Category Archives: Orkney

Narratives of Power

I recently gave a paper at the UHI Centre For Nordic Studies St Magnus Conference, held this year in Kirkwall. It was nice to get a chance to present to a home audience and not to have to worry about travelling and being away from home. It was also really nice to part of a panel with two of my supervisors, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and Dr Michael Lange. I met Mike when he was in Orkney, living in Stromness and doing fieldwork for his PhD, subsequently published as a book The Norwegian Scots: An Anthropological Interpretation of Viking-Scottish Identity in the Orkney Islands, which has been so helpful in my own thinking about questions of identity in Orkney. This was the first time Mike had been back in Orkney since his fieldwork days, over ten years ago, and there have been a lot of changes, in Stromness in particular, during that time.

The title of my conference paper was ’Ebbing away?: Locating Narratives of Power in the Marine Environment’ and I told my audience a somewhat abridged version of the story of Marine Renewable Energy (MRE) in Orkney over that period since Mike was last here. I told them about the local grid connection issues, the fact that we generated 104% of our electricity needs last year (mainly from wind turbines) and that the inter-connecter to the Scottish Mainland is overheating and no-one wants to pay for a new one.

I told the sad story about the demise of both Pelamis and Aquamarine Power, wave developers who had previously been testing their devices at the European Marine Energy Centre’ s (EMEC) wave test site at Billiacroo – both falling victim to cashflow issues and lack of investment.IMG_2619


The test site at Billiacroo was empty when I drove Mike there to show him the substation built discreetly into the coastline, and the distant marker bouys marking out the area of sea once inhabited by sea snake and oyster (the local names given to the wave devices).


I also told the story of the Crown Estate leasing sites for wave and tidal development in 2010, the headline stories about a potential for 1.2 GW of electricity production by 2020 and the impact of those claims on an emerging technology. As more than one person in the MRE sector has said to me “it was like asking the Wright Brothers to build Concorde”.

The fact that only one of those sites is currently undergoing development and 5 were relinquished back to the Crown Estate in 2015 has led to what I have identified as ‘the narrative of disappointment’ in the story of MRE in Orkney. The narrative of disappointment characterises the lack of development as a failure of the technology, which explains the lack of investor confidence. It also highlights the ambiguous role of the Crown Estate in the development of MRE. The Crown Estate holds crown lands, and in this case the seabed needed for MRE developments, its remit being to maximise income from its assets – this income going to the UK treasury. The narrative of disappointment continues to inform ongoing debates about solutions to Orkney’s grid constraints and the possibility of a second inter-connector to mainland Scotland.

Dr Laura Watts has been doing ethnographic research on the MRE sector for many years and recently presented a paper addressing the grid situation in Orkney in response to the recently published report by UK National Infrastructure Commission entitled ‘Smart Power’. Through her fictional character – the Electric Nemesis – Watts expresses her frustration at the report:

TheElectric Nemesis SmartPower report reeks with hubris. It is filled with acts abandoning my electric kin here in Orkney. The government report describes a Future Power System with three components: interconnection, demand flexibility, and storage. It says, “these three infrastructure innovations have the potential to create a leaner, more efficient electricity system at the cutting edge of global technology”. And yet it never mentions that all three have already been created in Orkney. The ‘cutting edge of global electricity technology’ is alive and well at the island edge. (Laura Watts, 2016, The Electric Nemesis, p.4 )

Electric Nemesis image © Neil Ford (

Watts goes on to highlight the other factor in the political story, the contrasting narratives on renewable energy from Westminster and Holyrood, and how this has shaped the place of MRE within the wider policy discourse:

The Scottish government once called the seas around Orkney ‘the Saudi Arabia of marine power’–estimating that between half and all of Scotland’s electricity could be made from marine green Orkney energy. The UK government in London is still struggling to remember. Wave and tide energy are merely listed in the report’s glossary under ‘renewable energy’. The imagined Future Power System does not pay much attention to an entire new renewable energy industry that could generate the green, low carbon electricity it needs. (Ibid, p.9)

Watts sees the Orkney response to this lack of attention as an assertion of power:

The islands do not give their power away to a higher authority, like the government. Nor do they give in to despair and risk destruction. They take ownership of a world that kicks back at them with limits, prejudices, forgotten materials, and abandoned innovations. They make their own solutions in defiance of their abandonment. (Ibid 16)

One of the solutions  is the Orkney Surf ‘n’ Turf project, a scheme which received £1.5 million in funding from the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge Fund and sees a partnership between Community Energy Scotland, EMEC and the Eday community wind turbine. The plan is to use electricity generated by the Community turbine and EMEC’s tidal test site at Fall of Warness off Eday, to produce hydrogen which will then be shipped to Kirkwall and used to power the Orkney North Isles ferries when they are tied up at the Pier overnight.

There is a lot at stake, Orkney is currently leading the way on MRE development globally, but the grid constraints threaten the work of EMEC, as developers looking to test larger devices and arrays look elsewhere.

The story of MRE in Orkney is only one of the narrative strands in the developing saga of modern Orkney, and my research is focusing on the particular narratives that are woven together in the story of Orkney’s marine environment.

As I think about the role of these narratives in relationships of power I am constantly aware of the global narratives about climate change which will shape the story of all our futures. As CO2 levels have now reached 400ppm for the first time in history and we are all, as I heard someone put it the other day, taking part in the first global experiment in breathing, we need to be aware of the way narratives of power have the potential to  lead us into hubris.


You can read the full Electric Nemesis paper on Laura Watts’  website