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Environmental and ecological readings

Philippe Laplace

Part II. Nature, the Environment and the Posthuman: Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Scottish Petroliterature 1993-2013: Poetics of an Oil Spill

Camille Manfredi

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  • 1 [access. 6 March 2015 (...)
  • 2 Ben Russell and Paul Kelbie, ‘How black gold was hijacked: North sea oil and the betrayal of Scotla (...)

1As part of the Scottish Government’s series of themed years initiated by the 2009 Homecoming celebrations, 2013 was officially declared ‘Year of Natural Scotland’. Such strategic focuses included the ‘Year of Food and Drink’ in 2010, ‘Year of Active Scotland’ in 2011, ‘Year of Creative Scotland’ in 2012; the programme is centred on Scotland’s greatest assets and, according to the Scottish Government’s website, aims ‘to support and drive Scotland’s tourism and events industries to both domestic and international markets’.1 It seems upon enquiry that it was pure happenstance that the year when Scotland celebrated the country’s natural heritage also came to mark the 20th anniversary of the wreck of MV Braer and subsequent oil spill, the 30th anniversary of the release of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero and the 40th anniversary of John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. The latter anniversaries went somewhat undetected against the backdrop of the current debate on Scottish independence, despite the interest towards the potential impacts of independence on Scotland’s oil industry. While it is widely acknowledged that the oil revenues are vital to Scotland’s economic case for separation, the subject remains highly sensitive, all the more so in the Northern Islands. One will of course bear in mind the 1972 SNP ‘It’s our Oil’ campaign, reiterated in the wake of the 1979 referendum and the portrait of the Prime Minister as a grinning vampire sucking the blood of the earth out of Scotland. The recent media coverage of the Scottish oil issue shows that it is still highly totemic. In December 2005 for instance, The Independent journalists Ben Russell and Paul Kelbie published an article whose title, with it very perceptible “parcel-of-rogues” undertones, speaks for itself: ‘How black gold was hijacked: North sea oil and the betrayal of Scotland’2.

  • 3 Dr Graeme Macdonald, course syllabus 2013-2014, Warwick University, (...)
  • 4 Imre Szeman, ‘Petrofictions’, in Focus (Munich, March-April 2012), p. 3.

2But oil has come to occupy more than just media space. On a global scale, oil and our over reliance on it have permeated into nearly every artistic field, from literary fiction (including speculative fiction) to graphic novels and movies and to political criticism, nonfiction and academic studies. Let us mention, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winner The Road (2006), films and documentaries such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack’s A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (2006), Peter Mettler’s Petropolis (2009) and essays such as Antonia Juhasz’s Tyranny of Oil (2009), Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011) and Daniel Yergin’s history of the global oil industry The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (1990), also a Pulitzer prize winner. Within the rapidly expanding realm of environmental studies since the 1980s, oil has become a key motif in the expression of disenchantment and growing concern about the environmental impact of our hydrocarbon economies. American and British scholars have developed courses in petrofiction, fashioning an ecocritical frame to, I quote from Warwick University course syllabus, ‘view texts registering oil’s relations with ecological crisis, war, urbanisation, and campaigns for environmental justice’.3 ‘There is finally’, says Imre Szeman, ‘a move afoot to puzzle out the implications of our dependency, as much metaphysical as material on a slippery substance that connects technological futures with prehistorical pasts in ways that cannot but be difficult to conceptualize’.4 There are times, however, when such implications become glaringly obvious – two words that, under some circumstances, and particularly in times of environmental crises, may sound oddly inadequate.

  • 5 Neil Kay, ‘The Fish, The Ferry, and The Black Crude Reality’, in A Nation Again. Why Independence w (...)

