In 1174 the monks of Newbattle Abbey got a charter from King David I to dig for coal at Prestongrange. History doesn’t record if the monks dug for the coal personally but for the next 800 years or so that part of East Lothian, around Tranent, Prestonpans and inland towards Musselburgh and Midlothian, was built on coal. Bricks forged from the clay that came with the coal went to build the town houses of Edinburgh’s New Town and even to Jamaica. Until recently, coal still played a crucial part in the economy of East Lothian, right until Cockenzie Power Station closed in 2013. By then, it was one of only two coal-fired power stations left in Scotland, the other, Longannet, just up the Forth near Kincardine, closed in 2016. For two years, the chimneys of Cockenzie still stood high against the landscape until eventually they were levelled in the summer of 2015. They had been a familiar part of my life for as long as I could remember, passed twice a day as I went from where I lived in Dunbar to primary school in Edinburgh. Even after I moved to Glasgow and coursed down the A1 or sat on a train as it speeded by, the chimneys at Cockenzie were still there. The chimneys seemed like they could be seen from space. They certainly could be seen from all around, from Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh to Gullane, even from the Fife coast at the other side of the Forth. Then one day they were gone. They fell with an embrace and then swiftly to earth in a hail of rubble and smoke.
I walked by there recently. I hadn’t been to Cockenzie for a few years though I liked to visit the harbour there and Port Seton along the way. The space where the Power Station once stood is now a vast crater, fenced off with dire warnings for safety and security pinned to the barriers. The only part that still survives, being worked at by demolition crews, is a turbine building. There have been talks about using the site for a combined cycle gas turbine station or for a cruise ship terminal, to tap into new technologies or just the tourism industry that increasingly fuels our country’s economy. As I walked along the coast road that day, it just felt eerie. It also felt sad. Cockenzie was a coal-fired power station and it was one of the major polluters of Scotland. It was also a major employer and people lost their jobs in an already quite deprived area. A place that bustled with activity now had just a handful of workers. It had reinvented itself before, though. The power station had been built on the site of Prestonlinks Colliery, one of two collieries at either side of Prestonpans at one point. It will certainly do so again if Scottish Power get their way and the combined cycle gas turbine station emerges.
The East Lothian coastline, like that of the Forth more generally, was dotted with power stations. One functioning power station remains, Torness, near Dunbar. The stories and memories remain of others that once dominated the landscape. I remember being at a Jack Vettriano exhibition at Kelvingrove a few years ago, standing in front of a painting that depicted a courting couple standing by a power station’s chimneys, Methil in Fife, now also demolished. The painting’s label noted that this painting was an historical record of a place that was no longer there, with couples having to go elsewhere to satisfy their yearnings. Portobello in Edinburgh is now seen as being a trendy seaside enclave within the capital with house prices to match. It once had a power station, though, looming high above the flats and businesses of Seafield, Porty and Joppa. Apparently its chimney was a landmark that reminded Edinburgh folk they were close to the beach. There’s a photo on Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland’s website, from 1980 when the power station’s demolition was in progress, of the shell of the building standing in front of the tenements of King’s Road, with rubble all around the foreground. Today it is all houses and a five-a-side football complex. There is a restored pottery kiln nearby, a reminder of an even earlier past of textiles traded across seas. But not much trace of the power station that once powered the homes of the city beyond.
Torness Power Station is hard to love, regardless one’s feelings about nuclear power. It is boxy and stands starkly on fields close to the North Sea, still in East Lothian but close to Berwickshire. Torness is in a stunning setting. From the surrounding walkway, part of the John Muir Link from Dunbar to the start of the Southern Upland Way at Cockburnspath, it is possible to see for miles and miles, to the Isle of May and Fife, to St. Abbs Head and Siccar Point, all from a vast concrete sea wall. Torness can also be seen from afar and when it is passed, be that on the A1 or the train, it is, like Cockenzie was, a landmark that home is near, even if my home is now further away than just the few miles to Dunbar.
The Lammermuir Hills sit above Torness, separating East Lothian from the Scottish Borders. Recently I stood at Soutra, at the western end of the Lammermuirs overlooking East Lothian and Edinburgh. Soutra was once a medieval hospital, run by an Augustinian order. I looked towards Cockenzie and of course the chimneys were gone. The many pylons remain. In those hills are not gold but wind turbines, an ever more familiar part of the landscape today. There is very little historical about wind turbines. They are controversial, aesthetically and for their effect on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem. Most power generation is. Cockenzie, like Longannet, like Methil, was on the list of the top 10 polluters in Scotland. Torness harnesses nuclear power and that has its great share of dangers. In 1174, coal was the answer. Now, it isn’t so certain. The skyline has changed considerably over that time with power stations having sprung up and been demolished all along the Forth, mines dug low into the earth and millions of tons of coal brought up to fuel homes and factories. Walking around today, there are still some traces of this, even if now they are mostly just memories growing more vague with each passing day.
Source and further reading –
Canmore (Historic Environment Scotland), Portobello Power Station, view during demolition, accessed via https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1308748