2007 - 2021

Brexit in Atomic City: From The Province of The Cat

There are places that exist and there are places that are imagined. Then there is Atomic City, which is both.

Recently I have been collaborating with a Canadian artist, Michelle Cohen, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. When she was travelling to Thurso from Inverness on the train she confessed to me that she felt like she was “going to the ends of the earth”. Later I took her up to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland, so that she could see Hoy and Orkney to the north, the snow-covered slopes of Morven and The Scarabens to the South and the distant shapes of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope, lurking way out west over the Great Bog of The Winds. I suggested to Michelle that far from being the end of anything, especially “the earth”, Caithness is, in fact, where Scotland begins.

The truth is that most people in Scotland, even within the Highlands, know little about Caithness and even less about Atomic City, as the cattle town of Thurso became known to the CB radio fraternity of truckers and the like throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. Thurso’s relationship with history has always been a fraught affair, straddling as it does on the border between the Gael and the Gall. The town’s relationship with the rest of Caithness has been likewise pensive, yet since the 1950’s Thurso has been both an important and separate player in the counties history and economy. The arrival in the 1950’s of a massive nuclear research and development plant at Dounreay, just nine miles west of the town, saw to that: it changed everything.

The first manifestation of this difference was the huge construction project. The concentration of labour and machines had been unseen since the outbreak of World War Two when Caithness became a huge fortified construction site and military zone. Dounreay has ensured this is what we who live here have come to regard as normality. The second stage of the Dounreayfication of reality was the major infusion of specialised personnel who came to live in Thurso to work at the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) and then the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR). They were housed in the Atomic scheme built for them on the fields of Pennyland and Castlegreen on the western fringe of the town. This scheme became known as “the Atomics” and the workers and their families who lived there became known as “The Atomicers”. They changed both the culture of Thurso, turning it into Atomic City, and the economy of Caithness, ensuring that it became what it had never been in the past: a society dominated by a single employer and divided by class.

Over the sixty years from first build to decommissioning, the nuclear experience has created a false economy in the Far North which has benefited Atomic City, because it has created it and sustained it, but at the same time, as the 21st century unfurls like a ragged flag, it has left the town and its people locked into a dependency on Dounreay and its talismanic two thousand jobs, leaving them isolated locally within Caithness and nationally within Scotland. What Thurso/Atomic City has become is the Kaliningrad of the North Highlands: an exclave of another time when the Cold War made the world a binary reality, even if it made “the ends of the earth” a nuclear Armageddon possibility. Now there is no “enemy”, only imagined bogey men like Islam, Russia, China or North Korea, or those natives like me who dare to suggest that our future can have a different possibility.

History has broken over Caithness like waves on a beach. Our history is long and one of the problems of living and working in Atomic City is that officially time began in in 1955 with the arrival of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). That Caithness has more ancient archaeology (99% of it undiscovered) than any other place other than the Nile Valley counts for nothing. As we were educated at Thurso High School our history was omitted from the curriculum of a foreign reality it was deemed necessary to instruct us in. What does a nuclear process worker need to know about William Wallace or Patrick Sellar for anyway?

Yet still the waves of history wash over us. From 1746 and the subsequent clearance of the native population to make way for sheep and sporting estates; the human cleansing which was the experience of Caithness in the First World War, the slaughter of the trenches and the resultant massive emigration; the terrible depression of the 1930’s and then the economic upturn which was the coming of World War Two. Then came the Cold War and Dounreay and there the wave of history is frozen.

The people of Atomic City, now three generations into the nuclear experiment, have forgotten why the entire jing-bang was cited on the North Coast in the first place because no-one here, whether they work at Dounreay or not, can afford a historical memory. The isolation from centres of population in case things went wrong (or bang), the principal reason why the reactors are where they are – this fact has been replaced long ago by the “fact” that “we were lucky it came here” because if it didn’t “what would we all do?” Now that the reactors have reached the end of their lives and the entire site has to be decommissioned has only reinforced this sense of perpetual “now”, which is both the perennial local time zone of Thurso and the oxygen breathed by all in Atomic City.

