumatic tyres, television, telephone, steam engines, insulin, all developed in Scotland or by Scots. Indeed HIE’s own John Shepherd-Barron was famous for being one of the inventors of the automated cash machine. Yet cutting-edge innovation is something that folk tend not to associate with the Highlands and Islands. If you know where to look, though, there is some fascinating industrial archaeology that shows where the north of Scotland was, and indeed is, a world leader in energy technology. In fact we are an enormous energy laboratory.

Dounreay’s iconic dome is the most obvious, but the nearby peat bog of Altnabreac was the home to an experimental peat-fired power station in 1954, amazingly using powdered peat to run a gas turbine. That’s a peat-fuelled jet engine. If you look carefully at the cliff-top at Costa Head in Orkney you will see the foundations of Scotland’s first wind turbine, again tested in the ’50s. Nearby Burgar Hill was the UK’s main wind test site during the ’70s and ’80s; a remarkable 3MW turbine was built there in 1985. That size of machine that would not be available commercially for another 20 years. The waters of Loch Ness were the home to the world’s first wave device, Salter’s nodding ducks, installed there in 1976.

So it was no surprise that by the end of the ’70s the HIDB turned its attention to the growth of what were known as alternative energy resources, and started to explore opportunities for the Highlands and Islands in delivering the energy sources of the future. The massive hike in oil prices in the mid-’70s had not only provided a fillip for the oil and gas sector in the North Sea but had created the economic conditions for exploring alternative fuels for heat and power, particularly in Scotland’s energy intensive sectors. So in September 1980 the board hosted a major conference in Aviemore, chaired by the Secretary of State for Scotland, “Energy in the ’90s”, which promoted the Highlands and Islands as a “geographical test bed” for nuclear, wave and wind power; offshore oil and gas; hydro power; solar energy; peat and timber. This was followed by a series of international conferences in Inverness throughout the ’80s looking at energy needs of rural and island communities, with a strong focus on wind, wave and biomass.

The HIDB helped apply these early renewable technologies to the problems facing small islands which were not on the National Grid. In 1982 the board invested in the UK’s first community-based wind power scheme, with diesel backup, on Fair Isle in Shetland. Similarly the island of Foula is not connected to any mainland electricity grid system. In 1987 a community electricity scheme was constructed, comprising a 3.3kV island grid which linked diesel generators, a wind turbine and a hydroelectricity scheme to the island’s properties. The board also supported alternative energy technology demonstrators, including the installation of a sea-based heat pump for Iona Abbey.

BY the ’80s it was also clear that the major programme of new commercial forest planning in the post-war decades, and especially in the ’70s, had resulted in an increasing programme of timber felling which was then due to expand for several decades to come. In response to this opportunity the board was active in encouraging new forest industries to develop in the region, both for wood processing and wood fuel use. The HIDB supported the installation of a state-of-the-art biomass boiler at Tormore Distillery in Speyside, fuelled by forestry waste, and supported the development of a wood board plant at Dalcross, where bark and wood waste produced all the heat and steam needed for manufacturing.

The HIDB also explored the prospects for peat exploitation in the Highlands and Islands, with a view to bringing lasting economic development to the areas most lagging behind in terms of economic development, which happened to coincide with significant peat resources. There had been a recent period of innovation in mechanised peat harvesting in Finland for large-scale uses such as combined heat and power (CHP) plants, activated carbon, charcoal manufacture and horticulture. These technologies were studied and brought over to the Highlands for small-scale demonstrations at sites in Lewis, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, which encouraged local entrepreneurs to invest in small-scale, mechanised peat harvesting operations across the region.

Two large-scale proposals for commercial investment in fuel peat for CHP and charcoal manufacture came close to a positive decision to invest, but in the end these efforts were unsuccessful and remain examples of where the HIDB and subsequently HIE invested in research and promotion of novel projects that didn’t always result in success at the large scale. There were, however, a number of spin-offs from the involvement with Finnish and Swedish technologies that fed through into the subsequent adoption of modern wood combustion and energy generation investments in the Highlands.

HIE’s focus was on supporting the diversification of the energy supply chain, and encouraging inward investment to grow regional capacity in the energy sectors. However, by the mid-’90s it was clear that onshore wind was starting to move from prototype to early-stage commercial deployment, with the Novar wind farm in 1997 being one of the first developed in Scotland. With land reform and community ownership of land rising up the political agenda, community control of renewable resources was seen as a priority by HIE. Mindful of the experience of hydro power, where the lasting benefits and local impact of major infrastructure projects were quite limited, HIE established a Community Energy Unit, tasked with supporting the development of community-based renewables projects and directly facilitating them through a dedicated support fund.