3Many are the Scottish cultural and historical commentators who argue over Scotland’s highly lucrative oil and gas business and discuss the prospects that oil could hold for economic independence. See, for instance, Neil Kay’s essay ‘The Fish, The Ferry, and The Black Crude Reality’ in Paul Henderson Scott’s A Nation Again.5 The present contribution, however, offers to focus on the way the discourse on oil has shifted, during the past decades, from blessing fuelling nationalist sentiment to ‘betrayal’, and from ‘black gold’, to use the hallowed expression, to poison or pure evil. Although references will be made to ‘petroliterature’ (after Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s coinage in the early 1990s), the present approach shall also consider nonfictional acts of confrontation to the petroleum industry; that is, econarratives that were produced either in the early days of the oil boom, or in the aftermath of the 1993 Braer disaster. Econarratives, or ‘environmental texts’ as defined by Lawrence Buell in his 1995 essay The Environmental Imagination:

  • 6 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of Americ (...)

– The non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.6

  • 7 Christopher Harvie, ‘North Sea Oil and Scottish Culture’, in Studies in Scottish Fiction: 1945 to t (...)

4The discovery of oil in the North Sea in the early 1970s marked a turning point for Scotland and most spectacularly for the Shetland islands that were the first to feel the economic, social and environmental effects the oil boom. It was, however, not until the early 1990s that a number of popular science books were published that started to question the generalised concept of North Sea oil as an open-ended honey pot. The two texts that come to mind are Jonathan Wills’s A Place in the Sun. Shetland and Oil. Myths and Realities (1991) and Christopher Harvie’s Fool’s Gold: the Story of North Sea Oil (1994). Meanwhile there were surprisingly few cultural responses to a phenomenon so heavily invested in the shaping of Scotland’s socio-economic future. With the exception of McGrath’s play The Cheviot which as early as 1973 drew from a parallel between the Clearances and the North Sea oil to delve into the impact of capitalism on the Scottish Highlands, oil remained a ‘Shetland experience’ and, according to Christopher Harvie, ‘failed almost totally to surface in the imaginative literature of Anglo-Britain’.7

  • 8 Robert Alan Jamieson, Thin Wealth. A Novel from an Oil Decade (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1986), p. 68.

5The most accomplished work of petrofiction by a Shetlandic author was Robert Alan Jamieson’s Thin Wealth. A Novel from an Oil Decade (1986). The novel is inspired from its author’s work experience at the Sullom Voe terminal at the height of the boom years. It chronicles the development of the terminal and follows a small group of islanders as they are introduced to (Jamieson quotes from the Summer 1977 issue of The New Shetlander) ‘the excitement of advanced technology, the illusion of progress, the lure of affluence – all great eroders of community values, creators of apathy.’8 To some extent at least, the novel bears echoes of George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe (1972): it assesses the impact of the extractive industry on local populations; its characters are set amidst a series of conflicting dynamics such as gain and loss, action and reaction, change and permanence, while the author expresses strong concern for lost identity and the destruction of island life. Yet, and whereas in Greenvoe the destruction of the community was but a phase in the history of the islands, Thin Wealth presents us with a somewhat different, and darker, picture: Mackay Brown’s essential changelessness gives way to a new cacophony, to change that ‘cannot be resisted’, the familiar ‘cost of those days’ pleasure’, a ‘scar’ that shall remain long after the already predicted ‘end of oil’ (Thin Wealth, p. 9; p. 140; p. 147 and p. 129). Lowrie’s obsessive question ‘tinks du will it ever be da same again?’ (Thin Wealth, p. 102) is thus rephrased:

The oil boom, then intimidated, would mark the land and its people with its brand. His question was not so much ‘would things change?’ as ‘what would be left when the changes are done?’ (Thin Wealth, p. 40)

