by Christopher Harvie

Renaturing Scotland

November 26, 2018 | by Christopher Harvie



The Lorelei express helpfully links Cologne and Tuebingen, but the Rhine didn’t look too good. In place of the swift rush of its waters – conveying and challenging barges, pleasure boats of all sizes, ferries – there were dried-out shores of pale stone: several metres lower than normal. Over the years, as summer heat increases, and the Alpine glaciers inexorably melt, Germany’s reliance on the great river, its R1, becomes more challenging. The country, for all its size and economic clout, has a limited coastline. The Wattenmeer – famous for Erskine Childers’ 1904 spy-thriller The Riddle of the Sands – stretches along the north-west coast and is mudbank for much of every day, navigation restricted to the channels of the Ems, Jade and Elbe. It can get ship-jammed. The Baltic, made up of near-to-fresh water, freezes up in winter.

Water is something Scotland has in abundance; we are one of the few parts of the world where fresh-water is actually increasing, as well as rich in sheltered lochs and anchorages, almost deserted by warships. Yet our marine-construction has become restricted to expensive and over-engineered carriers and frigates, toys for redundant admirals … and those pricey yachts of the very wealthy on display at the marinas, if rarely under sail. The combination of the UK’s nuclear strategy and deindustrialisation after the 1960s has converted a central – and remarkably variegated – ‘workshop of the world’ into an assortment of social problems.


Leave aside the sad, mainly male surface – tippling on commercial alcohol: Glen Kremlin rather than single malt, low-level professional football, fast food for slow people, or nylon-derived elasticated ‘sportswear’ to choke our landfill. This is a nation needing an industrial fix as well as a morale boost, a new way of thinking in alignment with the reformation and enlightenment and not – since the 1950s – finding it in economy, culture or politics.

Compared with the remarkable political advance of the 1990s, what’s happening in our car-dominated urban culture reflects the low-powered social morality marked by the ‘It wisnae me!’ principle. This puts our finest buildings in a permanent firing line: ‘There’s an auld hoose. Burn it doon!’ seems to be a catch-phrase as technical education fades away, while our remarkable heritage of stone buildings – that romance of spires, battlements and turrets the Victorians left us – can only survive through masonry and carpentry skills that have almost completely vanished. As for literature: the Saltire Society is putting the cringe-making Irvine Welsh’s latest dodge-with-stodge on a prize shortlist. Scotlit…? One Spark in a magazine sounds like a combination that kills.


But follow up the water trail, triggered in 1967 by the oil crisis, when Scots woke up to being near-surrounded by sea. The renaissance tale of ‘treasure by foreign trade’ isn’t over. And global warming has maybe helped, by suggesting the North-East passage could be our way out: cutting 4000 nautical miles off the sea route from Tokyo through Suez to the West. Though not yet on a Chinese scale, Russian railway-building is increasing north of the Trans-Siberian line. Canny Norwegians and Finns are thinking in terms of rail links from the Barents Sea to the Baltic.

And in Germany, Europe’s engineering shop, one less-than-successful rail prototype – the Maglev high-speed shuttle – may provide the necessary technological revolution for outport developments in a New North Sea. Only one of the shuttles has actually been built – between Shanghai and its airport, sixteen years ago. Unsurprising, this failure, because its concrete permanent way is huge and heavy, without the easy switching provided by conventional railway points: a major reason why monorails – however much they’re loved by planners – rarely get built.

But Maglev has been literally stood on its end by its inventors, as a ropeless shuttle which can be programmed to move along tracks and up and down buildings which no longer have to be built round a heavy-duty lift shaft. This is the package behind the 700-foot test-tower recently activated by ThyssenKrupp just outside the Swabian town of Rottweil, north of Lake Constance. The concept has not just been linked with building design but with new schemes for computer-directed freight links in tunnel under central Switzerland. Besides its effect on urban building and transport, it has implications for the health of the water-systems that surround Scotland.

Suppose a type of responsive marine domain could be devised, capable of being farmed, adjusted rather than exploited, accessed by submerged tube tunnels: a means of lessening the pressure on existing coasts, and extending ‘rescue technology’ to endangered societies across the world? In short, summarising the last quarter-century, the Scots managed through involvement in oil, literally a crude technology, crudely marketed – to master a significant change to the engineered structures of civic life, without realising what they had undertaken. The petrol age produced waste and destruction on behalf of the lone male motorist or lorry driver, or unthought-through horrors (once called ‘advances’) such as indestructible synthetic textiles and packaging. And in London-centric Britain maintained and drip-fed a flawed, self-destructive UK politics whose mobile steersmen (and men they overwhelmingly were) could enter and leave at will.

But certain conservationist trends, notably the feminised environment of ‘housekeeping’, broadly conceived, steered towards more optimistic – what Patrick Geddes would call ‘geotechnic’ – outcomes. In the North Sea the history of these went back to the sixteenth-century draining of the polders of the Low Countries through dyke-building by a strong, skilled labour-force fed on Scots oats and herring, and water-pumping by windmills: not a pseudo-paradise but somewhere like the Scottish Staple at Veere, on the tip of Zeeland, founded in 1571, which wasn’t just a trade centre but literally rose out of the desolation of salt-water swamps. This brought in its wake advances in botany, medicine, surveying, shipbuilding and rural economics in both regions, as well as the further adaptations to technology and society which were germinating in the infant social sciences in the age of ‘treasure by trade’ opened out by such as Daniel Defoe and John Law.

We could now be on the threshhold of creating a series of new adaptable and resilient marine communities using the experience of North Sea oil combined with new construction and power-generating techniques. But who are we? For the aftermath of the oil years, and the bank years that followed them, left few fruits for those who wanted the creation of an industrial state that could legitimise and recruit the power the sun concentrated in this region – estimated at an annual level of 23,000 billion tonnes of coal equivalent: there to be harvested by wind and water turbines

Compared with the noise nuclear power had generated in the 1960s (‘its costs will be too low to bother billing billing you’) its actual record – for example the throughput of the Dounreay experimental establishment, was huge and negative, but only a small percentage (about 1%) of the total losses of the civil nuclear power programme, estimated at £ 230 billion.

Hybrids derived from oil production platforms and the complex technologies which respond to natural disasters, could become, in the short-term future, plug-in cities. Structures capable of concentrating the services required to revive war-damaged communities in – for a start – the Middle East, where delay breeds violence, not least through the tribal incoherence of ‘social media’. A type of international effort is needed which can counterbalance the forces which breed militarism and fascism by showing the adaptability and competence of the civic alternative.

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