Successfully developing a wide range of projects, the Community Energy Unit spun out from HIE as a social enterprise and, as Community Energy Scotland, continues to develop and deliver projects across the region. In 2015 there are 350 community energy projects across the region, including 33MW of generation and with 400MW in the pipeline.

The growing significance of the onshore wind sector opened new opportunities for the Highlands and Islands. Local civil contractors, many with long experience in the hydro sector, were active in site preparation and road-building, as well as providing plant and equipment. HIE supported the establishment of a tower manufacturing plant at Campbeltown in Argyll, and a strong local supply chain was mobilised to build the Beatrice deepwater offshore wind farm demonstrator in the Moray Firth. HIE also undertook a comprehensive programme of public awareness campaigns into issues around renewable energy in the Highlands and Islands.

Yet to many in the Highlands, and across Scotland, it was galling that the turbines and blades of local wind farms were being imported from Denmark. The Danes had built a multi-billion-euro industry through the ’80s and ’90s and were the clear world leaders in this growing sector, exporting across the globe. But what was really infuriating was that Scotland had been a major player in wind turbines in the ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, as a student, I remember walking past massive engineering sheds in Glasgow where hundreds of the early turbines destined for California’s Altamont Pass wind farm were being manufactured. But not long after the time I moved back to the Highlands in the mid-’80s, manufacturing had ceased, the sheds were demolished, and rumour had it that the patents had been sold – to Denmark. So it was a real concern in 1999, when it was clear that the embryonic wave and tidal sector was ready to move out of the lab and test tank, how the growth of the wind sector highlighted that Scotland had missed out on the manufacturing opportunities from turbines.

Determined that this would not happen a second time, HIE looked closely at Denmark to see how Scotland could maximise the benefit from marine renewables. Danish wind experience highlighted the importance of full-scale testing, for technology development but also for knowledge acquisition and cluster development. Accordingly, in 2003 HIE led a UK consortium to develop the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, a fully grid-connected wave and tidal test centre, which cemented Scotland’s global lead in the marine renewable sector.


The boom years: oil and gas in the ’70s

avatar October 7th, 2015 by Rona Campbell

In the second of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, recalls the pioneering spirit that spread across the region in the early years of the North Sea oil industry

VISITORS to Nigg Energy Park on the shores of the Cromarty Firth are sometimes shown a grainy 1970s black-and-white newsreel with images of bulldozers, cranes, old-fashioned ships and helicopters, very large bits of metal, and politicians whose names can now only be found in history books. Throughout the film two key themes dominate: scale and urgency. Industry and government were desperate to get as much oil out of the sea as quickly as possible and had to build new enormous structures to achieve this. Everything was big, not least the men’s hair, suit lapels and platform boots; the biggest dry dock in Europe, the heaviest steel jacket, the largest moveable structure, the longest pipeline. As a result, the years following the 1970 discovery of the Forties oilfield, the largest in the North Sea, saw the north of Scotland become the centre of intense activity with the world’s major oil companies.

For the fledgling Highlands and Islands Development Board, run by planners with an instinctive desire to control and nurture industrial development, there had to be a quick change in direction so that it would be not overwhelmed by the arrival of North Sea oil. Those significant finds in the central and northern North Sea led to oil majors scouting the Highlands and Islands for platform construction sites, and locations for oil terminal and loading facilities. No part of the region was ignored. Shetland and Orkney would become the homes of major terminals, with Lerwick harbour becoming an important service base. Stornoway saw Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen establish a fabrication yard at Arnish Point. The deep-sea lochs of Wester Ross and Argyll saw the construction of enormous concrete structures. The Moray Firth saw two major yards at Nigg and Ardersier, employing 5,000 between them, and Invergordon was the home for an undersea pipe coating plant.

The board quickly modified its approach away from investment alone to providing a comprehensive information service for oil companies, hosting visits, channelling enquiries and posting signs to the local supply chain. In those pre-internet days, the board’s planning and research division set up in 1971 a “planning room” in the Inverness HQ with information on population, labour and services, ports and deep-water anchorages and aerial photographs of potential development sites.

Indeed the US company McDermott established its fabrication facility at Ardersier on the advice of the HIDB, and the board was closely involved in planning decisions for potential major construction sites in Caithness, Wester Ross and Argyll. A number of proposals were quite contentious, leading to fractious planning inquiries, with plans for concrete fabrication at Drumbuie in Loch Carron and Dunnet Bay in Caithness both being turned down despite strong support from local interests. However, the Thurso sand-yachting community were relieved that their beach would not be lost.

