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From the North Sea to Shetland

An oil story

Stories hang on the rough blocks of the pier next to the tyres tied there to save the paintwork of the bobbing boats.

The streets are narrative; carpark and pebbledash, yellow lines and the gun sights of Fort Charlotte. Histories march to the water’s edge with the neat windows and thick plaster of St Olaf Street, King Harald, and King Erik. Stories hang on the rough blocks of the pier next to the tyres tied there to save the paintwork of the bobbing boats. They scatter with the scraps the gulls steal, dinosaur eyed, from straggling tourists. They wriggle with the silver fish in the needle beaks of terns, whisked skyward in a spring-loaded kidnap. Eight minutes of chug and fume separate Mainland from Bressay; a narrow slip of sea slices Bressay from Noss. Stories inhabit the thick layers of moss over the sunken ruins of huts and houses. They cluster in sheep droppings on hoof wide paths. They dangle from the branches of the king of Norway’s Christmas trees. Each sweep of a fishing net is a protagonist, each sack of wool an actor. There is a story here, too, where oil stands centre stage.

It begins with light responsive bubbles filled with chlorophyll, and the spines, antenna, and chitinous exoskeletons of a zooplankton swarm. The debris shifts, then sifts down through soupy waters cut through with beams of sunlight. It settles thickly on the seabed. Sediments drift in on the currents, stage right, rich plumes that sink in turn to form a solidifying blanket, choking off the oxygen. Deep down, pressure builds. The intense heat cooks the organic compounds. They simmer, first waxy, then viscous, slipping through the porous rock. The liquid oil migrates upwards through fissure and honeycomb. When it encounters the cap of impervious stone above it, its way back to the ocean is barred. So it collects, in knuckles and pockets. With nowhere to go, it sits, blind and silent.

The oil waits while nets and lines gorge themselves first on shoals of cod, and then turn their appetites to the herring. It waits as the islands shrug off their clusters of crofters in favour of sheep and a wasteland of windswept stems. Blight turns leaf and tuber to mush, but still the oil waits, undisturbed. Aeroplanes buzz overhead, engine whine muffled by the waves, war rages and thunders. Finally as the first tentative drills puncture the sea floor, the oil wakes and stirs.

Like broken glass in motion, the surface of the North Sea splinters. The endless crack running through it spins and spirals, ripping back against itself then outwards. Cormorant A wades thigh deep in the waves, its yellow skin tattooed with black block capitals and rust. The wind whips a cloak of spray high into the air about its shoulders. Scaffolds, cabling, ducts, and pipelines festoon it, overhanging its stout rusting limbs. Walkways and ladders girdle its waist. A crane cantilevers out over the heaving surface. A squat tower points up to roiling cloud. From a taller scaffold, A-framed in girders, a banner of flame flies streamers of thick, oily smoke.

Cables hold the platform fast against tide and storm. The drill’s aim is sure as its three lamprey mouths chew down, rotating, through water, sand, and stone. This pocket of precious oil is one of hundreds seaming the seabed north to south, marking equidistance between fjord and loch. They straddle an imaginary line dividing one territory from another, transforming a periphery into a centre point, a speck of ocean into a stopping point. When the oil first pushed its way up through steel and concrete casing, millennial pressure released. It fed the fleets that see-sawed their way to and from the coastal refineries of Scotland, England, and Norway. Now, instead, the crude from Thistle, Murchison, Dunline, Tern, and Eider funnels through metre-thick pipes that converge on Cormorant A before coursing on, south and west, to Shetland.

Past Unst and Fetlar; south round the Isle of Yell; Burravoe; the Loch of Galtagarth; the islets of Samphrey and Bigga; Uynarey and Brother Isle. The tattered rocks of Delting Parish gather portside, pointing the way into Yell Sound. The snake of Sullom Voe divides Delting from Northmavine then plunges inland, coiling the oil terminal into more than 400 ha of its sheltered eastern flank. This mangrove tangle of pipes and valves drew thousands to it as it rose from the earth; architects, engineers, labourers. Its right angled elbows lead to long, straight lines. Its grass banks climb to silvered domes. Service roads loop vascularly under cylindrical silos, arranged in piston rows. Only where the road skirts its southern edge, past the settlement of Brae and before breaching the narrow boulder of Mavis Grind, does the terminal give itself away; a flash of silver on the horizon. Even the pulse and flow of 100,000 barrels a day does little to disrupt and clutter, scar and uproot. This end of the voe is empty and the curving coastline colludes.

The endless chorus line of ships performs only for the occasional surfer and curious seals. For almost four decades the four piers of Sullom Voe have swollen their red hulls. Sated, they belly off into the waves, fat with sweet, light crude. Oil flows from the North Sea into the tanks of express trains and freight trains, passenger jets and fighter jets, automobiles and trucks. It turns the blades of helicopters and combine harvesters, lawn mowers and cement mixers, food processors and ceiling fans. It whirs out between propellers, dispersing in droplets over the fields, sticking to the swaying crops as pesticides, sinking into the soil as fertilisers. It works its way into the food chain. It tints, tones, and cleanses our skin, masks our natural odours. Solidified and brightened as plastic and wax, it wraps our food, stores our shampoo, cradles fruit on the way home from the market. In the great graves at the cities’ edges, it collects. Crows pick it clean as it slowly crumbles. Particulate, it washes back through the soil and out to sea, to accumulate in the crops of seabirds and the gullets of sperm whales.

As the oil flows out from Sullom Voe, money washes back in. Sticky and black, it etches asphalt ribbons over the countryside. It bisects peat fields, delineates wide, glacier scooped valleys, amputates the toes of rock from the feet of the escarpments. It encircles mirror-flat lakes and the giant stone hammerheads, flung in tectonic tantrums. It buys the imported cars that hiss by, thrilling the empty horizons with their speed. It bubbles up, Nordic-style with triple insulated picture windows, leaning acute angled and clean lined over more modest neighbours. It stands swimming pools and sports complexes guard at the entrance to villages that are little more than straggling, strung out lines of houses. It places museums by harbour sides, fills old mills with boutiques and the smell of coffee, presses a post office into service as an art gallery. Its allure is hard to resist; fingers click in time to the promise of electrical engineer, project manager, rigging chargehand, and just a couple of years or so. Suitcases wheel out of wardrobes, and roll onto the concourses of ferries setting sail from Aberdeen. The prices of houses around Lerwick soar ever higher.

In the thick of the hum and rhythm of the crescendo, the protagonist hesitates, falters mid-step. A closer looks reveals that the pressure under the seabed has all but dissipated, many pockets have already run dry, peak oil is decades past. From the wings a clashing symphony intrudes. Out on the waves, to the screams of circular saws and the gulp of pipes uncoupling, the story of decommissioning is in full swing.

From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland
From the North Sea to Shetland

Further reading