Jul 292016

Aberdeen in 100 Dates Elma McMenemy book launch2By Duncan Harley.

Aberdeen’s Gordon Highlander Museum was the setting for the launch of Mearns author Elma McMenemy’s new book ‘Aberdeen in 100 Dates’.

A professional Blue Badge Tourist Guide, Elma has more than 30 years experience of working with Scotland’s visitors and has built up a vast repertoire of tales showcasing the rich and varied history of both Aberdeen City and the hinterland of the North east.

Her previous book focussed on the often macabre and bloody history of Aberdeen and in this new collection of local tales Elma leads the reader on a journey through 100 of the key dates which have shaped the development of the city.

Aimed, as Elma explains, at “people who would not normally open a history book” the publication has already proved popular especially with fellow tour guides who plan to use it as a research tool when preparing guided tours around Aberdeen and the North east.

“Its easy to talk to a coach full of tourists” she says,

“but putting words down on paper is quite another thing. Aberdeen is such a brilliant and helpful place. No-one I have asked has so far refused to help me in my research!”

The book presents as a sound-bite tour-de-force of popular folk and historical tales. With one story per page and illustrated throughout with line drawings, there’s plenty to interest even the most informed reader and visitors unfamiliar with the North east will undoubtedly be tempted to delve deeper into many of the stories highlighted within the 124pp.

Dedicated to a godson “who loved all sort of trivia”, the 100 dates kick off with an examination of the arrival in Aberdeen of Christianity courtesy of St Machar, a 6th century disciple of St Columba. Given that each tale is restricted in length to approximately 230 words, the author manages to pack in a good amount of information and leads the reader quickly from St Machar’s arrival on Iona on to the miraculous tale of St Machar’s Well and the eventual founding of Aberdeen’s St Machar’s Cathedral.

On June 5th 1815 we learn that a large mob “not falling short of half a thousand, attacked the White Ship, a house of ill repute run by Meggie Dickie”. The military were seemingly summoned to arrest the ringleaders one of whom was transported for seven years. Resurrectionists feature in the story of another Aberdeen riot, this time dated 19th December 1831.

Seemingly a mob burned down the local anatomy theatre after discarded human remains were found nearby. Who said Aberdeen was a boring city?

Bloody Harlaw, the founding of Aberdeen Golf Club, the epic tale of the Scottish Samurai and the Royal connections of William McCombie and his prize Aberdeen Angus Bull, Jeremy Eric, feature alongside the “crushing defeat of Rangers in the 1982 Scottish Cup” and the tragic gas explosion which, in 1983, destroyed the Royal Darroch Hotel in Cults.

Aberdeen_in_100_Dates_coverThe two concluding stories are bang up to date and describe the charity auction of Aberdeen’s Dolphin Sculptures and the 2016 discovery of 92 bodies buried beneath Aberdeen Art Gallery. Art critics perhaps?

In short, from quirky to gruesome, there’s plenty here to interest everyone.

Inevitably in a work of this complexity there are debatable issues. Fitting 100 tales onto 124 pages is no mean feat. The Aberdeen typhoid description is a case in point and includes the oft repeated line that there were no deaths.

However given that most local histories mirror this notion, the contention is perhaps forgivable and the three folk who died as a result the epidemic will no doubt forgive the repetition.

A slight criticism is however due, regarding the lack of chapter headings or even an index. Apart from the chronology of year, month and date there is little to inform the reader regarding the content of each section and although Elma’s general introduction clearly sets out the parameters of the book’s historical context, the lack of a formal navigation structure restricts the reader to a dipping in and out approach.

Aberdeen in 100 Dates is published in paperback by The History Press at £7.99
ISBN 978-0750-960311

First published in the Summer 2016 edition of Leopard Magazine.

Jun 102016

outside_cover_vol_3_Bennachie_Duncan Harley reviews Bennachie Landscapes Series 3.

In this, the third publication in the Bennachie Landscapes Series, further aspects of the story of Grampian’s favourite hill are discussed in often minute detail.

Dedicated to Gordon Ingram, treasurer to the Bailies of Bennachie until 2000, and with a foreword by Dr Jo Vergunst of the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Anthropology this publication focuses on both our historical and our modern day relationship with the Bennachie range.

Funded through the Connected Communities programme the content reflects the work of project partners including the University of Aberdeen, The Forestry Commission Scotland and The Bailies of Bennachie.

