An arm of the Moray Firth, the Cromarty Firth is home to bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey seals and migrating minke whales.
And, for the last 50 years, it has been where oil rigs come to rest.
The arrival of the rigs has been a point of contention for the local community, with many residents impacted by the noise, light and general disruption their presence has brought, but they are also undeniably a key part of this area’s history.
The economy for people of Cromarty, as well as the other communities that surround Cromarty Firth, have relied on the sea for most of its history.
Spending extended time offshore is a familiar way of life for the town; a heritage that continues to be in the blood of the local residents.
Salmon and herring fishing was once Cromarty’s major industry, but the discovery of the North Sea’s Forties Field oilfield transformed the region in a way not dissimilar to the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th Century. Love them or loathe them, the Cromarty Firth oil rigs are towering steel echoes of the hunt for liquid gold.
As an artist who is fascinated by the juxtaposition of industrial architecture and the natural environment, I find a tremendous amount of beauty in those brutal, hulking visages.
The question is, are these metal giants coming into land to die, or are they set to march back out to sea once again?
The price of crude oil fell dramatically at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a result of declining demand as cars came off the road and planes stayed grounded.
This led to a sharp rise in the number of oil rigs brought into Cromarty Firth, peaking at 17 in April 2020.
However, the soaring price of crude oil is giving these iconic symbols of Scotland’s industrial past an opportunity to be reborn.
Demand for fossil fuels is high once again and, much to the dismay of environmental campaigners, the UK government is pushing for the development of six new drilling sites in the North Sea.
Shell pulled out of the proposed Cambo oil field development west of Shetland in December, but climate experts have warned that the plans for new North Sea oil and gas licences are ‘incompatible with UK climate goals’.
Extinction Rebellion held protests at Port of Cromarty Firth’s Invergordon base last autumn, blockading the main entrance to the rig maintenance facility.
The group were calling for an end to North Sea fossil fuel extraction and for oil and gas workers to be transitioned into new jobs centred around decommissioning and renewable energy.
In the early 1970s, Cromarty Firth saw a massive influx of workers from the UK, Europe and USA looking to capitalise on the economic opportunities presented by the newly discovered Forties Field in the North Sea.
The area was chosen as the perfect location for the construction of the oil rigs that would make the long journey to Forties Field. Those same oil rigs are now a symbol of an industry in decline, but Cromarty Firth could once again become the site of an energy revolution.
The Invergordon port is set for expansion ahead of an offshore renewables boom, and Cromarty Firth could be about to become a major centre for the offshore wind sector.
Studies are currently being carried out for a 12-acre development which would be used for manufacturing, production, marshalling and assembly for fixed and floating wind farm projects.
The North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD) also points to a regeneration of the region as a hub of renewable technology manufacturing.
Agreed in March 2021, the NSTD put forward ambitious plans for how the UK’s offshore oil and gas sector and government would work together to deliver the skills, innovation and infrastructure required to meet the country’s CO2 reduction targets.
It’s clear that, in the long term, the rigs that transformed the area into the industrial heart of the East Highlands will not be a part of its next evolution.
So what does the future hold for the vast oil rigs of Cromarty Firth?
The confluence of natural and industrial inspires much of my work.
I draw on the ideology of the Scottish colourists — Samuel John Peploe, F.C.B. Cadell, G.L. Hunter and J.D. Fergusson — and the Fauvism that helped shape their art.
I find that the vivid expression of naturalistic colour perfectly emphasises the dynamic contrasts in landscape texture, scale and tone. This style doesn’t just capture a single moment in time, but a living history; a memory burn rather than a photograph.
But the combination of nature and industry goes beyond the aesthetic.
While it was once thought the removal and dismantling of oil rigs was what was best for marine life, some ecologists are calling for them to be left in place to support the ecosystems that have sprung up around the underwater structures.
Experts from the University of Edinburgh concluded that the platforms’ ecosystems are ‘evolving to mimic those in the wild’, and are used as stepping stones between natural reefs for rare cold-water coral species. The process of moving the rigs can also damage the seabed, as well as risk disturbing toxic drilling waste that would be devastating to the environment.
As the energy sector moves towards a carbon-zero future, these metal titans that dominate the Cromarty Firth landscape and once powered the region’s economy can stride out once again with a new purpose — helping to rebuild the ecosystems that industry has played such a big part in damaging.