The Archaeology of Orkney’s Energy Industry

Orkney has a long history of energy production, from the use of traditional fuels such as peat, to the more recent extraction of oil, exploration of uranium, and the current world leading renewables industry.

A turbine and gorse blowing in the perpetual wind

Energy needs have long shaped Orkney’s landscape, and today the islands are home to a global innovation hub in renewable energy. These industries have left physical traces in the landscape which can be recorded archaeologically, and stories and memories within communities that should be preserved.

An exciting project will see The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology(ORCA) based at Orkney College working with  the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews to explore this important aspect of Orkney’s past, present and future.

ORCA has received a grant of £10,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the Orkney Energy Landscapes Project.

ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee is teaming up with Anthropologist Dr Richard Irvine from the University of St Andrews to undertake activities throughout 2020. These will be based around energy themes of oil, uranium, wind, wave and peat. The year-long project will tour Orkney islands, including Eday and Flotta, and also energy sites in the West Mainland.

Flotta oil terminal 1977 Orkney museum Bell

Flotta oil terminal 1977 Orkney museum photo credit Bell

Fieldwork will involve archaeological recording at contemporary energy sites, peat coring, oral history interviewing, field walking, community events and schools workshops. Sites include the EMEC’s wave energy test facility at Billia Croo near Stromness.

The project will produce a sound archive of stories connected with energy sites and resources for schools. The aim is to explore ways to understand and record energy sites, with the ultimate aim of creating an Orkney Energy Trail.

Richard Irvine (Anthropologist, University of St Andrews) said:

“From peat cutting to wind turbines, the search for energy sources has played a key role in shaping the identity of these islands. There are energy stories everywhere in the landscape – whether we’re talking about the economic and social impact of oil, or the political self-determination that grew around the threat of Uranium mining, or debates about the role of renewables in Orkney’s future economy. I’m really excited about working with communities to gather these stories.”

Call for volunteers

Anybody interested in delving into Orkney’s energy heritage, wants to help record energy sites, or with stories to share about our energy landscape is welcome to get involved and should contact

Support from the National Lottery will allow participants to explore and record the physical remains of energy sites (e.g. concrete turbine bases, test sites), record stories and memories, and contribute to our understanding of Orkney’s energy landscapes now and for the future.

Volunteers will learn skills and assist in recording energy sites and developing the concept and route of a potential future Energy Trail during the activities.

The project will record oral histories of community recollections and experiences of the islands’ energy histories, exploring how the interaction with different energy sources has come to shape contemporary Orkney and its identity.

Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said:

“We are really excited about exploring some of the most important and overlooked contemporary archaeological sites in Orkney – those from the renewable and oil industries – and work towards sharing these in an Orkney Energy Trail”

Billia Croo Wave Energy Test Site, EMEC  Orkney

Aerial of EMEC Billia Croo wave test site (Credit Colin Keldie)

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