“The people of Atomic City, now three generations into the nuclear experiment, have forgotten why the entire jing-bang was cited on the North Coast in the first place because no-one here, whether they work at Dounreay or not, can afford a historical memory. The isolation from centres of population in case things went wrong (or bang), the principal reason why the reactors are where they are – this fact has been replaced long ago by the “fact” that “we were lucky it came here” because if it didn’t “what would we all do?”

The “fact” that anyone who works on the Dounreay site has to sign the Official Secrets Act makes for a tangential atmosphere as far as dialogue between Atomic City residents is concerned. No-one can say what they know or what they think. In a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a brilliant piper, but also a radiation monitor, he let slip, that in his opinion, the decommissioning of Dounreay “will take a hundred years”. I have heard many variations on this theme, such as “Uch, they’ll build another reactor soon enough”, or “They know what they’re doing”. Recently in the local press there was a mild debate about the fact that the Ministry of Defence, who own the Rolls Royce run HMS Vulcan, which is next to Dounreay, has “not consulted the public” on their decision as to when to close and decommission the two nuclear reactors there. The idea that the MOD consults anyone about anything is mildly amusing, especially here in Atomic City where the population have lived quite comfortably with the fiction that Dounreay is a “civil nuclear facility”. As far as Atomic City is concerned the Government have consistently asked the people nothing and nothing is what they tell them. Once HMS Vulcan begins to be dismantled the gates between the two sites will be opened and it will be one big military concern and at last will become, physically at least, an honest manifestation of what it has always been: a war machine.

The year 2018 has been classified by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) as the beginning of the “Interim End State”. In Atomic City rumour fills the space usually occupied by truth. Where the “Interim End State” will end is anyone’s guess. If no-one (any civilian) is allowed to know the truth then the only alternative is speculation, or fiction. Any fiction created around Atomic City is always highly political and the direction of that human narrative is always marked by suffering. In this fiction we tend to use our blood as ink.

In the year 2014 it was rumoured that the workforce at Dounreay were “instructed” to vote “No” in the Scottish independence referendum. I have no evidence for this except that it was too rife a rumour to come from nothing. In Atomic City there is always a kernel of something in the nothing the Official Secrets Act forces on public discourse. In 2016 in the EU referendum Atomic City was very much a Leave enclave whereas the rest of the county was for Remain. The pubs in the town are constantly littered with copies of the Daily Mail and Express. The wagons of reaction are circled here, they gaze in at each other to compare their houses, cars, electronic chattels and holidays in the sun. Everybody’s happy. Except that they hate the French and the Germans. The main street in old Thurso is called Rotterdam Street. Another wave of history.

“The “fact” that anyone who works on the Dounreay site has to sign the Official Secrets Act makes for a tangential atmosphere as far as dialogue between Atomic City residents is concerned. No-one can say what they know or what they think.”

A mile outside the town is Scrabster where around 1,000 fishing vessels use the port annually with landings valued at over £20 million. As far as “The Atomicers” are concerned Scrabster might as well be on the Moon, so little does it impact on their lives. The inevitable Tory sell out of Scotland’s fishing industry as part of the price of Brexit only adds to the social and political languor in this Caithness Kaliningrad, where nothing can change and everything from the “daughter of plutonium” particle recently found on Sandside Beach to dodgy nuclear material that the Americans filched from the former soviet republic of Georgia in the 1990’s and is now flown to the US via Wick airport: all this is seen as perfectly normal.

It is as if Atomic City has assumed that all of this normality is politically inevitable while at the same time settling for some kind of garbled material and pecuniary eternity supplied by the wages of the “Interim End State”, so poetically supplied by the NDA and highlighted in monotone by the incoherent messaging about Brexit as supplied by Westminster and the media.

In his essay on Vladimir Putin, published recently in The Guardian, Timothy Snyder brilliantly captures this dream state. He is turning his attention, mainly, to Russia, but he could be so easily describing Brexit in Atomic City.

“The collapse of the politics of inevitability (where nothing can change and there are no alternatives) ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.” Timothy Snyder (The Guardian 16.3.18).