The book presents as 10 research papers, each distinct but related and written by both Bennachie experts and Bennachie enthusiasts.

The ecology and social history of the area feature alongside the geology, flora and the exploitation of both peat and stone on and around the hill. Additionally there are excavation reports featuring Colony houses and Drumminor Castle.

Several of the papers make for highly technical reading and are not for the faint hearted. Peter Thorn’s description of the geological setting around Drumminor Castle is a case in point. Other chapters such as the interim report into the excavations at Drumminor Castle are written with the general reader in mind and should be accessible to anyone happy to sit through an episode of Time Team.

The site of the Bennachie Colonists comes under particular scrutiny. Sue Taylor provides insight into the social and domestic lives of the crofters, who made a living on the slopes of the hill, through the interpretation of pottery found at the Bennachie Colony site.

The excavations during 2011 – 2013 at Shepherd’s Lodge and Hillside yielded both sponge decorated and transfer printed earthenware indicating perhaps a previously unsuspected degree of economic sophistication amongst Colony settlers who often lived at subsistence level.

Barry Foster’s introduction to the peat lands of the hill not only gives the reader food for thought but illustrates clearly, using aerial photographs, the scale of the 18th century peat cutting industry.

In 2013 a partnership between Keig School and the Bennachie Landscapes Fieldwork Group surveyed the ecology and landscape use within the Lordship of Forbes. The research report makes for fascinating reading and describes the discovery of a previously unknown water-mill in the grounds of Castle Forbes.

A dig at the Back of Bennachie by students of Kemnay Academy features alongside an investigation of the English Quarry by Andrew Wainwright and a paper, by Colin Millar, reflects on the controversial 19th century seizure and “Division of the Commonty of Bennachie” by a group of powerful local landowners.

Illustrated throughout with both images relating to Bennachie and survey maps describing the digs and investigations, this book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the North East and clearly illustrates the value of community partnership research.

At 115pp, Bennachie Landscapes Series 3 is available from Inverurie Library and at www.bailiesofbennachie.co.uk  p
Price £10. ISBN 978-0-9576384-1-9

This review was first published in the May 2016 edition of Leopard Magazine.

Words © Duncan Harley

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Feb 112016

By Duncan Harley

Oil Strike coverAs oil prices remain volatile and the UK government records its first losses in 40 years from North Sea oil and gas production, Aberdeen geologist Mike Shepherd has penned a classic.

An industry insider, Mike has produced a highly accessible and non-technical account of how the North Sea energy boom took shape, the ups and downs of the industry and the story of the people who made it all happen.

In the true tradition of all good writers, Mike writes about what he knows best, in this case the search for Black Gold.

While on a geological field trip to Skye in 1978, Mike had witnessed first hand the construction of the Ninian Central platform.

Fabricated in Loch Kishorn and weighing in at an impressive 601,000 tons, the concrete and steel structure was reckoned at the time to be the largest man made structure ever to be moved across the surface of the earth.

“The North Sea proved to be a new frontier for the oil companies … they had been offshore before … but never in waters quite so stormy or so deep,” writes Mike.

The huge discoveries in the Forties Field in 1970, the share price crash of Black Monday 1987, and the inevitable influence of big money are discussed in detail. The effects of taxation, international politics and equity negotiations feature alongside the human cost in terms of accidents, including of course Piper Alpha

The decline in North Sea reserves as a strategic resource for the nation comes under close scrutiny. Mike predicts that production will finally cease around 2050 after which a massive clean up operation costing around £31.5 billion will be required.

In a chapter simply titled ‘Aberdeen’, Mike looks at the social and economic effects of boom and bust on the Granite City. Infrastructure including both the airport and the harbour initially needed urgent investment to serve and secure the initial 500 or so oil-related companies who set up in the city between 1970 and 1977.

Amazingly in 1972:

“The airport was quite basic and the arrival/departure building was an old Nissan Hut. One end was the bar and the other end was the tickets and seats. The same bloke did both jobs.”

With a foreword by Diane Morgan who comments:

“Given the depth of its subject matter it is an amazingly readable book”,

this publication is essential reading both amongst those of us who strive to understand the phenomenon of oil, and also those of us who strive to extract that Black Gold.

Oil Strike North Sea (187pp) is published in hardback by Luath Press at £20

ISBN 978-1-910745-21-2

First published in the February 2016 edition of Leopard Magazine.

Jan 212016

By Duncan Harley.

