The 1955 Costa Hill Wind Turbine

By Fiona Grahame

In 1887 the first known wind turbine used to produce electricity was built in Scotland.

Professor James Blyth of Anderson’s College, Glasgow (which was to become Strathclyde University) built a wind turbine in the garden of his holiday cottage. It was 10m high with cloth sails.

Ernest William Golding was initially interested in the application of electricity to develop agricultural and horticultural processes. In 1945 he was appointed to the Electricity Research Association (ERA) as Head of the Rural Electrification department. Three years later in 1948 the ERA added wind power to his job description as Technical Secretary of the Wind Power Committee.

Costa Head seen from Rousay Image credit Martin Laird

In 1948, preliminary work started in Orkney recording wind speeds at Costa Head, Vestra Fiold and other selected places including Grimsetter (now Kirkwall airport) and Bignold Park, Kirkwall . The research was supervised by the ERA for the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, using local recorders as part of a project to develop wind generated electricity in the islands.

If it is successful more mills will be installed in Orkney and Shetland, Lewis and Harris – areas where the hills are not high enough to make hydro schemes possible’ , Orkney Herald 18th May 1948.

from Golding’s book ‘The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power’

The ERA decided that Costa Hill would be the best site for their wind driven electric generator and in 1949 they placed an order with John Brown Ltd, the Clyde shipbuilders, for a turbine with 60 feet blades. The turbine used technology from both the aircraft and marine sectors. The 100 KW turbine had helicopter type blades and was erected on top of an 80 ft steel framework structure. Importantly it was able to run unattended and in 1955 it connected up to the main Grid. This was seen as a back up to the oil fired power station in Kirkwall which would allow it to save on fuel.

‘It was stated that the Costa windmill was an experiment, but it might be the start of a new form of cheap power. It is thought that in years to come, huge windmills, each capable of lighting a small town, may be dotted around the headlands of Britain,’

The Orcadian June 23rd 1955
from Golding’s book ‘The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power’

1952 was  the year of The Great Gale which hit Orkney and blew away thousands of hens as well as causing other extensive damage to the islands infrastructure. At Costa Hill wooden sheds were blown away and the 125 m.p.h. wind speeds broke the recording device. The ’Coventry  Evening Telegraph reports:

‘In the morning Pouncey [engineer in charge of the site] and his team of pioneers crept from their shelter… the windmill was undamaged.’

The steel skeletal structure had withstood the force of the winds.

Although the Hydro Board and the ERA were running the project, locally a farmer, Bill Sabiston, was managing the day to day workings of the wind turbine and the measurements of the other instruments located on the site. He is said to have worked ‘under conditions which would terrify most people.’

Bill Sabiston had been sceptical at first over whether the windmill would stand the force of winds in Orkney. When he heard in 1949 that the windmill was to be built on Costa Hill it was reported in the media that ‘Sabiston smiled grimly and shook his tousled head.’

‘They can’t do it’ he muttered. ‘Others have tried to harness the wind and failed. No man made structure will stay up on Costa . The gales would blow the head off a stone giant’

image credit Martin Laird

According to the article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of July 7th 1955, which paints a dramatic picture of gale swept remote islands and hardy crofters, the local belief was that the windmills would not work.

Indeed some of those ‘hardy crofters’ had been using small wind driven generators of their own to power wirelesses in their homes for many years.

There was interest from all over the UK, Ireland and across the world. 70 sites had been identified in the UK for the location of wind turbines , mainly in areas where other forms of generating electricity was not an option.

There was also a film made in 1955 ‘Construction of Orkney Wind Turbine’. It shows a car, then a tractor, battling up the track at Costa Hill in the snow and winds. The Dundee Courier of 17th of June 1955 headlines it with ‘Heroism in the Erection of Windmill’. It contains fascinating footage of the construction and testing process at John Brown’s, the transporting of the massive structure and its erection on site.

In January 1957, Orkney was again battered by ferocious winds. At the Costa Head site a wind speed of 125mph was recorded.

More storms were to come the following month with ‘100mph Blast’.

‘In places power failures were caused by the sheer weight of hay and straw from demolished stacks ‘shorting’ the overhead cables, sometimes the high voltage of the cables ignited the hay clinging to them.’

Orkney Herald, Feb 13th 1957

During the year 1957 all interest in the Costa Wind project disappears from newspapers. In the short space of two years the media, politicians and the public are no longer commenting on wind power or imagining the great benefits it could bring with cheaper electricity for hard to reach areas.

The Costa Hill turbine had ceased to function, but there were still working wind turbines in other countries.

Two events happened to change public, political and commercial interest in wind driven electricity: the opening of the oil fuelled Power Station in Kirkwall; and the building of a nuclear power station across the Pentland Firth at Dounreay in Caithness.

The media of 1957 onwards is filled with the promise of a nuclear future. The Space Age and with it a technological race between the world’s two superpowers: The USA and The USSR  had also begun.

‘History changed on October 4th 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1’,  NASA

replica of Sputnik 1 image NASA

People in Orkney could look up into the night sky and see Sputnik 1 passing overhead.
Today there are over 500 domestic scale wind turbines in the islands. There are more of these small individually owned wind turbines in Orkney than anywhere else in the UK. Five smaller islands have community owned turbines of 900KW. Orkney Islands Council is the largest investor in the Hammars Hill Wind Farm, Evie, which has been running successfully for ten years. Burgar Hill which started as an experimental site in the 1980s, today has 6 wind turbines working successfully.

the remains of the mast at the Costa Hill site image credit Martin Laird

The experiments at Costa Hill: the measurements of wind speed; the testing of instruments; and the performance of propeller blades; all of these elements and more have enabled the generation of electricity by wind turbine, to be the success it is today.

A word of warning:

‘Although the Orkney Islands have produced over 100% of their electricity needs from renewables every year since 2013, over 75% of the islands energy still comes from fossil fuels.’ Clean Energy for EU Islands, 2019

This article was first published in iScot Magazine.

Costa Hill looking towards Burgar Hill Image credit Martin Laird

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