Deep Time and an Uncertain Futureon the Orkney Islands

Considering Energy Solutions in Remote Communities

The following is from Energy at the End of the World, by Laura Watts, and is best understood in the context of that work. Copyright © 2018. Reproduced with the permission of The MIT Press.

*

I. Three Energy Futures 

The sun has burned its way down the side of the Hoy hills, and the distant horizon is aglow with red and orange embers. The prehistoric stone circle is all dark shadows leaning down the heather slope. I touch the silica and lichen edge of the nearest standing stone, its stratigraphy thin, like a layered stone skin. My hand gleams like metal under the molten light. Walking slowly, I follow the muddy path inside the ring of stones, leading around and down toward the mirror of a freshwater loch. There are 27 stones still standing in the fragmented circle, out of what may have been 60 when it was assembled around four or five thousand years ago. 

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle is considered by many prehistoric archaeologists to be one of the earliest of its kind, a model for subsequent stone circles built elsewhere, potentially the blueprint for Stonehenge. The monument forms part of the UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site and is an essential experience for every visitor, even when that visit is just a few hours on a coach, to and from a cruise liner. It is a striking place that generates cliché. It is hard to take a bad photograph at the monument. And hard to take an interesting one, not already repeated a hundred times before. 

But the stone circle is also part of contemporary life in the islands. The Ring of Brodgar lies on a sliver of land, an isthmus, between two shining lochs in the heart of mainland Orkney. It is visible from the main road between the two towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, and is seen by everyone who drives through the area. From the road, the stone circle appears as distant dark teeth set in a heather jaw, with mirrored cheeks of water on either side. The monument is both a familiar and extraordinary part of the enduring Orkney landscape. 

The standing stones are not the only enduring technology in the landscape. Around the monument are enduring infrastructures, such as roads, electricity cables, telephone poles, and wind turbines. Stone, silicon, and metal technologies coexist in a working landscape. The monument’s future is entangled with the Energy Islands’ renewable energy future, with its turbines, grid cables, and increasing Orkney electrons. 

Walking around the curve of stones, I have returned to the top of the slope. I look out over the field, past the Bronze Age round barrows (grass-covered burial mounds), beyond the brackish loch, and toward the Hoy hills. The two hills appear like pulses in the sky, whose line continues to meet the low, analogue hills above Stromness, upon which a red sun rests. This is the view that another Energy Islands’ saga is focused on, one that happened around the beginning of my fieldwork, a decade ago, but has left its scars. This saga shows how hard it is to make energy futures cohere, and despite local struggles, there are good things to learn about how to go on together, into a long future. 

From the road, the stone circle appears as distant dark teeth set in a heather jaw, with mirrored cheeks of water on either side.

The saga begins when the local islands council gave planning permission for three wind turbines to be installed on a hill just north of Stromness, on a rise of moorland called Merranblo, a project proposed by two local business people. The hill is just there, visible from the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, where the sun is setting as I write. Due to the visibility of the wind turbines from this important monument, there were objections raised. A public inquiry was held to decide whether the planning permission should be upheld or rescinded. Local tensions ran high. National tensions ran high. The situation became so serious that UNESCO became involved and, in particular, the organization who advises them on World Heritage Sites, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Representatives from this council, along with many other national organizations, came to Orkney to give evidence at the public inquiry. 

What follows are fragments from three energy futures that cannot coexist. These fragments come from statements made at the public inquiry, held one dark winter month in 2008 in a Stromness function room—the one with the faded red velvet chairs and sparkling chandelier overhead. Here are three energy futures: from the local applicants for the wind turbines, from a local organization established to give voice to concerns, and from the ICOMOS representative. Listen for their different energy future worlds. 

The Merranblo site was primarily chosen because it was the most suitable site for a three turbine wind farm within an economically viable distance of the nearest grid connection point . . . whilst not being visible from the town of Stromness or too close to cultural heritage assets. . . . The proposed turbines are now 900 kW . . . [with] a reduction in height of 33 m from the original application. . . . With this project being undertaken by two local applicants, 100 percent of the revenue generated will remain in the local economy. . . . In terms of community benefit, it is proposed that we shall donate £15,000 . . . from the profits of the wind turbines each year for the life of the project (20 years) to a local community Trust. . . . I feel very strongly about this proposal as a force for good in Orkney. It is the first time that a renewable energy generator has been seen, transparently, to be advancing a project for the common good as well as for his own benefit.
—From the precognition submitted by the Applicants 

It was also stated in the original press report that “. . . the intention is that one of the three turbines would be entirely community owned.” Closer inspection of the less than one-page section in the Environmental Statement entitled “Community Benefits” reveals that “the developers intend that local shareholders benefit from up to 30 percent of the development.” The terms “shareholders” and “solely owned by the community” clash somewhat in most people’s understanding of community ownership. . . . The Artistic and Literary aspects of our cultural heritage and how they integrate with and refer to the local landscape are usually ignored completely by developers in Environmental Statements. A major omission, in that these features are the very reference points that many individuals would reach for first when researching any particular Orkney landscape. Creative interpretations held in local homes, museums and libraries are part of our overall heritage as Orcadians and are not immediately quantifiable in the visual outlook of any local landscape.
—From the precognition submitted by Orkney Skyline Concern 

