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

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016


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

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

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.