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Monthly Archive March 2024

Orkney County Council Act 1974, A Talk by Howie Firth (Recording)


On 26th February 2024, the capacity audience in Friends Room at the St Magnus Centre were treated to a fascinating talk by Howie Firth on one of the underpinnings of Orkney society. The 1974 Orkney County Council Act gave substantial local control over industrial developments in clearly defined harbour areas, most notably Scapa Flow.

“This could have been a very dull evening” quipped Orkney Heritage Society Chair Spencer Rosie at the end, “but in fact it has been eye-opening thanks to Howie’s insight and presentation. He was an active observer at the time and his perspective invaluable”

Howie explained how at the time the Orkney’s County Council was tiny, its offices being in the building in Broad Street that was the Reel. Working jointly with Shetland, private Bills were sponsored by the officers and members to give the islands the capacity to organise themselves in the face of the looming developments of North Sea Oil. Remarkably they passed and gave the counties unprecedented control over their destiny by granting powers including the capacity to establish a reserve fund to be used for the benefit of the people of Orkney.

Howie began his talk highlighting how Orkney’s economic activity went in peaks and troughs, beginning with the highs of the Neolithic period. Troughs were often caused by changing climatic conditions and often led to starvation. In more recent centuries, there were opportunities for young people to earn good money in whaling and the Canadian fur trade. Agriculture was given a boost due to the role Orkney played in two world wars. Post war stagnation set in, but there was always a determination to do something about it.

A specific confluence of forces in the mid-1960s led to the Act. The small Liberal Party led by the highly regarded Orkney and Shetland MP Jo Grimond exerted some positive influence over a minority Labour Party. This led to the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, forerunner of HIE, whose aim was to boost economic activity in the region.

Howie explained how a period of centralisation followed during the term of a subsequent majority Labour government which culminated in the proposal to create regional and district councils, with Orkney and Shetland lumped in with a large Highland Council. This was bitterly opposed in Orkney and Shetland and the following Conservative government created the island authorities we see today. Howie emphasized the harbour legislation could not have happened if the islands had lost control of its local government.

In parallel the 1970s saw the discovery of North Sea Oil and the possibility of developments coming to the islands. The political situation at the time was explained by Howie and the urgent need to get Britain’s oil flowing. A strong case was put by local representatives that it would be in the best interest of both the oil companies and government if oil developments were controlled locally so that the process could be speeded up. There was huge consternation in Shetland when a property developer had acquired 5,000 acres at Sullom Voe, the preferred site of their oil terminal.

Howie also recounted the fascinating story of how Flotta was chosen as the site for Occidental’s oil terminal. Because this talk was filmed it is well worth watching the recording for this story alone, originally told by a senior Scottish Office official to Eoin Scott many years ago.

Howie emphasized the enormous achievement and far sightedness of local officials and representatives, along with MP Joe Grimond in drawing up a plan, which gained the backing of government and the oil companies. The Orkney County Council Act was passed on 31st July 1974. It begins:

An Act to authorise the county council of the county of Orkney to exercise harbour jurisdiction and powers in respect of development, including powers to license the construction of works and dredging, in certain areas of and adjacent to the county, and in connection therewith to acquire lands compulsorily; and for other purposes.

Howie thought the Act was very much part of Orkney History and its contents should be published for all to read.  We completely agree and the Act is going up on the Orkney Heritage Society website for all to see (available here).

Howie went into more detail regarding the section relating to the Reserve Fund which allowed the Council to accrue money from the profits from the operation of the oil facility. All local authorities can have financial reserves, but the Reserve Funds Orkney and Shetland were able to accrue were to be treated differently. Howie went on to highlight one clause which was included by Orkney officials more in hope than expectation, but was accepted by Parliament and gave much more freedom in the use of the Reserve Fund.  This was Section 69 3 (e), which said:

Any reserve fund provided under this section may be applied –

(e) For any other purposes which in the opinion of the Council is solely in the interests of the county or its inhabitants.

As Howie said, “It is remarkable looking back how one of the country’s smallest councils, whose offices were in a small building in Broad Street, took on powers that no other local authority had and have run a large harbour area with tugs, pilotage, environmental testing etc. Through the latter, universities created offshoots in Orkney which have grown over the years and help underpin much of the innovation going on today for which Orkney is internationally renowned.”

Howie finished his presentation by bringing matters up to date and speculating what lessons can be learnt in helping to control the large renewable developments due to happen in Orkney.

A recording of the presentation was generously made by OREF and is available below:


Book launch & Talk: Professor Peter Marshall: Storm’s Edge

BOOK LAUNCH AND TALK: Professor Peter Marshall: Storm’s Edge – Life, Death & Magic in the islands of Orkney.


From Peter Marshall, winner of the Wolfson Prize 2018, Storm’s Edge is a new history of the Orkney Islands that dives deep into island politics, the evolution of folklore, and community memory on the geographical edge of Britain. Marshall was born in Orkney, his ancestors were farmers and farm labourers on the northern island of Sanday – where, in 1624, one of them was murdered by a witch. Merging his local experience with wider historical expertise, Marshall looks afresh at a small group of islands that has been treated as a mere footnote, remote and peripheral, and in doing so invites us to think differently about key events of British history.


Join as at the St Magnus Centre on the evening of 10 April (7pm) for the much-anticipated launch of Professor Marshall’s new book. As part of the launch, Professor Marshall will give a paper on the book, followed by a Q&A and drinks reception.


To sign-up for your free ticket, please register on our Eventbrite page: available here!


A talk by Dr Amy Blakeway: The early years of Mary, Queen of Scots.

A talk by Dr Amy Blakeway: The early years of Mary, Queen of Scots: War, Disruption, Reconstruction and Reformation.

Mary Queen of Scots came to the throne aged six days old. Immediately, Scotland was plunged into war against Henry VIII of England seeking to marry her to his son, the future Edward VI, and convert Catholic Scotland to his new English brand of Protestantism. Whilst the drama of war over Mary’s marriage is well known, the impact of the largest Tudor invasion on the people of Scotland is often forgotten. Sharing unpublished stories of ordinary Scots, found in archives from Aberdeen to Peebles, this talk shows how the war affected Scotland and the Scots, and how the devastation caused by war ironically contributed to Scotland’s religious conversion to the very Protestantism it had resisted so fiercely.


Join the Orkney Heritage Society and Institute for Northern Studies (University of the Highlands and Islands) on the evening of Thursday 28 March (6.30-8pm) in the main lecture theatre of UHI Orkney for this fascinating paper and Q&A.


To sign-up for your free ticket, please register on our Eventbrite page: available here!