2007 - 2022

Province of the Cat #14: Easter In Atomic City

High Ormlie, Thurso

High Ormlie, Thurso

(On CB radios, in the 1970’s, Thurso was referred to as “Atomic City”)

The snow falls over Thurso as I walk the early morning streets of this decommissioned town. Vast filigrees of vaporous clouds sail behind Dunnet Head and East through the Pentland Firth like spectral ships. It is the day before Easter. A significant time for a community searching for an economic resurrection from the gospel story of a of nuclear redemption which has the Dounreay dome as its very own Golgotha.

As I walk along Rotterdam Street the snow has turned to hailstones. The shops are now almost all open. The fierce tiny balls of hail in their short lived anarchic frenzy rattle along the carefully laid paving-stones of the pedestrian precinct. Early morning shoppers or people going to their work pass each other in half-recognised urgency and for all that the electrical shop has a window full of flat screen tv’s and the occasional passer by is talking into a mobile phone this could easily be the early nineteen sixties when the most sophisticated thing Lipton’s could sell you was an avocado pear. On the corner of Rotterdam Street beside the traffic lights Dounreay Site Restoration Limited – or “Dounreay dot com” as they are known – has an office. Like almost everything attached to the nuclear industry the interior of the office is very smart and corporate looking. As I press my nose briefly against the large double glazed window the lights shine brightly and I can see desks, plants, leather seats, computers, phones but no sign of human life. There is a poster on the notice board informing anyone who reads it about the Dounreay Social Fund and how you or your community group can apply for funds for a project. What it doesn’t tell you is that Babcock’s have closed the fund down last October just as the company has withdrawn from anything which is concerned with “social and economic benefit”. For the lead contractor in the decommissioning of Dounreay everything is about price. It is not their business, they would say, to “replace” the two thousand “lost” jobs at Dounreay.

I walk on a little further and as I look up at my old theatre company office which sat like an insurrectionary cell on the top third story of the building. I see four individual posters which occupy most of a window on the ground floor looking out on Traill Street. One by one they read “Down”, “Devoured”, “Dismantled”, “Demolished”. These then must be four of the dimensions of “Decommissioning”. I think of Walter Benjamin, the German Marxist philosopher, pursued from Paris by Nazis at the beginning of World War Two and dead by his own hand in an obscure hotel room in a Catalonian mountain town. I think of Calum Ruadh in Alastair Macleod’s novel, alone and weeping on a Nova Scotia pier in 1779. One a reality the other a fiction but both instruments “for exploring the past”, each a kind of ending and beginning, an exit and an entrance, like the never ending circle of Celtic mythology – two patterns forever crossing over. Beside the posters of the “four D’s” there is a smaller one from an amateur group advertising a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. How fitting that a nuclear congregation which has lost its religion is waiting for the employment miracle which will never come. If a new Jesus of energy walked the streets of 21st century Thurso passing on parables of wind, wave and tide he would be crucified on Druimhollistan, as the old Mackay cattle thieves used to be, quicker than Babcock’s can whisper plutonium.

I think the beginning of the unraveling of whatever tapestry I had woven of Atomic City happened in 1977. Other than it being the year I turned twenty one three significant events took place. The first was the Queens Jubilee which to me was ridiculous; the second was the release of “Never Mind The Bollocks” by the Sex Pistols which I thought was revolutionary, and the third was the explosion down the waste disposal shaft at Dounreay which was the end of any slight faith I had in the nuclear “project”. Pageantry, punk rock and bad chemistry; privilege, nihilism and lies; royalty, rebellion and pollution – these then the unholy trinities of 1977.

The first instinct of the U.K.A.E.A. was to deny that anything had happened to the waste shaft at all despite the fact that a solid steel lid had been blown twenty feet into the air and the sound could be heard several miles away. Then they admitted that a “minor incident” had occurred. After that they began to describe it in the media releases as “a controlled explosion”. Over the following years the full story about the real extent of the nuclear release has emerged, not in any fleshed out narrative but in the usual dribs and drabs, bits and pieces which are orphaned truth-children of a secret state. Denial is not a fall back position which offers much in the way of progress. Denial about the 1977 waste shaft explosion has shape-changed into denial about decommissioning but instead of the U.K.A.E.A. surrounding itself with a velvet wall misinformation it is the people of Atomic City themselves who put up the soft fences against reality. So corralled they are difficult to reach.

To reach them was exactly why I wrote the play “Atomic City” which Grey Coast Theatre Company, in association with Eden Court, toured around Scotland in 1999. A new millennium was approaching and I wanted to tell the truth as I saw it about the place I came from. The theatre and opera director Johnathan Miller has said that “a play must be a witness of where it comes from”. That was my wish for “Atomic City”, the play. As has been the proven norm with my theatre work the majority of the people loved “Atomic City”, seeing in it a portrait of a time and a place and with characters which they could recognise and sympathise with. On the other hand the Central Belt critics hated the play, one even ended his review with this magisterial conclusion “and the ultimate weakness of this play is its improbability”. Critics are free to dismiss my work, this I accept. Dismissing history is another thing.

