Gifts from the Sea

7 Feb 2023 james

The Oil Machine in Cromarty

The rig fabrication yard at Nigg – with the towering yellow jackets for wind turbines.

The Stagecoach bus judders and swerves as it takes the bend past Braehead and Davidston, past the fields of stubble and grazing sheep. The driver knows these empty roads on The Black Isle intimately and is eager to reach the journey’s end. Suddenly, over the crest of the hill, Cromarty Firth appears in the sharp autumn sunlight. Moored within it are monstrous rigs. One, two, three, four of these towering structures: jack-ups and semi-submersibles anchored in the bay, waiting for their next mission to drill for oil and gas deep deep beneath the North Sea.

Far off on the other side of the Firth, opposite the town of Cromarty, is the mighty fabrication yard of Nigg, gouged out of the hillside of Balnabruaich and extended onto land reclaimed from the sea. This was the site where many of the production platforms of the North Sea were built between the 1970s and 1990s. Now the distant yard is dominated by a set of yellow towers, the footings for wind turbines in the Seagreen wind farm being constructed off the coast south of Aberdeen.

The bus comes to its end stop in a car park by The Links. To my right, the view of the sea stretches east through the narrows between two headlands, The Sutors. To my left, in the distance the Cromarty Cinema nestles close to the beach, dwarfed by the towering jackets beyond. Night is coming and the lights on the rigs and in the fabrication yard pierce the dark beyond the cinema.


The Cromarty Cinema on the shore of the firth – with the structures of Nigg in the background

I’m here for a showing of The Oil Machine, but the event and the discussions in the two days around it, give me some insight into the nature of this remarkable town, which Terry Macalister and I had barely considered in our book Crude Britannia.

It seems that Cromarty has been the recipient of a series of gifts from the sea.

From the 16th to the 19th century the town was both a trading hub and fishing town. Merchant ships carried goods away from the Highlands down to southern Scotland, England, the ports of Continental Europe and beyond. Some of her ships carried bitter loads. Hemp sackcloth for the plantations of the West Indies worked by enslaved peoples, and shiploads of emigrants forced off the land by The Clearances bound for Canada and Australia.


Fishertown, Cromarty – around 1900 (courtesy Cromarty Archive)

In a good portion of Cromarty, between Church Street and Shore Street, the houses of Fishertown are clustered, the homes of the fisher folk who worked the seas off these Highland coasts. Under sail they reaped the harvest of Herring and Cod, salting and pickling their catch ready for export to other ports. But Cromarty missed out on the world of industrial fishing. Unlike the ports of Buckie and Cullen, Portsoy and Fraserburgh a little further south across the Moray Firth, the railway did not extend to Cromarty. It did not bring its coal load nor extract the fish load. These other harbours grew fat on the Herring Boom that strip-mined the shoals of the sea with the machines of the steam driven Drifters, but Cromarty fell into decline. The population dwindled and the houses of Fishertown fell into disrepair.


Herring Drifter ‘Bramble’ of Buckie – around 1914

Half a century after the Herring Boom had passed, Cromarty was woken from its long slumber by the arrival of a new gift from the sea – oil. When in October 1970, BP  struck oil in what became the Forties field, 110 miles east of Aberdeen, the rush began to find a place to construct the production platforms to exploit that resource. One of the sites chosen was the shore of Cromarty Firth by Balnabruaich. The Nigg Fabrication Yard owned by Highland Fabricators – a joint venture of the American corporation Brown & Root and the British company Wimpey Construction – became an icon of the Klondyke of North Sea oil. From 1972 a workforce of thousands was drawn from across the Highlands, but also from Clydeside, Tyneside, Merseyside and steel workers from Louisiana. Workers were housed in a repurposed cruise liner moored at the dockside, in a caravan park at Cadwell Wood, and in the run down houses of Fishertown. A ferry shuttled across the Firth back and forth between Cromarty to Nigg at all hours of day and night.[1]

Sue Jane Taylor, author of Oilwork,  grew up on The Black Isle and wrote tenderly of life there in  1970s:

‘Childhood memories flooded through my head: protests from local people against industry coming to Cromarty Firth in the form of an aluminum smelter; family outings standing with the crowds on the Souter watching the launch of Nigg’s latest completed order; Nigg shift workers in the village waiting for Kenny Smokie, Newton’s bus driver, to pick them up for work; tales told of workers loosing their entire wage packet gambling in the bus on their way home; heavy drinking sessions in the village pubs; and flashy cars on the roads.’

In due course the madness of that oil rush settled. The Highland Regional Council built housing around Bayview Crescent and Townlands Park. New homes on what had been dairy fields of Townlands Farm, homes that expanded the town by a third. And then the oil rush faltered. Nigg became the shore base for BP’s Beatrice Oil Field in the Moray Firth[2], but a scheme by the US company Cromarty Petroleum to build a refinery at Nigg was never realised.