Sites may be inscribed on the World Heritage List only if they are considered to have Outstanding Universal Value, [which] means that sites have . . . a value that is recognized by mankind as a whole. . . . The monuments of Orkney cannot merely be assessed as technical achievements to be protected only for their worked stones. They encapsulate far more and especially the ability of the visual attributes of the landscapes to have “profound effects on psyche and disposition.” . . . It has been argued that ultimately [the stone circles in Orkney] “derive their power to effect experience from the panoramic backdrop of the wider Orcadian landscape” . . . and to understand them fully they need to be appreciated in this landscape setting. . . . In conclusion, it is considered that the proposal would have an adverse impact on the World Heritage Site and that this could be a legitimate reason for refusal. . . . Approval of these proposed turbines could be a reason for . . . inscribing the Heart of Neolithic Orkney on the World Heritage List in Danger until remedial measures could be undertaken.
—From the precognition submitted by ICOMOS 

The decision made at the public inquiry is not the same as communal agreement within the islands, and the legal outcome is not the point. This saga is about how you move forward as a community when there is no single agreed future, when it is not all “happy families” but there are deep differences of care and concerns. Helen Verran, a philosopher who has been working across white settler and Australian Aborigine landowner worlds, might call it a question of “respectfully going on together.” Donna Haraway has suggested seeking the “modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together . . . [of] staying with the trouble” in her work on how to make multispecies futures together, when it is not just many humans, but also many non-humans who must be heard. The three proposed wind turbines on Merranblo hill were trouble, and I am staying with them. This saga is about “going on together” into the energy future, a story that recognizes how this is a partial, modest, sometimes fleeting achievement—but an achievement nonetheless. 

One thing is already clear from the statements quoted: not all Orkney electrons are inherently “good.” “Locally made” electricity does not mean “good” electricity. What counts as a “good” energy future is not a given, nor can it be assumed. This may surprise those who expect binaries such as “us small good locals” versus “them big bad outsiders.” How locally made electrons are accepted and become “good” Orkney kin, in ongoing relationships with existing infrastructures and ecologies, requires careful attention. 

This saga is about how you move forward as a community when there is no single agreed future.

The second thing I hear in the statements is that future-making is painful work. Futures are almost never agreed upon by all those involved. Questions require answers. Which species will suffer more and less? Which groups of people will be heard more and less? Whose future will dominate and whose will be forgotten? There are many futures in theory, but in practice some people have to decide to put up a wind turbine or not. This is the saga of how you make energy futures, in practice, in a world full of multiple futures and mixed archaeological pasts. 

 

II. Haunted by Time

Local writer and shopkeeper Duncan McLean explained island time to me. We were chatting in the crisp, modern décor of his wine shop in Kirkwall, and I asked him how he thinks about the future. 

“Out of my window in Stenness [near the Ring of Brodgar stone circle] there is a Bronze Age village, unexcavated in a field. . . . Across the road is the Mill of Eyrland, and the farm of Eyrland, which used to be called The Bu, so it has Viking roots. . . . Then on the shores to the right is an Iron Age Broch. . . . And behind was a [Neolithic] standing stone, until the farmer knocked it down. . . . So, it informs the decisions you make. . . . It’s like being part of a long set of beads that stretches thousands of years into the past. And you’re just a dot, part of it.…And it influences how you think about the future.” 

People in Orkney have been making technology for 6,000 years, from arrowheads and stone circles to whisky and kirks (churches). The playwright’s experience is not exceptional; you can see all these Ages no matter where you look—Stone, Bronze, Iron, Viking, Silicon, or however you count your time. This is time that you can see and touch in monuments and artifacts scattered over the fields, on every island in the archipelago. You can experience six millennia as a continuum of human technology and habitation, going all the way back to the Mesolithic (hunter-gatherer time, before the Neolithic “Stone Age”). As anthropologist Tim Ingold has explained, time is in the landscape. You make the world, and what you know, from your movement through and engagement with your landscape and its archaeology—and that temporal record can be thousands of years or just a minute old. In Orkney, the archaeology is common knowledge, and integral to the islands. As you move, you experience a world where you’re “just a dot” on a 6,000-year-old string (as the writer said). 

Prehistoric stone circles are monuments with living, contemporary politics, as anthropologist Barbara Bender has shown for Stonehenge; she describes the pitched battles with riot police that happened there during the 1980s. Archaeology uses fragments from the present to generate a version of the past, which then endures as heritage. The Ring of Brodgar is being preserved for the future through heritage planning and other legal protection—in action during the public inquiry—as well as through archaeology, through informal care by gentle-stepping visitors, and the onsite World Heritage Site Rangers. Through this care, the standing stones reach from the archaeological past into their preservation as an archaeological future. They fold past, present, and enduring future together into an experience. The Ring of Brodgar is both a past and a long future, embodied and standing upright in a circle. The writer’s string is not metaphorical but tangible. It exists as a string of stones stretching 5,000 years behind you, and can therefore be imagined 5,000 years ahead: 10,000 years of human experience, standing in a circle, in which you are just a few breaths and whose end is not coming soon. 