6By revealing the vulnerability of a community subject to corporate oil imperialism, Thin Wealth does not attempt to underrate the desecration of nature and unstoppable process of de-humanization thus set in motion. Incomers (‘Soothmoothers’) are likened to ‘invaders coming from across the ocean’, ‘busily buil[ding] new worlds for themselves’ (Thin Wealth, p. 71; p. 66). There is then, in the novel, an uncanny re-enactment of the Viking raids that marked the end of the Pictish era; there are hints, too, of a modern War of the Worlds when Jamieson introduces elements of fantasy and science-fiction into a narrative otherwise decidedly realistic. As the islanders revert to a form of intuitive animality (Lowrie experiences intense moments of empathy with a collie and a hoody crow), the technologization of nature is well under way: the novel blurs the line between man, beast and machine, and thus gives birth to a post-human bestiary that takes over Shetland and peoples the pristine landscape with industrial monsters every bit as horrifying as H.G. Wells’ Tripods. Whatever the benefits brought by the oil, the monsters are standing guard: the oil terminal becomes ‘a complete embryo alive and breathing’, a ‘vortex’ ‘sucking the energy’ out of the islanders, ‘a gigantic alien, constructed out of nothing natural by hands which never belonged to faces’ (Thin Wealth, p. 96; p. 100, p. 117, p. 11). Let us note that Jonathan Wills, in his essay A Place in the Sun published 5 years after Thin Wealth, was to nickname the terminal ‘the Beast’. The examples are as numerous as they are topical: ‘huge tankers lay alongside the jetties, filling their tanks with the dead crude from the North Sea wells, like huge insects sucking black nectar to feed the growing young’; in the distance a rig, ‘that giant wading bird, boring and sucking with its beak beneath the ocean, a modern day monster ducking and hiding, out of slingshot on the edge of the visible ocean’ (Thin Wealth, p. 30; p. 37).

7The ecodystopian streak is obvious, as are the subliminal references to the end of nature, postnatural chaos and environmental toxification. The figure of alien organisms determined to supplant animal (including human) life is particularly potent at the end of the novel, when Lowrie mistakes an oil slick for a whale, only brought back to his senses by his watchful, discerning dog – another recurrent figure in ecodystopian literature:

He threw the cigarette end from his hand and turned his eyes to the sea. Something dark on the water caught his sight. He screwed his face up and tried to focus. Was it the shape of a small whale underwater? Certainly it was a colour he had not seen for a long time, for there was no record of it in his memory. And Lowrie knew the colours of the bay in Glimmerwick as well as any native creature. It seemed to be moving inwards to the shore on the tide. Maybe it was a dead whale. He watched closely. Then something else caught his eye, something moving in the heart of the dark shape. What was it? […] Then quite suddenly the dog growled and let out a loud howling bark which made the old crofter’s bent back straighten. It was… OIL! A small dark patch lying thin on the water of Glimmerwick, moving towards the shore on the flowing tide. And in the middle of it was a bird of some kind, fluttering desperately as it tried to escape. Lowrie’s heart turned to thunder. ‘Filth!’ he shouted, ‘God damned filth!’ (Thin Wealth, pp. 203-04)

8The episode functions as an epilogue and is no doubt inspired from the Esso Bernicia oil spill that struck Shetland in 1978 – the year, too, although on a radically different scale, of the Amoco Cadiz disaster.

  • 9 The account of the wreck was updated in early 2013. Jonathan Wills then established that the tanker (...)

9Alan Jamieson’s dramatization of the ecological threat through the image of the polymorphic monster and the pathetic image of the oiled bird were to turn tragically proleptic when, in the early hours of the 5th of January 1993, Liberian-flagged tanker Braer ran aground near Quendale and spilled her cargo of 85,000 tonnes of crude oil off the western coast of Mainland Shetland. That same year, journalist and wildlife guide Jonathan Wills published Innocent Passage. The Wreck of the Tanker Braer.9 The ironically titled popular science book was evidently written against the backdrop of serious environmental crisis. Thoroughly documented, Innocent Passage is also permeated with a generalized sense of vulnerability, anger and alarm that makes it a valuable testimony to the great emotional disturbance that the population of Shetland then underwent.