Through the cycles of offshore production, booms and busts following the rise and fall of the global oil price – itself driven by far off international events – the strength of Nigg declined. New technology, and deeper waters, meant oil platforms were replaced by floating production vessels, built in the shipyards of Japan and South Korea. (Such as the BP Glen Lyon FPSO constructed in South Korea and delivered to the West of Shetland oil field, described in Crude Britannia.)

The Fabrication Yard was mothballed in 2006 and Cromarty fell into sleep once again. The gifts of the sea – fish and then oil – had departed. The ferry came to run only in the Summer season for tourists.

Jackets for the ‘Seagreen’ wind farm loaded onto their transporter ship, across the firth from Cromarty

But then, perhaps unexpectedly, came two new gifts in tandem – wind and Dolphins.

The growing harnessing of offshore wind demanded towering jackets that would be the footings of the wind turbines, set down on the seabed in the deep waters off the Scots coast. In 2012 a new firm, Global Energy Group took over the moribund Nigg yard and talked of establishing a place that would manufacture turbines for UK waters.

However the wind world followed the pattern now established by the oil world. These yellow jackets that loom over the Cinema are built in Chinese dockyards and towed across the oceans of the world to the Nigg Yard. They only perch here a short while until they are dragged into place and lowered into the cold North Sea. The labour of construction that once drew so many to Nigg, now takes place in Zhuhai, South China. (This company video describes the process.) Only two people from Cromarty work in the Nigg Yard. Such is the cold reality of the ‘offshoring of work’ that is often talked of in the press.

But the sea brought a different gift and with it labour. In the 1990s the Dolphins that inhabit the seas between the Souters and the firths of Cromarty and Moray began to gain notoriety. Aberdeen University established the Lighthouse Field Station of the School of Biological Sciences in the town, working with the Whale & Dolphin Conservation group, to study the seas and the Dolphins themselves. This in turn brought tourists to the area and a concern for this ocean from a far wider audience.

The care for the Dolphins increases a sense of guardianship for the seas. From 2015 the citizens of Cromarty fought a battle against proposals from the Port of Cromarty Firth that would have allowed the transfer of oil from ship to ship in the bay between the Souters. This pumping of crude from one sea tanker to another threatened to lethally pollute these waters. The campaign group, Cromarty Rising, led by residents of the town backed by a UK wide movement and Greenpeace, was successful. The port authority quietly dropped its plans by December 2018. The Dolphins themselves had clearly assisted the citizens to push back against the ever-encroaching realm of the oil world.


The moon rising between the Souters at the mouth of Cromarty Firth

And now, on this sunny Sunday afternoon, a good audience of folks from Cromarty are gathered in the cinema to watch The Oil Machine. In the warm confines of this intimate cinema we discuss possible ways out of the machine that the town might take. The cinema itself is an inspiration, a state of the art screen created by a community group that runs the Cromarty Film Festival and raised the funds for this new building. It is a symbol of collective action. How working together we can create change and push away the despair that renders us immobile – especially despair in the face of the impacts of climate change that the film forcefully portrays.

Ideas flow in the cinema and beyond. A move could be made to push Stagecoach – who run the only bus service to Cromarty – to replace its old diesel fuelled fleet with electric buses. An electric vehicle charging unit could be installed in the car park, to fuel the bus and cater for electric cars of residents and visitors. (There are currently no charging places on the whole of the Black Isle.) Or pressure could be put on ScotRail to electrify its lines, so that citizens of Cromarty might travel south to the cities entirely on renewable energy. (The line is desperately in need of an upgrade. It is said that it takes as long today to get from Edinburgh to Inverness as it did in 1919.) Or plans could be drawn up for the town to generate its own renewable energy. (During the discussion following the screening there’s talk of a water-source heat pump, drawing energy from the sea.)

All of these plans may seem small compared to the monumental change wrought by Nigg, or small in the shadow the wind turbine jackets dragged from China. But these are the steps of the transition out of fossil fuels. Steps which are not only more ‘just’ than the development of North Sea oil which drove the town through the switchback ride of boom and bust, but steps which are built upon (and in turn feed) the energy of collective action by citizens.

A semi-submersible drilling rig just offshore from Cromarty town


Thanks to Frazer Mackenzie, Ian Donald, Jo Donald, Ben Kempas, Emma Davie, Rachel Caplan, Sonja Henrici, Terry Macalister and Annie Brooker.

[1] See ‘The Rigs of Nigg’ by Don Coutts who lives in Cromarty

[2] Later owned by Talisman and decommissioned in 2017

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