Book_Cover_Douglas_Harper_Rivers Railways, Ravines

River, Railway, Ravine by Douglas Harper. A well researched and engaging publication.

At 164pp and profusely illustrated with both period and contemporary images Douglas Harper’s new book examines both the provenance and the history of the patented, made in Aberdeen, Harper and Co rigid suspension bridge.

Until now little documented, the Harper bridges were among the first suspension bridge designs – not to be confused with the ‘Shakkin’ Briggies’ well known in the NE – to employ steel wire rope in order to form a relatively rigid and therefore highly functional bridge.

Harpers manufactured over sixty such bridges for export throughout the British Empire between 1870 and 1910.

Douglas, a direct descendant of the original bridge engineers, has spent over a decade researching the company’s innovative designs and seeking out surviving examples.

The mid 19th century was a period of rapid industrial growth both in the north east of Scotland and throughout the British Empire. The boom times of railway expansion had opened up new markets and stimulated engineering innovation on a scale rarely seen before.

From humble beginnings supplying the likes of the Great North of Scotland Railway’s seemingly insatiable demand for cast iron fence posts and level-crossing gates, Harpers’ were soon exporting caste-iron pre-fabricated pedestrian suspension bridges right across the globe.

Engineered and manufactured in kit form at their Aberdeen foundry and using innovative techniques gleaned from long experience in the designing of fences, Harper’s products required little local engineering expertise to either assemble or construct, making them popular choices in developing countries. These instantly recognisable and iconic bridges – with spans of up to 91m – provided many decades of service in places as diverse as Nepal, South Africa and even the Falkland Islands.

In his book Douglas details over 60 of Harper’s bridges including those erected in the UK, throughout the Empire and also in Estonia. Several are, he writes, still in use including one on the River Muick at Birkhall and another on the River Feugh at Banchory.

This is a well researched and engaging publication and quite literally a riveting read!

Sources include records held by Aberdeen Maritime Museum, the Harper Archive at Aberdeen Museum and Robert Gordon University. Written with the general reader in mind, Gordon’s book will also appeal to engineering enthusiasts and many historians.

River, Railway and Ravine is published in hardback by The History Press at £20

ISBN 978-0-7509-6213-1

First Published in the November edition of Leopard Magazine

Nov 122015

By David Innes.


The third in Dr Brown’s series of pocket-sized part guide-part local history volumes moves logically inland from the coast of the previous collection, to its hinterland, the traditional county of Aberdeenshire.
Thankfully, that’s quite deliberately Aberdeenshire as a historic, geographical and cultural entity, not the current local governmental administrative mess.

The author even admits that she has twice breached this traditional boundary and featured items of Kincardineshire lore, although, I’d argue too that Rothiemay, whose Parson Gordon’s place in history as a cartographer is featured, is across the Deveron, and is in my beloved Banffshire.

That petty quibble aside, like its predecessors, Dr Brown’s output is easily read and superbly informative. Discrete geographical areas are defined, their tales and attractions grouped, and a short day out by car should enable readers to make their way round most in a relaxed drive. For those who want to research further, a welcome and comprehensive bibliography is provided.

The second Hidden Aberdeenshire volume continues to maintain the perfect balance of geographical and historical contexts with the personal tales of individuals, variously heroes, villains and innovators. Little-known or long-forgotten tales of murders, burials, personal and architectural triumphs and follies, simply-illustrated, will whet the appetites of those keen to broaden their knowledge of the rich history of the ancient county.

The origins of the Consumption Dyke at Kingswells, the fate of enemy airmen shot down over Aberdeen in July 1940 and the tragedy of the Inverythan Bridge train crash are only three examples of Dr Brown’s ability to distil down to 450 words vital pieces of hitherto-hidden NE history. And great credit is due to her for raising a smile at her ingenious description of 19th century bothy ballads as the Trip Advisor of their day!

Hidden Aberdeenshire: The Land is a further triumph for Fiona-Jane Brown. With her instinct in knowing what readers will find fascinating, her economy of content, accessibility of style and sharp-eyed research, readers will hope that the NE’s rich heritage will continue to inspire her to add to her already-impressive canon.

Hidden Aberdeenshire: The Land – Dr Fiona-Jane Brown

Black & White Publishing
ISBN 978 1 84502 990 6
128 pp

Nov 122015

DAK with bookBy Suzanne Kelly.