With the fragmented nature of town and county councils (ancient burghs such as Cromarty, Tain and Dingwall all had their own autonomous town councils) the board played a major strategic role as an agent of central government in the development of oil and gas. It was a strong stakeholder in the Moray Firth Working Group, the Scottish Economic Planning Department’s strategic planning group for the industry. It also undertook many region-wide planning and development activities that subsequently fell to the new regional and district councils after 1975. Interestingly, by the mid-’70s the HIDB’s librarian was offering advice to other public bodies on the development of a library and information resource for oil and gas.

The arrival of the oil industry brought major social and population changes to parts of the region, which were in the main positive. It caused some workforce challenges in other sectors too, along with local housing pressures. There was also the issue that a large part of the regional economy was now underpinned by the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry.

Kishorn in Wester Ross was the most dramatic example of the local impact of large-scale oil. French company Howard Doris established a yard to build concrete foundations and within a few months was employing thousands, housed in on-site camps and in accommodation ships. The project involved the excavation of a huge dry dock in which the 600,000-tonne Ninian Central Platform was built in 1978. At the time it was the largest movable object ever created by man. Some sources say it still holds the record.

The oil boom also stimulated new economic and social activities right across the Highlands and Islands. The play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil played to packed audiences in community venues across the region, many in village halls supported by the HIDB’s community programmes. The dramatic need for labour saw crofters, farm labourers, fishermen and shopkeepers become welders, riggers and offshore technicians through short-term accelerated training courses run by the major employers. The “two weeks on, two weeks off” working patterns for rigs and island construction sites fitted neatly with the demands of crofting and creel fishing, with high wages being invested back in new buildings, improved fences and ditches, and better stock.

So, by the end of the decade, large fabrication sites had been developed across the region and three oil terminals in Shetland, Orkney and the Cromarty Firth, all with marine services, tugs and port infrastructure. An entire new engineering and fabrication workforce had been created from scratch, with wages considerably higher than the region’s traditional sectors. As the catering, accommodation and support needs of fabrication plants and work camps mushroomed, employment rates among women soared. Female welders were still a rare sight, though.

And while the oil industry in the region was dominated by large multinationals, the very scale of activity was stimulating a local supply chain, from construction and transport through engineering and fabrication to recruitment and training services. It was on this growing supply chain that the HIDB was able to focus, investing in individual firms, building new industrial estates in key locations, supporting training and education programmes, and promoting the region’s oil industry potential at major trade shows in the US and Europe. In fact the board faced some criticism for focusing on the oil industry when commentators were expecting that the industry would be over by the mid-’80s.

Looking back 40 years, it’s almost surreal to remember the Klondike nature of the Highlands and Islands oil boom. The solid caravan of cars and buses on the old single-carriageway roads leading to Nigg and Ardersier at shift change time; the scrum of oil workers transferring from planes to choppers in the old 1940s terminal at Sumburgh Airport, its elegant wicker chairs scarred with cigarette burns and sausage rolls; bulldozers moving mountains in the rain to create dry docks and oil storage tanks; every passenger on work buses and ferries stepping straight into the public bars of Highland hotels; and how it seemed the entire population of Inverness and Easter Ross thronged the shores of the Cromarty Firth to see Highland 1, the first enormous steel jacket built at Nigg being towed out to the North Sea on a grey September day in 1974, destined for the Forties field discovered just four years earlier.


First published in SPP’s Energy North supplement, October 2015


Energising the Highlands for half a century

avatar September 1st, 2015 by Rona Campbell

Pioneering energy developments have been at the heart of economic activity in the north since the Highlands and Islands Development Board (later renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise) began life in 1965. In the first of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the organisation’s 50th anniversary, Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how hydro investment paved the way for industrial growth in the region – and he recounts the role of the board’s first chairman in lobbying for the Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than in the south of England

“THE Highland Problem” … It’s not a phrase you hear much these days, but in the early 1960s the long and ongoing decline of the north of Scotland was a key issue in Scottish politics, dominating the letters pages of the national broadsheets.