10The monster metaphor remains central, however the allegorical behemoth of Jamieson’s Thin Wealth is now captured in its last moments: ‘in her death throes [the tanker] reminded me of a stricken monster spewing up her poisoned entrails’, writes fiddler Aly Bain in the foreword to Innocent Passage. The death of the monster is generally meant to be purifying; in this case, it was to be the exact opposite. Among the many photographs that appear in the book and those that were then published in the local newspapers, many show the tanker’s half-submerged hull, ‘battered to death’ (p. 102) by the waves and wind; dramatic, deliberately aesthetic, these photos fall into the technological sublime and highlight an odd mixture of repulsion for the ongoing disaster and fascination for the terrible, monstrous beauty of the wreck.

  • 10 Jonathan Wills, Innocent Passage. The Wreck of the Tanker Braer (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1993), p. 7 (...)

11In 1993 memories of the Exxon Valdez disaster were still fresh; it soon became known that the Braer had twice as much oil aboard as the amount officially spilled by the Exxon Valdez four years before. How then could this be happening again? Jonathan Wills’ attempts at comprehending the incomprehensible and overcoming the shock surface in a dual rhetoric: on the one hand Innocent Passage is a charge against the oil industry and reports a ‘crime’ (let us note the words ‘serial-killer’ on the dust jacket, the reference to ‘body bags’ and ‘holocaust’).10 On the other hand the book does not seek to evade the metaphysical, even literary dimension of the catastrophe. (It is indeed easy, when you live in Shetland, to feel you are at the mercy of the elements, especially when the islands are, as they were in January 1993, swept by severe hurricane-force winds and battered by 30- foot seas for six days and nights.) Hence the comparison between the wreck and the manifestation of dark forces that has Jonathan Wills liken the wreck to the awakening of Walter Scott’s Shetland-based hag:

Sir Walter included a witch called Norna in his cast of characters for The Pirate. Norna’s lair was high on Fitful Head, where she had lured ships to their doom for hundreds of years. At nine o’clock in the morning of 5 January, Norna was waiting to claim her biggest prize. Not just the death of another ship, but the death of almost every sea creature for miles around. (Innocent Passage, p. 36)

12However tongue-in-cheek, the apocalyptic rhetoric (‘the blackest night’, ‘the end of the world for the islands at the bitter end of Britain’, Innocent Passage, p. 98) also points to the odd form of retributive justice that Jamieson had hinted at in Thin Wealth: in Jonathan Wills’s words, ‘an oil spill now and again was the price Shetland had to pay for enjoying all that oil wealth’ (Innocent Passage, p. 89) – an interpretation conveniently and most questionably spread by the officials who all too readily chose to call the wreck an ‘Act of God’, a conveniently legal term for events for which no one can be held accountable.

13The gods were not to be appeased that easily: as one of the worst storms ever seen in Shetland dispersed the oil over the land, the spill turned into a gigantic poisonous cloud engulfing men, children and wildlife and reactivating another fear, that of the atomic bomb:

[…] whirled into a frenzied cloud by the screaming wind, an oily fog 200- feet high was streaming across the two-mile-wide southern tip of Shetland. The home of crofters, farmers, fishermen, airport workers and helicopter crews were standing in the path of a downpour of crude oil, moving at over 70 mph. (Innocent Passage, p. 51)

14The fact that about 120 tons of dispersant Dasic were simultaneously sprayed onto the oil did little to reassure the local population: eventually, it was not just the sea that was poisoned but also the air, the water supplies, the grass on which sheep and cattle grazed, the fish farms, and (a recurrent image in Innocent Passage) the playgrounds.

15It is not difficult to see that the consequences of the Braer disaster were as much environmental as they were emotional; one can then remark on the consistency with which the authors, whether in creative nonfiction or in poetry, made use of the Et In Arcadia Ego theme. A good example is Alan Jamieson’s prose poem ‘Braer Wrack’, originally written right after the wreck and later reworked as a memorial piece to a departed friend of the poet’s. The piece falls into two parts, one titled ‘Afore’ (the wreck, or the Fall?), the other one ‘Eftir’. The dual structure of the poem dwells on the characteristic pairing of nature and death, as natural peace gives way to catastrophic destruction. The rural idyll (‘paradise [where] you could see creation linked together’) is torn apart by some agent of change there again related to the resurgence of evil in the midst of the pastoral garden:

  • 11 Robert Alan Jamieson, ‘Braer Wrack’, unpublished to this day.