Dr David Kennedy – academic, educational reformer and educational observer. He is possibly best known as the former head of Robert Gordon University who handed his degree back in disgust and protest at the honorary degree handed to Donald Trump.

Honouring Trump seems more of a huge error in judgment, academically as well as moral, as each day passes.

Trump goes from disaster to disaster, having been linked to organised crime by the BBC’s Panorama, and having branded himself as a racist, nationalist, sexist self-publicist. Yet RGU stands by its decision. And Dr Kennedy stands proudly by his.

Dr Kennedy released a book in June on his experiences in Scottish education. What’s in a Name?

Stories of a decade in higher education is available from Amazon as hardback, softback, or electronic versions. It can be found here.

Kennedy gave me his book to read and gave me an interview in mid-August. Circumstances at my end have delayed my reading his excellent book and putting the finishing touches on our interview. I regret this for several reasons, not least being Dr Kennedy’s ongoing kindness towards me and his patience in explaining some of the more complex issues involved in the history of changes in Scottish education.

More importantly though, the changes in our education are having tremendous changes on our society, our values and our morals. Some say that we are hot-housing our children from far too early an age, separating infants and young children from their parents who need to earn money.

Are our children able to find education that suits their intellectual potential despite whether they come from rich or poor backgrounds? Are we stressing our children by too much school and too much homework? Are some subjects (phonetics, ‘new’ mathematics) unhelpful hoops we make children accept without question? Are we teaching children how to think and synthesise facts they discover themselves and how to structure logical arguments – or are we teaching them to memorise things temporarily to get good exam results?

And this is before we reach higher education.

When I wanted a higher education, I was interested in the liberal and fine arts; I wanted knowledge first, and any future earnings potential was a secondary consideration (if I ever considered money more important than knowledge). Now our higher educational system seems far more concerned with employment outcomes than learning outcomes.

Engineering degrees involve great specialisations. I know several financially successful engineers over the years who seem to have limited cultural, historic, artistic, ethical knowledge. Is it possible that an educational system which favours specialism and ignores history, classics, ethics, philosophy and arts contributing to a shallow, materialistic culture that is willing to sell the planet’s environmental future for profits today?

Perhaps we should ask Dr. Donald Trump. I know what I think, and look forward to discussing the issues with Dr. Kennedy.

We start our telephone conversation; I am reminded of our earlier interview when we discussed Trump and RGU. This time however, David has a huge amount of information he is eager to convey, and I don’t need to ask him any questions at all.


“The book expands over my experience of higher education in Britain; things I personally knew about. 

I think its relevance to the current situation in Higher Education (HE) lies in 5 issues:

  1. Significance of Higher Education for society, industry, and individuals
  2. Does “one-size fits all” apply to career education/training? [Relevant to student debt]
  3. Equivalence of Awards across subjects, institutions, and countries 
  4. Relevance of Research and Scholarship in HE [Both are essential learning activities for students]
  5. The gradual commercialisation of education and its significance in so many different ways.

The book was inspired originally by the fact RGU, originally RGIT, is very well known and certainly in Scottish education, everyone thought of it as being highly prestigious; with an enviable profile. It was regarded as the flagship of Scottish post-school education. At that time, Scottish universities considered themselves to be British rather than Scottish and argued strongly against coming under Scotish control.

I should say that there were different mechanisms of funding for tertiary education. One was through local authorities. Another was through a grants committee funded by Whitehall, but very much at arm’s length, run by a committee of academics. The third was direct funding by government and this was the case here in Scotland – education colleges and central institutions by the Scottish Office. This was unique to Scotland and highly relevant to what happened later on.

RGIT had a prestigious reputation. There were 14 central institutions in total in Scotland, and there were ten colleges of education. The central institutions were of two types – one a polytechnic type, the others monotechnic – examples are colleges of agriculture, domestic science colleges, colleges of art, of nautical studies, and so on. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen had polytechnic-type institutions; the monotechnics were spread around.

I was appointed principal of RGIT in November 1984 and took up post in May 1985. From the start, I knew things were not right. There was a lot internally that was wrong, but I never ever expected the mess to be quite as bad as I found it.

The early chapters of the book, which is semi-autobiographical, is a collection of short stories, all true, as experienced by me. They are clustered in ten chapters. The first is about the stresses of the job – it describes some of the outstanding problems I found on taking up the post.

Very early on, I discovered to my horror that if you are a boss, then other people perceive you as being something different, even if you think you are just like everyone else. Relationships are different, some deferential, some obsequious, some hostile, and others downright insulting.