In the early 1990’s the Highlands and Islands were awarded Objective One status by the EU so that funds could be released to improve the infrastructure of the area. This helped provide the new roads and bridges which are currently being exploited by the North Coast 500 “initiative” and improved the harbours and piers for the new ferries which transport goods and passengers to and from our many islands, and many other projects besides. The late Charles Kennedy, then MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, stood up at a conference in Inverness and crowed that the day Objective One status was awarded was a great day for the Highlands. Rather soberly it was pointed out to him that his Liberal Party had been in power, in one form or another, in the Highlands since 1886 and now that we were considered one of the poorest places in Europe… well, this might not be a cause for celebration? Looking back now, they seem like halcyon days. What Brexit means for Atomic City and the Far North of Scotland in general is that there is no other scheme to turn to and the dream of the decommissioning of Dounreay lasting for a hundred years may be as good a dream as any.

As Timothy Snyder points out, the politics of inevitability – for Atomic City being tied to a single economic stream – develops in the population a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known but that they must be kept a secret (like atomic secrets), that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really can be done. How many times has Theresa May said there is “no alternative to Brexit”? The historical circumstances which produced the Cold War and the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and Dounreay, require that once these circumstances change and MAD is no longer the geo-political dog dance it once was, the ruling regime must produce problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. This is what Snyder calls the “politics of eternity”. Quite who the enemy will be once the current “bad guys” of the EU and Russia no longer fit the bill is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that some enemy or threat will be manufactured because the resultant fear can be manipulated.

The population of the Caithness and the North of Scotland is ageing. The young are leaving. As we gravitate to the centre of the “circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past” we will meekly accept that depopulation will be the result. Renewable energy, transport, tourism, health, education and housing will all suffer as the effects of Brexit kick in after 2019. In Atomic City we have already long surrendered our culture and history as the price for two thousand jobs. The “politics of inevitability”, that these events have made us prosperous, resists alternative narratives as vigorously as it resists alternative facts. This way our future is drowned in our present, our perennial “now”. The “now” which is flushed to excitement by sporadic incidents fuelled by the tabloids lieing about in the pubs and the TV’s on the walls which excite the apathetic to hate some group or country which, for reasons that are not explained, is vitally important for our “security”.

Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU has been dismissed by the Conservative establishment as so much irrelevance on the march to Tory “progress”. Scotland’s claim of right to be an independent country is equally dismissed as a product of the past and therefore equally irrelevant because the past has no place in either the “inevitable” or “eternity” when the business of government is the managing of one moment to the next. So, we have no past and no future and the reality of “now” is selective.

But without independence, which is neither a panacea or a magic formula but an essential means to an end of the Scottish people’s design, Scotland has the zombie politics as described by Timothy Snyder and experienced by the majority living north of the Tweed and the Solway. More locally Dounreay has been and continues to be a zombie project and Atomic City has become a community of the silent and the passive. Thurso was never meant to be like this.

Without independence Atomic City, my home, my beloved Thurso, will drift purposeless and addicted to a state sponsored pointlessness called the nuclear industry and the politics of inevitability and eternity will prevail. Thurso needs to free itself of Atomic City and become itself once more – not a small, obscure Kaliningrad at the ends of the earth.


George Gunn’s novel “The Great Edge” is available from Grace Notes Publications .

Painting illustration is by Michelle Cohen.

Comments (9)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    A well-written piece which evoked feelings of the US cavalry posts in ‘Injun Country’ and, with a bit of reflection, there is a pretty strong analogy. I had a second cousin who worked at Dounereay – he was from South Uist, another place (far from civilisation) where terrible weapons are deployed.

    {A pedantically sincere query regarding the archaeology – how does the author know that “99% is undiscovered”?}

  2. w.b.robertson says:

    Sounds, to me, very much like “Cry my beloved country”. I am not pro nuclear and I love Caithness, having spent time there 25 years on the trot. However, could GG imagine and suggest what Thurso would be like today …without Dounreay and the Atomics having existed?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      If you are being sincere, then a comparison with “Cry, the Beloved Country” is high praise, indeed, and, I think it is a reasonable comparison that could be made, were this extended to novel length, which I reckon Mr Gunn is capable of doing.

      The question about what Thurso would have been like had Dounereay not been built is, with all respect, a pointless one, because it WAS built. We cannot call it back to cancel half a line.

      The question now is what is to be done with what remains of the site and of the people in the estates which housed the plant’s employees and, who, Mr Gunn is suggesting, never really became part of Thurso, of Caithness, of Scotland or, indeed, Europe.