Oozing from the splits that open in the tanks inside, a viscous slime of ancient death unleashed, chopped and mingled with the molecules of ocean, till it penetrates through tiny shells and boneless bodies, gills and lungs. Dead fish wash in, the seal-folk lie marooned. While poisonous vapours rise on screeching hurricane winds that blow across the moor, the pasture and the houses, you lived in grip of holocaust. A sticky film from deep below the sea bed covered all. A tiny spark could burst the paraffin air. Planes swooped where birds had flown, they spread dispersant on the winds that fell to land on your rooftop, as the news crews descended, a flock of hungry crows pick-peck-picking at the carcass of the story till the real thing’s dead. They say – Credit’s no problem. But the true cost’s met directly, without foreknowledge of the interest-rate. You say – Pools of sludge and death lie latent in the days to come.11

  • 12 Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 15.

16The fusion of natural and supernatural tropes, the life-death confrontation and the inevitability of loss all contribute to the elegiac tone of the poem. As the author deploys both pastoral imagery and apocalyptic rhetoric, the wreck of the Braer becomes a synecdoche for a more general environmental apocalypse – the symptom of what ecocritic Greg Gallard calls the ‘toxic taint of humanity’12 and that caused, in Jamieson’s poem, the banishment from the perfection of Eden.

17Both Jonathan Wills’s and Alan Jamieson’s texts were written on the spur of the moment and at the height of the environmental (understandably also personal) crisis. Later poems and novels tend instead to celebrate the resurgence of the wild and the redeeming power of the elemental forces. It is hard to tell whether this is wishful thinking or the benefit of hindsight. The gale-force winds that dispersed the oil onto the land thus contributed to the idea of some divine intervention, a form of epiphany that would have, in Jonathan Wills’s words already, ‘cleared the oil away’ (Innocent Passage, p. 111) and sent the Braer ‘as a warning’ (p. 171). Whether a miracle or a close shave, the providential dispersion of the oil gave rise to differing metaphysical interpretations. In his novel The Further North You Go (2003) Tom Morton likens the spill to the original sin and the wind to God’s wrath and eventual mercy:

  • 13 Tom Morton, The Further North You Go (Lerwick: Shetland Times, 2003), p. 132.

The place was still as the grave, shuttered and asleep. […] The storm had eased. The awful smell of fuel had vanished. Most of the beach had been scoured clean. Black bunker oil still clung to some rocks above the tide line, but it was as if God had wiped the place up, angrily, disgusted with what his creatures had done. Leaving some marks behind as a warning to what might have been.
“The idea of animals dying because of that oil. It was killing some of the men who were here yesterday, despite what they might say. Despite some of the salmon farmers among them shooting all the seals they can. It’s like the land and the sea are part of them, and if some… alien force comes and taints it, it’s like a disease in their own bodies. An infection.”13

18And further down:

Scoured clean. Scrubbed by the wind and the waves, and the action of salt and gritty sand. But with the eternal, always solidifying mark of where the pollution had been. Left as a sign. A reminder. A warning.
A stain. (The Further North You Go, p. 133)

  • 14 See Lucy Collins, ‘ “Toward a Brink”: The Poetry of Kathleen Jamie and Environmental Crisis’, in Cr (...)