One anecdote in Chapter 2 concerns the first day I arrived. There were great piles of papers that had accumulated over many weeks; some very urgent. The less urgent included a petition from staff about the food in the refectories. I decided to visit each in turn (there were 6 in all). On the second day, I went to a nearby refectory for lunch; there were a pair of staff sitting together in earnest conversation and a guy sitting on his own.

I sat with him and began to chat. He had little apparent interest in anything and I found it difficult to get him to talk. However, some of his colleagues joined us and an animated conversation took place.

A young woman sitting next to me asked where I was from. [I’m a Geordie; it’s a very recognisable accent]. I told her, ‘I’m from Tyneside. I thought you’d know by my accent.’ ‘No, where are you from in the institute?’ I said ‘The Principal’s Office’ . She thought she’d perhaps hear a bit of gossip and asked what I did there. ‘Well, I’m the Principal’. All eight of them upped and ran; it was like an explosion.

They perceived me as some terrifying being quite different from themselves; this was reinforced later, many times.

Chapter Two tells about students, colleagues, stratagems that were used to gain special advantage, or to do the Principal down!

Chapter Three is about oil-troubled waters. Far from pouring oil on troubled waters, this was about the oil industry and the problems it brought. I can’t really describe it all – you’d have to read the book. RGIT had a massive input into the oil industry; more than any other institute in the UK. It had a world-wide reputation for the work it did. Meanwhile, at the Scottish Office… well, there was massive and secretive manoeuvring going on.

I start the chapter by saying 1066 was probably the most dramatic year in history of Britain, while 1988 probably most significant for Aberdeen, with Piper Alpha, and for RGIT. It was a very dramatic year also for higher education because of political goings-on that we were told nothing about at the time. We found out later, to our cost.

Chapter 4 – Quis custodiet … (ipsos custodes)? – who guards the guardians?– is about the way public sector institutions are governed, and how control is exercised. The press often terms itself as the ‘fourth estate’ that casts light on those in charge, and particularly on wrongdoings; but does it do this both honestly and fairly? It provides facts about people who are given responsibility to run organisations on behalf of the taxpayer.

The chapter also describes some unfortunate consequences of media behaviour. 

There was always a shortage of accommodation and Aberdeen Journals would have stories about the hardships of students unable to find suitable accommodation.

There was an implied criticism of the institutions and their bosses, taking in too many students – for the money! In one year two Art students decided to sleep in tents on the banks of the Dee. They contacted the press about their ‘plight’. The press had a field day. It turned out these were rich kids, carrying out a prank. The media didn’t investigate, simply looked for good stories – and were strangely silent when the truth became known.

Chapter 5 – Night-flying. The English call it ‘flitting’; it implies something done in the dark. This chapter relates stories about people who’ve tried things on.  It’s about the misbehaviour of staff who were too entrepreneurial.

Chapter 6 – A Question of Quality. This recounts the operations of the Council for National Academic Awards, which awarded the degrees offered by the polytechnics in England and central institutions in Scotland. It was the biggest degree-awarding body of its day and set standards for courses and their delivery, for examination regulations and procedures, as well as for the awards themselves.

Everything was written out, purposes and processes made clear, with evidence and fact-driven judgements based on clear standards. 

I tried to explain its strengths and weaknesses. I played an active role in CNAA and assisted in more than 70 institutions of all kinds in Britain. CNAA was closed down by government in an act of educational vandalism. It was the biggest mistake by British government in higher education in the last 50 years.”

The interview will be continued shortly, with a review of the book ‘What’s In A Name?’

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Nov 102015

By David Innes.

TalesDugoutGordon2My direct exposure to pitchside relationships is limited to coaching and refereeing kids’ games, and believe me, on occasions that could be unpleasant enough.

Ratchet what’s at stake up to professional level, with bonuses, credibility and even continued employment at stake, and it’s little wonder that Richard Gordon has chosen “the sharp end” to describe the passionate, angry, expletive-laden horn-locking that goes on in the innocent-sounding “technical area”.

The germ of the idea for the book was planted in the author’s head when interviewing Gordon Strachan, no less, for a previous book, and Sportsound’s anchor man has amassed a collection of anecdotes from those involved – managers, coaches, referees – the tenor of which will be familiar to anyone who finds themselves, caught in the moment in the stands, transforming from mild-mannered, responsible citizen, in a split second, into a frothing, fulminating, cursing Mr Hyde.