In the ancient drama of classical Greece tragedy was portrayed as a loss of life. In modern drama tragedy is loss of purpose. This is what has befallen Thurso in the second decade of the 21st century. A loss of history – including a dismissal of it because of ignorance – leads inevitably to a loss of purpose. Theatre at least brings people together to look at their society. The pity is that there is not a constant forum for this discussion to take place in Atomic City. Thurso has to evolve out of rumour and denial into harbouring the prospect of responsible citizens taking control over their own lives, of being able to make choices, take decisions and plan.

The art critic Murdo MacDonald has invented the term “metroparochialism” to describe the exclusivity and limits of the concerns of the urban centres, whether these be in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness, at the expense of the interests and experiences of the periphery. It has been my experience that the arts managers in the central belt and in the “capital of the Highlands” always considered it ludicrous that Thurso, or Caithness more generally, could (or should) support a theatre company dedicated to new writing about the North of Scotland. The Grey Coast Theatre Company took its lead from the history of Thurso itself: we were dedicatedly local but passionately international: we had a specific locus but we had a global focus. Where Thurso sits on the map of Europe informs you that if there was to be a theatre company in the old Viking town then it would have to adopt such a world view if it were to survive. The cultural trade routes of the Grey Coast Company were to Norway, Iceland, Ireland and Canada and wherever the Scandinavian and Highland diaspora were to be found. We succeeded for the best part of nineteen years eventually were closed down by a few, powerful arts managers and ambivalent politicians who never believed in it and were hostile to the concept from the start. That the theatre company raised and spent over £1 million in that period never seemed to be important to them.

But this saga of an Easter walk is not about a theatre company, even if it is part of the reality. The ability and facility to take control of your own destiny is a daunting prospect for a countries entire population of millions and even more so for a town of a few thousands. In 2013 the Highland Council, with funding and direction for the Scottish government conducted a series of “charrettes”, or design led planning workshops in Thurso. Over a period of a week the public, from school children to pensioners were invited to come to a series of “brainstorming” sessions at which they could raise issues or contribute ideas for the betterment of Thurso, some of which probably would be incorporated into the councils “local plan”. It has to be noted that the Highland Council’s record as far as Thurso’s “local plan” is concerned – and local planning in general – is not good. None the less scores of people participated in the “charrette” process and many sensible things were said and many good ideas mooted. Except for several retired “Atomicers” who all said they “felt threatened” by the process, the general mood after the consultation week was over was one of positivity.

Unlike a play a Highland Council/Scottish government consultation exercise does not necessarily translate dialogue into action, or nouns into verbs. Also what is one actually to make of the Dounreay retirees who said they felt threatened? I suppose being asked to think for yourself – and act locally – after a lifetime of cultural, social, professional and political paternalism is probably a behaviour pattern and a state of consciousness for which they are not programmed. But can Thurso afford to say “Well, they are old and soon they will die.”? If we think that then we really do have a town with no soul and I am fully aware that there are a considerable amount of people who already believe Thurso is beyond redemption. I am not one of them. Even if it makes me weep.

The snow continues to fall, but gently, as the wind has dropped and the unexpected stillness seems to fatten out the snowflakes into tiny drifts of cotton. Neil Gunn Drive, named after the greatest writer Caithness produced in the 20th century, runs in a useless u-bend around Petrie’s paint shed and a car auto-parts warehouse. Such do our civic leaders so value the blessings of literature that they have named a road in an industrial estate after the author of “The Silver Darlings”. Behind me lies the whippet training ground of High Ormlie where Atomic City most decidedly stops and where the “learned helplessness”, as discussed recently in Bella and so beloved of American sociologists, takes everybody for a walk.

I have lived on the edge of High Ormlie, on the cusp of this “learned helplessness”, for fifteen years and in that time the estate has risen, fallen, risen again and is now falling back into the unloved sump it became almost at once when it was built in the early 1980’s. The unemployed and unemployable, single mothers, drug addicts, socially inept and sometimes dangerous, the lost, the lonely, the elderly, the disabled, immigrants, emigrants and migrants, people with mental health issues, the homeless and the gormless – all manner of refugees were packed into the loveless streets, some with houses so close together the buildings look as if they have been concertinaed, some are supposed to look like traditional Caithness croft houses but were so rushed up and covered in grey harling they look like brick hen houses and all looking in the way, across at each other, on top of each other, surrounded by a fence, with one road in and one road out: this is the ghetto of The Province of the Cat. In High Ormlie people learn helplessness between giros. Or so the popular myth goes.

