Orkney’s Uranium Protests

By Fiona Grahame 

To mark the re-creation on Saturday 21st of August of the Uranium Protest Walk as part of the Institute of Archaeology, UHI’s Orkney Energy Landscapes Project here is a short piece about the campaign.

Sign in Stromness designed by Ian MacInnes (1)
Sign in Stromness designed by Ian MacInnes credit: Harald Kucharek

The discovery of oil in Scotland’s seas resulted in the construction of a major terminal on the  tiny island of Flotta in Orkney. Building work commenced in 1974 by the Occidental North Sea Group bringing ashore crude oil from the Piper Field. The Flotta Terminal opened in August 1977 and has delivered more than 2.6 billion barrels of crude oil. A reserve fund set up has meant that locally public services have been able to be maintained at a level not seen in mainland Scotland.

Geologists, however, had their eyes on another natural resource in Orkney one which was referred to as both the energy source of the future or destroying life on the islands as it was known – depending on your viewpoint.

The magnificent cliffs of Yesnaby to the west of Stromness bear the marks of an historic quarry for millstones and the remains of installations from both World Wars. Seabirds nest in the rock ledges and on the maritime heath is the protected tiny and beautiful wild flower primula scotica.

Yesnaby. Screen print. Keith Laird, 1973 web use
Yesnaby. Screen print. Keith Laird, 1973

The geologists were interested in what else Yesnaby had to offer – uranium.

The campaigns to both resist and advocate for uranium mining in the lands between Stromness and Yesnaby were vigorous.

Supporting the extraction of uranium were major mining companies, the South of Scotland Electricity Board, the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the European Commission. The European Economic Community (EEC) was the forerunner of the European Union(EU). The UK had been admitted into the EEC in October 1972 with the decision coming  into effect on 1st January 1973. The European Commission had funded a £7million search across the 9 member states for sources of uranium.

Resisting the mining of uranium in Orkney was the local Heritage Society headed by the rector of Stromness Academy, Ian MacInnes.

The South of Scotland Electricity Board had applied to sink 11 test bore holes: 2 at Yesnaby, 4 near Blackhall and 5 at the Mill of Cairston.

As knowledge of the plans grew there was increased opposition which included the Kirkwall Chamber of Commerce citing that the deposits lay underground and on the surface around Stromness.

The islands council also objected to the plans with Development Officer Alan Coghill saying:

“Yesnaby is one of the more attractive cliff sites. It would be a question of reconciling development with the environment.”

The European Commission stated its displeasure at the plans being refused and wanted the decision reversed. The matter was referred to the Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger. A three day inquiry was held in Kirkwall.

The local campaigners who had now been protesting, petitioning and resisting the application for several years were joined by national  groups.

Friends of the Earth stated that ‘ as the uranium belt lies between the prevailing winds and most of the Mainland and the Northern Isles’ it would create ‘ a dust hazard for most of Orkney’.

And Marjorie Linklater of the Orkney Heritage Society said that it ‘would destroy life as we know it. Stromness would become a ghost town and the countryside deserted within a decade should mining of such a toxic nature be permitted.’

The resistors to uranium mining in Orkney were up against organisations with huge financial interests in getting the application through. Dr Stanley Bowie, Assistant Director of the Institute of Geological Sciences had forecast in 1972 that commercial uranium mining would take place in Orkney within a decade. He claimed that the ‘expenditure needed is negligible in comparison with the expected rewards.’

This was a view accepted by most of the energy sector and many leading politicians of the day – that nuclear power was the ‘clean’ energy of the future. F, Johnson, a hydro civil engineer stated that there was no health hazard to mining for uranium in Orkney and:

‘All indications point to the increasing development of and dependence on nuclear power over the next 20 years.’

Mining  for uranium in Orkney did not get the go ahead. The local resistance campaign was well informed, persistent in its opposition and effective at communication.

Land of Oil. Ian MacInnes, c.1980 web use
Land of Oil. Ian MacInnes, c.1980

The opening of the Flotta Oil Terminal ensured a flow of money into Orkney never seen before. There was no need to add to the islands environmental problems by mining uranium. And out of it all came one of the most popular pieces of music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies . Written as part of the protest to the uranium mining, it was first performed at the St Magnus Festival in June 1980 in The Yellow Cake Review hosted by Eleanor Bron, with Max at the piano.

“My local piano piece Farewell to Stromness has almost become a folk tune. People just say ‘I like that piece’, and they don’t know who wrote it.” Peter Maxwell Davies

Peter Maxwell Davies - Yellow Cake Remembered, Martin Laird 2020 web use (1)

This article first appeared in iScot Magazine


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