Stemming the region’s chronic depopulation, high unemployment and poor infrastructure was a priority for post-war planners in the Scottish Office, the subject of reports, studies, commissions and debates in parliament, all culminating in the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) in 1965, now of course Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

November 1 was the day that the HIDB officially opened its doors (famously when Bob Grieve, the board’s new chair, arrived on the first day, there was a west coast fisherman already waiting at the reception of the new office), but a rather higher-profile event had happened in Argyll just a fortnight earlier. October 15, 1965, saw the Queen formally opening the Cruachan Power Station at the head of Loch Awe, Scotland’s first hydroelectric pumped storage scheme.

The building of Cruachan was the culmination of 25 years of major energy investment in the Highlands and Islands.

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how critical the work of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board (now SSE) was in providing a modern 20th-century infrastructure for what then was a remote rural area blighted by out-migration and a severely depressed economy.

Building dams and power stations and connecting houses and crofts to electricity supplies was a key means of creating local jobs, reversing the relentless population drift, and modernising a large part of the landmass of Scotland.

It’s also easy to forget how controversial these developments were – strongly opposed by many landowners and others who argued that the scenic beauty of the Highlands would be ruined, tourism and field sports devastated and large areas of land sterilised. Sounds familiar?

The simple act of wiring up a house was life-changing. As a local newspaper noted: “At Morar in Inverness-shire and at Lochalsh in Wester Ross the other day, a crofter’s wife pulled a switch and the dim glows of the paraffin lamps were eclipsed by the flood of electric light.” The 20th century had arrived in the Gàidhealtachd.

Yet the electrification of the region was much more than electric cookers and new televisions. With almost all of the Highlands and Islands connected in 1965, it provided the basis for the HIDB to invest in businesses, communities and infrastructure to grow the economy and workforce, particularly in the crofting communities and islands.

Hydro investment was also central to the establishment of a local energy construction and engineering supply chain which has grown and evolved through the oil and gas boom of the 1970s and ’80s, and the growth of renewables since 2000. Even the Highlands and Islands regional airline, Loganair, started as the air taxi service of Muir of Ord-based Logan Construction, a major player in hydro construction during the 1950s and ’60s.

Building on this, a key part of the HIDB’s strategy in the 1960s was the industrial development of the Highlands and Islands, along with the growth of the region’s primary industries, fishing, farming and crofting, and the promotion of tourism. This development focus was based on the attraction of large-scale industries exploiting the regional natural resources, such as minerals and timber, available areas of large flat land and deep water, and an “under-used” workforce.

As HIDB’s first chairman, Robert Grieve, had come from his previous role as Scotland’s chief planner, the board followed the classic economic planning strategy of a “growth pole”, where major industrial developments would act as focus for population growth, and what we would now call the creation of a supply chain “cluster”. Energy, as a key part of the region’s natural resources, was seen as a strong driver of this industrialisation process.

Of course the board was not starting in an industrial policy vacuum, with the Scottish Office having already supported the development of a pulp and paper mill at Corpach in Lochaber, which opened in 1966, complementing the area’s existing aluminium smelter. Caithness was the home to the Dounreay Fast Reactor, established in the 1950s, primarily due to its remote location, and Invergordon in Easter Ross was one of a number of UK sites being considered for three new and very large aluminium smelters.

However, the perceived remoteness of the Highlands and Islands meant that the newly established HIDB had to lobby hard for the Invergordon smelter, and for new nuclear developments. In 1966, the board’s chairman spent his first year lobbying at ministerial level for the UK’s Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than Winfrith in Dorset, arguing that the PFR would act as a magnet for supply-chain activity in Caithness and develop internationally exportable technology.

This lobbying paid off, with both new developments confirmed in 1967 and construction starting in 1968, and the plants were operational in the early 1970s. Neither Dounreay, Invergordon, nor the Corpach pulp mill survived the UK’s deindustrialisation of the 1980s – although the complexity and sensitivity of nuclear decommissioning means Dounreay will remain a significant employer in Caithness for some time to come. But in retrospect they had played a crucial role in bringing industry to the north, training a workforce and growing a local supply chain.

Cruachan was the penultimate Hydro Board project, with just the Loch Ness Foyers scheme being built in the early 1970s. Yet 50 years on hydro power is still growing, now being driven by smaller community-based projects with the support of HIE. What’s more, they are still being built by local companies that got their start through the Hydro Board, and grew through infrastructure investments championed by the HIDB.

And Cruachan? Its dam and generator room are recognised as one of Scotland’s most iconic post-war industrial structures. It is an important tourist attraction, and is also a film location seen in James Bond movies. Today the Cruachan Power Station is still a critical part of Scotland’s energy infrastructure, storing power when the wind blows, and generating when we switch on the kettle at the end of Strictly.