Because property has no intrinsic value because the land is value’s real measure the houses in High Ormlie are packed together, as I’ve said, but even in the terms of the estate agent many of the “properties” on the estate are literally valueless and only a very few residents own their own home. So if ever a group of people were absolutely not responsible in any shape or form for the financial crash of 2008 it is the people of High Ormlie. The money system collapse was predicated upon a banking sector which was driven by debt and who measured wealth in the weight of their mortgage folios in an over inflated property market where house prices were sheer fantasy and only matched by the delusional method of paying for them. Yet it is the people of High Ormlie, many of whom are turning on their morning lights to begin their day, who are the ones being made to pay, not the bankers. The so called “bedroom tax” will take away a significant part of their weekly income. Their rents, whether housing association or Highland Council, only go up. The price of food, fuel, electricity, clothing and of sending their children to school increases monthly. So, in effect, High Ormlie drifts further away from the “normality” of the nuclear narrative like some island from Celtic mythology which only rises out of the sea every seven years, or like the Moon which leaves the gravitational influence of the Earth at a quarter of an inch a year.

The snow seems to be falling more heavily as I look up Henderson Street and the road is a more consolidated shade of white. Prior to 2008 the Highland Council hatched a plan to sell off their entire housing stock to an independent housing association on the unevidenced premise that this new housing association would be able, somehow, to raise more money to invest in the existing housing stock and to build more new houses. Because of government restrictions on borrowing the council, it claimed, could do neither. The Highland Council did spend, however, a lot of money and used a lot of resources and staff hours trying to convince their tenants during the propaganda campaign in the run up to the referendum on the issue that they should “vote for change”. Throughout Caithness and the rest of the Highlands, but specifically in High Ormlie, the people instinctively knew that a “vote for change” was a vote for a leap into the dark with all the security of tenure a council lease offers becoming so much fuel, potentially, for the housing association shredder. The people knew, although not one of the council employees who handed them glossy leaflets on their doorsteps would tell them, that housing associations can be bought up, sold off or go bankrupt as happened in Glasgow when the biggest housing stock transfer in Scotland resulted in the new association going to the financial wall.

When the majority of the tenants resoundingly voted to stay with the Highland Council several councilors and the Liberal Democrat MSP told the press that they were “disappointed with the choice” and that “the tenants had voted the wrong way”. Suddenly in High Ormlie we were transported back to East Germany in 1953 when the poet is not George Gunn but Bertolt Brecht who wrote of the suppressed uprising of the people against the communist government

“After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

When it comes to the poor and the disadvantaged our elected representatives often find it too easy to discover their totalitarian tendencies. The reason that Atomic City, the nuclear burgh, ends in High Ormlie is that it is in High Ormlie where the poor have been placed: out of sight from the main thoroughfares of Thurso, safe on their hill where no tourist or enterprise wonk may embarrassingly run into them. With their one shop, their one take-away, their one bus and their one road in and out they are at perfect liberty to live out their stressful lives striving and always failing to meet the exacting demands of the consumer credo and the aspirational social standards of those who live elsewhere and for whom such things are considered normal. In High Ormlie poverty is normal. As you walk through the estate you can cut the stress with a knife. What is dissolving is the “learned helplessness” the state offers the majority of the residents of High Ormlie. When there is nothing left for most of the people they may well move off their hill and enter into Atomic City to explore what has been denied to them and to participate in their share and when that happens all the middle class plays and novels about the “limits of empathy” will have been staged and read for naught. A new theatre will be needed then and a new literature because Atomic City will have a new history.

© George Gunn 2013

Comments (3)

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  1. With you there George, eloquent prose embracing some jagged truths.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    It tears at me that article. Thurso is a great place but the folk have been let down by politicians, Dounreay, town planners, and landowners. I mind High Ormlie getting built in 70s and there was NO reason those houses needed to be squashed together like that. My family moved into one of them in 76. It was pokey, really badly designed, with an unusably small garden. After 15 years in the Springpark scheme – which had a real community vibe to it – this was like a slap in the face, Its no as if there was a shortage of space. But as ye say George High Ormlie is tucked on the outskirts of the town, land is expensive, and its use for quality social housing isn’t high on agenda.


    (The photo above is street where my dad lives. As ye say, not much in way of community buildings just a wee Mace shop and takeaway).

  3. ThanksForTheMemories says:

    I have great memories from my time in Thurso during the early 1970s
    (Ormlie Lodge Inmate).
    Nice folk and a sense of community which even included the Wickers
    (but not always!).
    As with all of our coastal communities,reliance is on the sea or the government for a living (which it shouldn’t be).
    I hope that the communities along the Pentland Firth will benefit from the Scottish Government initiative to develop marine energy.
    It is very important that following independence,local communities have the ability to control their finances but a deal of work needs to be done to bring that about,not least in terms of a new fishing rights contract with the EU and a review of land ownership and utilisation.

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