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Archive for September, 2016

We’ve come full circle

Friday, September 30th, 2016

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

Monday, September 5th, 2016

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.