Guilty as charged.

Whilst there’s always the in-joke dressing room banter element to a number of these tales, there are also many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The laughter is often in surprise at the identity of the narrator.

Who would have thought that outwardly-respectable Aberdeen alumni like John McMaster, Billy Stark, Scott Booth, and especially ex-gaffer Alex Smith, are capable of moments of frustrated irrationality, or that several of Scotland’s leading referees deploy clever psychological humour to defuse verbal conflict about to escalate into physical exchanges? Examples? Oh, all right then.

Referee Kenny Clark, when he was fourth official as the Dons were being routed by Motherwell,

Ebbe turns to me and says, ‘I want to make a substitution’. I remind him I need the…numbers of the players going on and coming off so that I can input them into my electronic board. He…returns with the sheet, but it’s only got the number of the player he wants to put on. I tell him I need to know who he wants subbed off, and he replies, ‘You pick. They’re all pish’.

Alex Smith (manager of Stirling Albion),

“We were playing Queens Park at Hampden and I was watching from the stand. Things weren’t going well, and I was getting angrier and angrier, so I decided to make a change. I ran down the stairs…and jumped into the dugout shouting, ‘Get Willie Irvine off, get him off’.

“I found myself face-to-face with the Queens Park coach, Eddie Hunter, who…didn’t take kindly to me having got into the wrong one. ‘Get the fuck out of my dugout!’ was all he said. So I jumped back on to the track and ran along to our own one to make the substitution and I hear a couple of Albion fans from just behind calling out, ‘Aye and you can fuck off out of that one as well Smith!’”

And there are hundreds more, giving insight to the pressures, dangers and humour (once it’s died down) of situations that really shouldn’t occur. After all, it’s only a game, isn’t it? Aye, right.

For your Christmas list, I think.

TALES FROM THE DUGOUT Football At The Sharp End by Richard Gordon

Black & White Publishing
ISBN 978-1-84502-989-0

Sep 072015

Oil Strike cover By Mike Shepherd.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of first oil from the Forties field in September 1975.

A quick search of the internet and you will find photographs of the Queen inaugurating the Forties field on the 3rd November 1975. But don’t tell her majesty, the Forties field was already in operation by that time.

It wasn’t quite the first oil on stream from the UK side; the Argyll field had been producing since June that year, but given the scale of the Forties development, it was a major event.

The Forties field figures prominently in my new book Oil Strike North Sea which is out next week.

In terms of reserves it is the largest field in the UK North Sea and deserves attention for that alone; but not only that, I was to take a prominent role in its development and this allows me to give a first-hand account of what it takes to operate a North Sea field.

Between 1981 and 1986, I was responsible from the geology side in planning a large number of wells in the oil field. I worked both onshore and offshore. After planning the wells in British Petroleum’s (BP) office in Dyce, working closely with the drilling engineers, I would then go offshore to monitor the reservoir section. Amongst other responsibilities, I would tell the drillers when to stop once we were below the oil pay.

The Forties field wasn’t the first commercial oil field discovered on the UK side, that honour goes to Amoco’s Montrose field which was discovered in 1969. When Amoco discovered oil in the first well, the offshore personnel were astonished. They were looking for gas and had no idea that there was oil in the North Sea. Other companies had come across oil shows in wells before, but had kept this highly secret.

There were no sample jars for oil on the rig, so the first sample of commercial oil in the North Sea was brought onshore in a pickle jar that had been grabbed from the rig’s galley.

Amoco had hired the Sea Quest drilling rig from BP to drill the well and handed it back afterwards. The BP geologists were rather surprised to find that a copy of a log showing that oil had been found had arrived with the rig. It had been accidently left on board.

BP had identified the Forties prospect on their seismic data, a massive dome covering 90 square kilometres. It looked enormous and the unintended gift from Amoco gave them comfort that there could be an oil field there.

Yet the BP management had been most reluctant to drill the prospect and for good reasons too; the oil price had been low since 1950 as a result of the large-scale production from the Middle East and North Africa, and a large offshore field requiring very expensive infrastructure could not be assured to make a profit. On top of that, the engineering capability of providing the infrastructure was an unknown, the oil companies had never ventured into such deep and stormy waters.

