Black Sights
21 May 2016

Photographs by Iga Gozdowska

Words by Fraser MacDonald

The coal never stopped. It was known as the ‘merry-go-round’ and in thirty years only the Miners’ Strike broke the circle. Day and night, the laden train would leave the ‘superpits’ of Bilston Glen and Monktonhall and snake down the line to Cockenzie Power Station. Engines idling, the diesel paused to release the cargo, and rumbled off again, the empty convoy returning west over the River Esk to receive another load.

Cockenzie had an insatiable appetite for coal: 914 tonnes with every train, feeding four 300 megawatt generating units to sustain the homes and industries of Scotland’s Central Belt. It lit the living rooms, boiled the kettles, fired the TV electrons, powered the old bar heaters, and projected the sodium glow of Edinburgh’s streetlights. And the coal: 300 million years in the making, the black rock forged in deep time – a Carboniferous past of shallow seas and swamps and forests. Eight centuries of coal mining in the Forth Valley could scarcely have anticipated the ingenuity and scale of the twentieth century superpits. At Monktonhall, twin shafts were sunk over 900 metres – an inverted Munro’s depth – into the limestone coals of the Midlothian basin. Now capped with concrete, there is no indication of this sublime verticality.

Further up the Forth, Longannet Power Station, now fed by Russian and Australian coal, once had its own colliery – part of an extensive network of subterranean roads and passages. The names of the coal seams have largely passed into obscurity: the Blairhall Main; the Lochgelly Splint; the Jersey; the Lochgelly Parrot; the Duddie Davie. The most remarkable feature of this underground infrastructure is the tunnel that connected the Valleyfield Colliery on the north shore to the Kinneil Colliery at Bo’ness. Few people these days will remember, but in 1964, even before the Forth Road Bridge had opened, it was possible to walk from the Lothians to Fife, 500 metres under the sea. It lies there still – blocked, inundated and unmarked. No-one, to be sure, will be making that journey any time soon.

All this engineering achievement lies deeply buried in our climate contrition. At any rate, little of it is visible above the ground. The aerial parts that still survive are themselves on the cusp of demolition. Sir Robert Matthew, Scotland’s acclaimed Modernist architect, designed Cockenzie Power Station; it was built with the precision of a watchmaker and yet spread over 24 hectares. An infamous polluter, it was finally switched off in March 2013 and is now being slowly prised apart. The monumental chimneys that tower over Port Seton like a mediaeval cathedral are due to come down in 2015. Longannet, another of Europe’s carbon behemoths, is to close next year.

The days of Scottish coal may nearly be over; its cultural heritage may be unsung; its environmental legacies may be disavowed. But what remains – the irreducible, landscape-scale memorial – is the pulverized fuel ash. Cockenzie changed the shape of the Forth itself: where once there was open sea is now a new place – Levenhall Links, 134 hectares of coastal grasslands and ‘wader scrapes’. Every grey handful of this substrate has its provenance in the carbon carousel. There is no going back now.