19Interestingly enough however, the Shetlandic version of deus ex machina is seldom Christian: more common, indeed, is the mention of Mother Nature (in Innocent Passage) and Gaia, as in Shetland poet Christine De Luca’s bilingual poem ‘Voices of Quendale Bay’. What is paramount and typical of ecocentric poetry14 here is the experience of nature. Christine De Luca lends her voice to the sea (quite literally so, as the poem also appeared in audio form); the human is but the recipient of the moaning of those creatures – puffins, ewes, otters – who were the first victims of the black tide. Each spill brings its shocking images of human destructive carelessness, of dying seabirds and mammals caught in the oil slick; yet De Luca’s approach to the ecocide is original in the sense that it is ecocentric, oral and non-dogmatic. The animals of Quendale Bay are placed in the weave of things, both observed and observing, complaining and comforted, metaphors of guilt and figures of redemption; their animality replaces the paradigm of an all-powerful Christian God. It reaffirms the role of some benevolent, pagan divine agency, maps the humanity of the addressee (‘you’) and adds a cautionary note on the need for humility.

The song of the sea
Take no heed! Take no heed!
I’ve danced and I’ve scolded
Drowned that stinking barrel.
I shall feed you: comfort you
With whitest surf.

  • 15 Christine De Luca, ‘Voices of Quendale Bay’, in Voes & Sounds (Lerwick: The Shetland Library, 1995) (...)

Da sang o da sea
Never leet! Never leet!
A’m danced an a’m flet,
smored yon grötti-barrel.
I sal maet you;
cöllie aboot you
wi whitest froad.15

20The concluding verses hint at resilience through the great power of the sea to cleanse itself. De Luca’s cosmogony thus presents us with a picture of essential endurance and timelessness figured through the subject position: it is the sea that brings about redemption in the natural world – ‘I shall […] comfort you | with whitest surf’ – and re-perception of the familiar through the voices of those who survived. The poet, when she takes us into the consciousness of the wounded animal, intertwines poetic responsibility and awareness of nature’s imperiled state. Of course the poem relies rather heavily on pathetic fallacy, but it also emphasizes the possibility of resurrection and re-enchantment through the mastery of elemental forces – among them the vernacular, that is the untamed language of nature itself. ‘Voices of Quendale Bay’ is thus more than a memento mori: it is a cathartic poem that, while grieving the brutality of the modern world, incorporates nature’s wounds and harbors a sense of kinship further strengthened by the use of the dialect.

21Poems in Shetlandic such as Christine De Luca’s ‘Voices of Quendale Bay’ and Christie Williamson’s ‘The Wreck’ are characteristic of crisis poetry’s attempt to capture the essence and underlying emotion of the moment. The whole point is to distinguish between what is experienced by the locals (be they human, animal or elemental) and what is likely to be denied by the distant others: politicians, legal advisers and the like. The point will be to mark the distance between the immediacy of experience and what ‘Dey say’ – hence the opening line of Christie Williamson’s poem. The contrast between what ‘they say’ and what ‘you say’ was already a structuring device in Alan Jamieson’s elegy.

  • 16 Christie Williamson, ‘The Wreck’ (2009), unpublished to this day.

Dey say shø attracts a divery crood, a fittin end tae a ill conceived
sailin in seas shø hed nae richt tae slip anchor in. If ony as muckle
towt gied in tae settin sail wi aetty thousand tons o licht crood as da energy sookit
fae aa o wis ta keen whit ta dø aboot da ill wind blaain. I da end, da wind
at pat hir on da rocks did mair tae sort da hail thing oot as aa wir vexin
an bellin o sheep could ivvir dø.
Ta think at choost wan o da thoosands o shalls
at gied by could dø sae muckle mischief sood da tirn sea shaa hir snarl.
Dat muckle tae wis an tae dem at da time. Dat little, seein da wirld we live in
laek a human bein, threshin atween infinities i da tides o time an da winds o

  • 17 ‘Getting wrecked in Scotland’, in The Scotsman (28 October 2007), <> [accessed 6 March 2015].