One of the reasons BP drilled the discovery well was out of desperation. BP had been thrown out of several countries after the oil had been nationalised and the future of the company was somewhat uncertain at the time. It was only with the Yom Kippur war in 1973, when the oil price quadrupled on the back of OPEC sanctions, was it likely that the North Sea would be a profitable concern.

The Forties field is still producing after forty years, with over 2.7 billion barrels of oil recovered. The current operator Apache is still actively chasing the remaining oil in the field by drilling new wells. The Forties field, like many other fields in the North Sea had not been expected to have produced for as long as they have. It’s a testament to the amazing skills developed in the North Sea that our fields have recovered so much oil.

The book launch for Oil Strike North Sea is at Waterstones in Union Street on Wednesday 9th September at 7pm, all are welcome.

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Aug 282015

A new book Oil Strike North Sea will be published on the 7th September. It is an overview and history of the search for oil and gas in the North Sea, something author Mike Shepherd has been actively involved with since 1980 and several of his own experiences are described in the book. Mike shares with Voice readers how the book came about, and his belief that Aberdeen Was Short-Changed Over North Sea Oil.

Oil Strike cover I had cooperated with Diane Morgan on her recent book, Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens. Diane asked me to contribute one of the chapters in the book detailing the economic background to the abortive city garden project.

Working so closely with a professional author such as Diane had inspired me to write my own book and the North Sea oil industry was an obvious topic, particularly as not many non-technical books have been written on it.

Diane very graciously provided an introduction to my book and seems to have enjoyed reading it going by her comments.

I want to concentrate here on one small aspect and this is part of the chapter dealing with Aberdeen.

Although I’m Aberdonian born and have lived in the city for most of my life, the details of my research for this section astonished me when I realised its significance – it became clear that the Aberdeen area has been massively short-changed by both national governments over the last 40 years.

Let’s summarise the case: The tax take from North Sea oil and gas is now more than £300 billion. The amount provided by both the UK and Scottish national governments to support onshore North Sea oil infrastructure in the Aberdeen area – almost nothing. So who paid for the onshore infrastructure then? We did.

The funding was largely provided out of our local rates and council taxes. I’ll quote from the book, Running the Granite City Local Government in Aberdeen 1975-1996 (Davidson, K and Fairley, J  2000, Scottish Cultural Press), because I am not sure anyone would believe the figures if I merely cited them:

“The withdrawal of government support for industry meant that the public sector effort was primarily that of local authorities. Local authority estimates suggested that between 1975 and the early 1990s council expenditure on oil-related developments was well over £100 million per year throughout the Grampian Region.”

Check that, over £100 million per year. It’s ironic that several other regions in the UK have directly benefitted from North Sea oil revenues but not Aberdeen. The Shetland Isles, having gained revenue from the Sullom Voe oil terminal, have accrued an oil fund of over £400 million in two separate trusts; the Orkneys likewise have an oil fund of about £200 million.

Elsewhere, as a consequence of the agreement on licence boundaries in 1966, Northern Ireland gets 2.5 per cent of oil and gas royalties and until 1991, the Isle of Man received 0.1 per cent. Yet, an initiative by Grampian Regional Council to apply rates to offshore oil platforms was stopped by the UK government.

How did this situation happen?

Aberdeen M ShepherdHere is the explanation given in my book. When the North Sea started up in the 1970s, the Labour Party in government were keen to try and get as much of the industry as possible relocated to the Glasgow area.

There was an under-employed workforce in Glasgow that could easily adapt to the engineering skills required for North Sea oil, whereas the Northeast of Scotland was deemed likely to be overwhelmed both environmentally and socially by the oil industry.

They didn’t want the oil industry here. Despite for instance, the establishment of the new British National Oil Company headquarters in Glasgow, the oil companies in any case decided to move to Aberdeen.

Maggie Thatcher’s Conservative Party took over government in 1979.

It wasn’t their policy to give regional funding to support private enterprise even if the case was well-deserved; the Aberdeen area was considered remote and politically irrelevant for their purposes. A large proportion of the oil revenues was used to support a reduction in the top rate of income tax which in turn fuelled house price rises in England.

When the Scottish government turned up in the 90s, nothing much changed.

The political central of gravity in Scotland is the Central Belt and Aberdeen is almost as remote to Holyrood as it is to Westminster. Witness the case of the funding for the Aberdeen bypass by the Scottish government. In an extraordinary decision, both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Council are each expected to fund 9.5 per cent of the costs, something neither council can afford given their debts.

