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

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


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