22Writing about environmental disaster is writing against denial, against cold pragmatic analysis, and also against the oblivion to which such disasters are hastily consigned. It is about finding words that will stand up to the official classification, the terms that ‘they’ will use to downplay the extent of the disaster. The classification of such environmental crises is, as is to be expected, in the eyes of the beholder. And yet the wording is crucial. Before the Crown Office in Edinburgh finally decided in March 1994 that it wasn’t in the public interest to press charges, the jury in the case of the Braer had been offered three choices of verdict: ‘Act of God’, ‘misadventure’ or ‘negligence’. In 1993 Magnus Magnusson, then chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage, argued that ‘it’s a bad accident, but not a disaster, not a catastrophe.’17 This rapid survey of Scottish/Shetland petroliterature tells a different story: man creates technological monsters, fails at reading the omens, and is consequently faced with death on a massive scale until resolution by divine (whether Christian or pagan) intervention. Hubris, nemesis, catharsis: from a literary point of view at least, the wreck of MV Braer is a tragedy.

  • 18 See Sylvain Brehm ‘L’imaginaire de la catastrophe dans les fictions écologiques’, in Acta Fabula, 7 (...)

23The texts offer interpretations of the wreck that range from the technological (mankind versus the technological Other) to the naturalistic and even to the metaphysical. They are firmly grounded in their authors’ island experience: the wreck of the Braer, like the oil boom, did indeed, as suggested by Christopher Harvie in 1996, remain a Shetland experience. Individual responses to a collective disaster have a unique capacity to explore consequences of ecological carelessness. These texts, as fierce criticisms of the ecological damage humans have wrought, restore people’s attention to the need to defend their environment, but also to defend their community and, perhaps most importantly, their voice. But against whom, or against what? Whether creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry, these works reactivate ancient fears of an all-devouring neocolonial power; they also reactivate mistrust toward the impersonal forces of the market economy. Metaphors of class warfare borrowed from ecodystopian and invasion literature abound through the figure of the post-human machine as portent (monstrum) from God and images of islanders (poisoned children, poisoned lambs) as victims amid the carelessness of the more powerful. In petrofiction and in the public discourse, multinational oil corporations that are amongst the largest, most profitable and most powerful firms may have indeed replaced governments as forms of neocolonial power.18 Such issues are of course highly topical and resonate in the wider world: it is not uncommon now to regard pollution as sin, and spills as the symptom of the violence, corruption and general lack of ethics of the oil industry. Poets and writers from the Gulf of Mexico would no doubt agree.

  • 19 See Christian Chelebourg, Les Écofictions. Mythologies de la fin du monde (Bruxelles: Les Impressio (...)
  • 20 The mission statement of ‘Poets for Living Waters’, an online poetry forum featuring works written (...)

24Despite what climate change skeptics might argue, texts that use narrative invention to tackle ecological issues are not ‘jeremiads’ whose sole purpose is to advocate self-withdrawal, spread guilt-laden messages and incriminate all forms of ‘progress’ – irrespective of the way one might define ‘progress’. Ecofiction19 allows writers to respond to the escalading environmental crisis of our days in a way that ‘does not situate them and their readers as impotent witnesses’ and ‘from perspectives that we don’t normally get from the mainstream media.’20

  • 21 The windfarm would generate around up to 457MW of power, about half as much as a typical nuclear po (...)
  • 22 Thomas Crawford, ‘Windfarming’, in The Tip of My Tongue (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 38.

25It is however difficult to assess how or if literature can influence ecology in concrete ways; how it can turn proscriptive or ‘sustainable’ – a questionable, yet increasingly fashionable concept in literary studies. What these texts highlight is the imperious necessity for Scotland and the wider world to wean itself off oil, commit to transition away from oil and gas and invest in clean renewables, particularly in wind and wave power, with Scotland proving to be a world leader in marine energy. This, of course, brings new challenges and new conflicts, as evidenced by the Viking Energy Windfarm project in the Shetland Islands. On the 24th of September 2013, a judge ruled against the Viking Energy Windfarm21 that proposed to install 103 (and it is a dizzying number indeed) turbines in Shetland. Seen by some as a clean and secure alternative to oil and by others as another terrible intrusion on Nature, the project has sparked a lively debate among the Shetland population. Perhaps the most consensual and safest way to produce energy is to write poems. Perhaps the best way to ‘connect technological futures with prehistorical pasts’ (in the words of Imre Szeman) is to put windmills down on paper as ‘great ghosts of standing stones.’22 It seems we might have to wait a few decades – and maybe another few spills too – before it is

Good to stand still on this moonlit upland,
Canny, uncanny, with a choir of angels
Towering above us, beating their wings,
Piloting the earth on its way. (‘Windfarming’, p. 38)

26There again, only time can tell whether the giant turbines end up being but wolves in sheep’s clothing, and new technological monsters on their way.


