A Tale of Two Cities: ‘Aberdeen- When Oil Came To Town’

There’s a bitter saying that Scotland is the only country to ever discover oil and be poorer for it.

Scapa Flow with redundant platform and a disused abandoned car on the shore
Scapa Flow seen from Deepdale Image credit Martin Laird

As part of the UK, oil revenues generated in the vast Scottish waters which make up the North Sea go into the coffers of the energy companies and the UK Exchequer. In Shetland a deal brokered with the oil companies back during those early days of exploration resulted in an agreement done between the local council and the producers which means today the islands have a healthy reserve fund. Orkney, too, but to a lesser extent, also has a reserve fund. In Shetland the Sullom Voe facility continues to bring in money from new fields being developed. In Orkney, Flotta, has other prospects it hopes to take advantage of in the future with the massive growth in the renewables sector with Offshore wind and hydrogen.

A recently aired documentary on BBC Alba has explored through historical footage what the discovery of oil in Scotland’s waters did for the city of Aberdeen.

 Norman MacLeod, from the Isle of Scalpay in the Western Isles, who has lived in Aberdeen since 1985, is one of several people telling the story of the city and its people through its highs and lows over the last 50 years.

The story charts how Aberdeen, a once thriving fishing port, changed, almost overnight, when oil came to town.

an image of Harold Bell wearing his Texan hat
Photo by Mike Hollist/ANL/Shutterstock (9014199a) Harold Bell 66 Owner Of Bells Hotel Union Street Aberdeen With His Texan Hat. Aberdeen Boom City Feature. Box 712 1027101612 A.jpg.

At the same time as this was happening to Scotland, the small independent nation of Norway was dealing with the same issues. Although the amount of oil discovered in the Norwegian section of the North Sea was much less, the way it was develop and exploited in that country was completely different. A fictional account of which is retold in the series ‘State of Happiness’. Norway’s oil reserves

As exploration and exploitation grew, oil money quickly dominated the economy. To keep control and avoid imbalances in the economy, the government decided to exercise caution in the use of oil revenues. In 1990, they passed legislation to create what is now known as the Government Pension Fund Global. The first money was deposited in 1996.


The Norwegian Government Pension Fund is the largest of any sovereign wealth fund in the world, containing $1.1 trillion to date. – World Economic Forum. Norway’s Fund was set up to ‘to invest government revenues from fossil fuel industries into sectors deemed more sustainable.

Scotland, as a Devolved part of the UK, does not have power over Energy. That power remains in London with the UK Government.

The film, produced by Midas Media, ‘Baile na h-Ola (Aberdeen – When Oil Came to Town)’,  recalls for us that whilst the rest of the UK was going through an economic crisis, oil was first found in the North Sea in the 1970s. It was the beginning of a golden age for Aberdeen and life would never be the same again in the North East.

The flaming image of oil on fire
Midas Media Baile na h-Ola Title Card

However, while many prospered, it became a tale of two cities where those who weren’t involved in oil struggled. There is also the cost and tragedy of lives lost from an industry producing oil from the horrendous conditions in Scotland’s North Sea.

Baile na h-Ola (Aberdeen – When Oil Came to Town) is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

Today, Scotland’s waters continue to be explored for the oil industry but also for the renewables sector. The development of Offshore windfarms and those of the fossil fuel industry means that Scotland continues to be an powerhouse for the UK and the Energy companies.

a North Sea oil Platform
Midas Media Baile na h-Ola Oil Olatform Credit CNOOC

Fiona Grahame

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