  3. Pogliaghi says:

    A nicely written piece, but starts from some tired assumptions. The Kaliningrad of the Highlands sounds rather awesome. Then again, the Kaliningrad exclave is a military base not a nuclear energy and research facility. Aren’t there actually quite a few “Kaliningrads” all over Scotland? Lossiemouth, Leuchars, Faslane, to name three.

    A breeder reactor the SFR at Dounreay had the potential to breed plutonium for weapons and in that respect, yes, it deserves a Cold War relic designation. But it can also fission that plutonium. So it can be a tool of proliferation *and* of anti proliferation. The SFR did generate a useful amount of electricity, 250MW or about 1/3rd of one of the AGRs at full pelt, or with dependability what Whitelees wind farm puts out on the best days of the year. And rather than being subject to necessary obsolescence, the whole point of breeder reactors was to have an effectively infinite fuel supply, because they yield 2 orders of magnitude more energy from natural uranium than conventional reactors. So dependency on such an industry only becomes a problem when they are deliberately killed. In this case, a low carbon energy industry was (and elsewhere in Scotland, still is) being killed for political reasons.

    Thurso would have been a natural place for RD&D of small modular reactors, which the UK government is betting on for low carbon base load. But now that investment’s happening in England. Scotland’s abandonment of civilian nuclear is a a tale of rather petty and short-sighting divorce and one which nationalists should, were they rational, interpret as cautionary for having done Scottish democracy no particular credit.

    1. Ah – the pro-indy case for new nuclear. I think you Pogliaghi and Jim Sillars are the only people Ive ever heard making this case, how quaint.

    2. bringiton says:

      The reactors are not the issue with electricity generation.
      It’s what happens to the waste when it is removed from the reactor vessels that is a major problem.
      If it were not an issue then it wouldn’t take billions of pounds to make the site “safe” for future generations.
      Nuclear always was about weapons production with the civil program seen as a PR spin off.
      Nuclear is a very expensive way to generate electricity now compared to renewables and no government in it’s right mind would waste tax payers money on such an enterprise.
      Of course,if generating electricity is not your main objective then other things come into play.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald. says:


        This is a nice summary of what the reality was and is. I can remember in school in the 1960s watching films about ‘Atoms for Peace’ and similar propaganda.

        I have a degree in physics. I have never supported the generation of electricity from nuclear sources, because it is not an economic way of doing it. There are demonstrably cheaper ways. One argument was about security of supply: so that the Uk was not at the mercy of the producers of fossil fuels for energy production. Those fossil fuel producers included the National Union of Mineworkers, which the Thatcher government ‘put to the sword’ and humanitarian places like Saudi Arabia, which HMG is currently brown-nosing. The decision about nuclear was a political and military one. Had the funding invested in nuclear development been invested in hydro, tidal, estuarine, wind, solar, ground source, etc, then these technologies would be much more advanced than they are now, and, would, by virtue of geography, geology and climate be very large Scottish industries, which could well have funded economic development not just around Thurso, but the whole are north of Perth.

  4. Richard Easson says:

    That was nice and cheery, certainly cleared up my slightly depressed mood. Cheers George.

  5. Glen Falloch says:

    Thank you, George. As a New Yorker who’s lived near Faslane/Coulport since 1984, I remember the editor of the local Helensburgh Advertiser writing many years ago something like ‘What would Helensburgh be without HMS Neptune? A town with nothing but farming, fishing and tourism’ (totally disregarding Helensburgh’s long-lived reputation as a douce town full of Glasgow merchants at the end of the Glasgow railway line and on the ferry circuit), to which my NY-ish reply would be ‘What’s not to like?’ So many places – Dunoon, Macrihanish, Lossie, and Dounreay, never mind Keflavik – have had to deal with the contraction of military and nuclear facilities, after they’d lived in the ‘eternal present’ of military/nuclear largesse. The collective amnesia is frightening, but understandable. Helensburgh is different, in that it already had established transport/communication networks, whereas places like Thurso/Dounreay did not in the same way. But unless we can all release ourselves from this addictive ‘eternal present’, and look to a radically different future, then you’re right – we are condemned to something both meaningless and full of menace.

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