1 [access. 6 March 2015].

2 Ben Russell and Paul Kelbie, ‘How black gold was hijacked: North sea oil and the betrayal of Scotland’, The Independent (Friday 09 December 2005).

3 Dr Graeme Macdonald, course syllabus 2013-2014, Warwick University, <[accessed 6 March 2015].

4 Imre Szeman, ‘Petrofictions’, in Focus (Munich, March-April 2012), p. 3.

5 Neil Kay, ‘The Fish, The Ferry, and The Black Crude Reality’, in A Nation Again. Why Independence will be Good for Scotland (and England too), ed. by Paul Henderson Scott (Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2008, 2012), pp. 85-108.

6 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge USA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 6-8.

7 Christopher Harvie, ‘North Sea Oil and Scottish Culture’, in Studies in Scottish Fiction: 1945 to the Present, ed. by Susanne Hagemann (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996), pp.159-185 (p. 163 and 165).

8 Robert Alan Jamieson, Thin Wealth. A Novel from an Oil Decade (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1986), p. 68.

9 The account of the wreck was updated in early 2013. Jonathan Wills then established that the tanker had sailed out into a southerly gale force 9 and 30-foot seas despite badly corroded steam boilers and contaminated water supply. Jonathan Wills, “What really happened on the Braer?”, Shetland News (4 January 2013).

10 Jonathan Wills, Innocent Passage. The Wreck of the Tanker Braer (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1993), p. 73 and p. 82.

11 Robert Alan Jamieson, ‘Braer Wrack’, unpublished to this day.

12 Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 15.

13 Tom Morton, The Further North You Go (Lerwick: Shetland Times, 2003), p. 132.

14 See Lucy Collins, ‘ “Toward a Brink”: The Poetry of Kathleen Jamie and Environmental Crisis’, in Crisis and Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Anne Karhio, Sean Crosson and Charles I. Armstrong (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 150-66.

15 Christine De Luca, ‘Voices of Quendale Bay’, in Voes & Sounds (Lerwick: The Shetland Library, 1995), pp. 56-57.

16 Christie Williamson, ‘The Wreck’ (2009), unpublished to this day.

17 ‘Getting wrecked in Scotland’, in The Scotsman (28 October 2007), <> [accessed 6 March 2015].

18 See Sylvain Brehm ‘L’imaginaire de la catastrophe dans les fictions écologiques’, in Acta Fabula, 7, 13, (September 2012), [accessed 6 March 2015].

19 See Christian Chelebourg, Les Écofictions. Mythologies de la fin du monde (Bruxelles: Les Impressions nouvelles, 2012).

20 The mission statement of ‘Poets for Living Waters’, an online poetry forum featuring works written in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. <> [accessed 6 March 2015].

21 The windfarm would generate around up to 457MW of power, about half as much as a typical nuclear power station. The project is a partnership between Viking Energy Ltd (of which the Shetland Charitable Trust owns 90 %) and a subsidiary of Scottish and Southern Energy, which would share the profits.

22 Thomas Crawford, ‘Windfarming’, in The Tip of My Tongue (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), p. 38.


Lectures in Scottish Studies at the University of Brest. She has published widely in English and French in the areas of Scottish contemporary literature and visual arts. Her published works include a monograph titled Alasdair Gray. Le Faiseur d’Écosse, published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes in 2012. She is also the editor of Alasdair Gray: Ink for Worlds, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

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