The historian Fernand Braudel spoke of time that endures and ticks over aeons. The longue durée is time marked by slow changes in social and technical experience, rather than sudden historical events. I am interested in how time is made as an experience through social and technical practice. Paul Edwards, for instance, counts the extended time of infrastructure: water networks and electricity grids remain and are maintained over generations. For Edwards, enduring infrastructures are a marker of modernity, and their collapse (in real disaster or imagined apocalypse) can signify its loss. The monuments in Orkney are not infrastructures, but to remain, their social, technical, and environmental relationships must be maintained, in practices from conservation to excavation, from storytelling to not knocking it down with a tractor, across millennia. In Orkney, you live, work, and dream in a deep time zone. 

The person who best articulates this deep island time is Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Although an international literary figure, Mackay Brown lived most of his life in Stromness. What I have said in long paragraphs he encapsulated in this: “The Orkney imagination is haunted by time.” Both past and future appear as apparition in Orkney, as ghosts of possibility that you can see and touch. If you drive with me, down to the commercial harbor on the edge of Kirkwall, I can show you a future ghost that haunts these islands. 

On the dockside are gleaming, blue-windowed offices reflecting the sea, where some of the tide energy device developers are located, with their specialist maintenance vessels moored alongside. Off the coast of Eday, at the tide energy test site, we encountered the great white eye of OpenHydro. That prototype was the latest in a line of prototypes, developed over the years. So what happened to the previous marine energy prototypes? 

Marine energy devices are hulking bits of metal, fiberglass, and plastic. Some are only a few meters wide, others over 100 meters long. Such vast structures do not just disappear into the recycling. There is an archaeology to marine energy; monumental ghosts of a future industry that you can touch in the Energy Islands, just as you can touch ghosts of the prehistoric past. 

Step out of the car (remember to hold on to the door), and follow me along the dockside road. See that gray portacabin, next to the rusting container boxes? Look up—if you live here, you soon learn that the sky and the horizon are always the places to watch. See the thin, green fin sticking up above the sea of containers? We’ll walk around, so you can see through the metal railings. (Zip up your coat in case you are standing for a while, mesmerized, as I often am.) 

Through the metal fence you can see it hanging above you, the great yellow whale of the Alstom 1 MW tide turbine. The generator is being left to time’s fell hand, its belly caught in an ignominious steel cradle. The bulbous metal body ends in a three-bladed green turbine. Each green blade, about three meters long, is smoothed with hydrofoil precision, its wing profile akin to some wave sculpture. The device’s underwater history is engraved in the rusting patina gathered around its rivets and segmented sections. A plaque on the portacabin says it was deployed at the EMEC test site in January 2013, after eight years of laboratory and test tank development. It was in the sea for only a year before it was retired, an unwanted old whale of a tide energy machine, washed up on the dock. In its shape, I can piece together the Bristol-based company, Tidal Generation Ltd., which was acquired by Rolls-Royce, who then sold it to the French corporation Alstom. Such are the multinational, multiheaded hydra-stories that keep marine energy alive. You stand looking at the archaeology of an energy industry that is only just beginning to exist. You are looking at the materiality of a coming time, the rusting remains of what is future elsewhere. 

Enduring infrastructures are a marker of modernity, and their collapse (in real disaster or imagined apocalypse) can signify its loss.

Visitors from the North Sea and Arctic Circle cruise ships that dock here go right past this archaeology. They might not imagine that such devices exist, that there is a marine energy industrial archaeology just a few miles from the prehistoric archaeology in the World Heritage Site they have come to see. 

In the Energy Islands, there is talk of creating a marine energy museum. Neil Kermode at EMEC has been trying to find an organization to take care of these monuments to innovation, before they are melted down and lost to the world forever. Gareth Davies at Aquatera has asked me to write a marine energy history book, to record their stories, already slipping away as people move on and documents are deleted. 

For the moment, though, this powerful old tide energy whale remains on the dockside, a future archaeology, and another bead on the Energy Islands’ long string of time. I stretch my fingertips through the wire fence, and feel the continuity from this technological monument back to the World Heritage monuments. 

I am haunted by the depth of time. It makes me feel part of a world that will endure, that has a long future. 

__________________________________

Laura Watts
Laura Watts
Laura Watts is a poet, writer, ethnographer of futures, and Interdisciplinary Senior Lecturer in Energy and Society in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh. As a science and technology studies scholar she has explored the effect of “edge” landscapes on how the future is imagined and made. She is coauthor of Ebban an' Flowan, the world's first poetic primer for marine renewable energy, and in 2017 she won the International Cultural Innovation Prize with the Reconstrained Design Group for a community-built energy storage device designed from scrap.





More Story
The Illicit, Bittersweet Pleasure of Empty Bookshelves I had to get rid of a lot of things when I downsized from a house in suburban Maryland to an apartment in Washington, DC. Rooms’...