Where does this leave Aberdeen? What happens once the oil industry leaves the area? Despite all the guff about city centre regeneration, Aberdeen’s big problem is its transport links with the rest of the country and its industrial base outside of North Sea oil activities. Aberdeen is just as remote now as it was before the oil industry came.

The UK’s motorway network stops at Perth and the roads north of Aberdeen are a joke; they have not received the investment they deserve. Even the railway between Aberdeen and Dundee is single track for a short section south of Montrose and this leads to a major rail bottleneck. There has been a lot of jaw-jaw about improving this section but it has never happened.

North Sea oil will leave a legacy to Aberdeen. While it has lasted, much of Aberdeen’s native industry has gone. One paper mill remains, the Crombie cloth mills have shut and Aberdeen’s two shipbuilding yards are no more. Aberdeen also used to hold one of the UK’s largest fishing fleets. Over the years Aberdeen has become largely a one-horse town and that horse is the energy industry.

A fairly obvious move would have been for the Scottish government to have promoted the area for renewables, but this hasn’t happened to any major extent. I see this as a major shortcoming, as there is an obvious crossover between the engineering skills of the oil and gas industry and renewables.

What is Aberdeen’s future? It should primarily be as a center for renewables but this would require a change in policy from the Scottish government in order to preferentially commit resources here. Some in our local business community see tourism as a growth area for the city even though a unique selling point for the city, it’s distinctive architecture and building stone, is being increasingly blighted by soul-less modern developments.

What is clear and has been clear for almost a decade is that there is a concerted need for a discussion on the future of Aberdeen. This should focus on funding, regional transport links and to promote a future Aberdeen as a centre for Scotland’s renewable energy industry.

The book launch for ‘Oil Strike North Sea’ is at Waterstones book shop in Union Street, 7pm on Wednesday 9th September.

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May 222015

DMorganUTGDavid Innes reviews Diane Morgan’s Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens – War and Peace in the Denburn Valley.

One of Aberdeen’s finest vistas is the 270 degree panorama of the northern city centre visible from the comfort of His Majesty’s Theatre’s glass extension, not uncontroversial itself as an architectural development.

Robert Gordon’s College, Cowdray Hall and its War Memorial, the Triple Kirks’ sadly-neglected but worthy brick spire, the beautifully-restored Belmont Street buildings, the impressive traffic-swallowing jaws of Union Bridge and Union Terrace’s imposing geometric granite facades can all be taken in with little more than a single swivel of the head.

In any weather, the view warms the heart of those with a love of sympathetic, integrated urban development. It defines Aberdeen.

At its centre is Union Terrace Gardens, the floor of the Denburn Valley, its greenness contrasting yet complementing the stark beauty of native granite.

Who would think that such an unimposing but beauteous defile would have caused controversy for centuries during its development, and very recent real conflict as its future divided opinion and caused lasting damage to political and even personal relationships in Aberdeen?

Diane Morgan is meticulous in her narration of the controversies that have surrounded the Valley’s development since its days as a bleaching green on the banks of the burn between Mutton Brae and Corbie Heugh.

As in her previous essential heritage volumes, she brings history to life, as if James Matthews and James Forbes, early pioneers of the Gardens’ development, are flitting in and out of the pages along with the original occupants of Union Terrace as that grand avenue’s status grew from  tenemented cul de sac to become a highly-desirable residential and commercial location.

Conflicts are not new, we discover. Arguments over railway routes, disputed hotel names, kirk developments, bridges, Denburn Viaduct and even the trend for placement of inappropriate city artefacts in the Gardens, has seen the Denburn Valley a continual focus for debate and even rancour in the city. The current Dandara development on the Triple Kirks site means that controversy continues.

Of course, it is the recent divisive controversies that most will remember, and the author hands over to Mike Shepherd, the tireless former chairman of the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens, to examine in detail, and subsequently fillet, the business case for the City Square/City Garden Project, all the while displaying the emotional attachment that Aberdonians have for their Trainie Park.

Side-swiping at the mania for ‘connectivity’, Ms Morgan points out that Union Bridge and Denburn Viaduct have already solved issues with “the physical barrier of the Denburn Valley” which marks “the place where the new city took over from the medieval town”.

This is a superb perspective of the troubled history of Aberdeen’s centre, as impressive as the view from HMT.

Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens War and Peace in the Denburn Valley by Diane Morgan
Black & White Publishing
ISBN 978-1-84502-494-9

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