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


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.


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