Can Orkney become a northern gateway?

A radical vision for Orkney’s future has been unveiled. It looks to the potential of two areas of development – marine renewables and a container port in Scapa Flow. With these, say the authors, Orkney can sustain a big increase in population and become a gateway to the Nordic countries for Scotland and the UK.

The new vision for Orkney comes from two postgraduate students of architecture at Strathclyde University, Alex Hobday and Graham Hogg. Building on the potential of marine renewables and a global container hub, they have developed a package of ideas which include a marine university for Orkney and a new approach to design in the islands, drawing on Nordic approaches.

“As architects, we are trained to bring people and resources together,” they say. “’Today people often plan for no more than five years ahead, and they no longer plan long-term for towns or cities or countries. We believe that a radical shift in thinking is needed.

“Scotland’s location between the Atlantic and the North Sea is hugely significant and at present underused as an asset, both for the shipping and energy industries. Orkney’s links at a global, regional and local scale have the potential to ensure Scotland is a hub of activity for the shipping, renewables and tourism industries.”

Container hub

The researchers say that the melting of the Arctic ice and the opening up of new Arctic sea routes highlight the need for new deep-water container ports, and that it is therefore time to re-open the case for a development in Scapa Flow.

They note that the Northern Passage through the Arctic would reduce sailing time between Europe and Asia by up to 40%. They also highlight the proposal to develop a North East West Freight Train Corridor in the US. This will link the eastern coast of America to Asia, through a shipping link across Atlantic to Norvik in Norway, and from then by rail to Asia from the big railhead at Narvik.

Scotland and Orkney are well placed to take up these new opportunities, say the two postgraduates, as the very large container ships now being built are too huge for even ports like Rotterdam.

Wave and tide

On marine renewables, they point to ongoing developments, with Orkney now a global centre for testing new wave and tidal devices, and permission already in place from the Crown Estate for 1.6 GW of capacity to be installed in the waters around the islands in the coming years. They note predictions that £100 million a year overall will be spent on maintaining marine renewable devices in Scottish waters. They also say that there could be opportunities for some of the fabrication work to take place in Orkney, with Lyness ideally suited.

The scale of the developments is huge, but they say that now is the time to think and plan for the future, to take advantage of opportunities. They say that various proposals are coming forward for a Europe-wide energy grid, distributing solar power from Germany, nuclear energy from France and wind-generated electricity from Denmark.

“So far Orkney has not been mentioned, and we believe it should be brought in. Orkney in such a grid would also be a key stepping-stone for a link with Iceland and its geothermal power.”

They highlight the global role of Scapa Flow over the centuries and its ability to accommodate major developments of national significance, as a naval base in wartime and as an international oil port today. They point to the growth of cruise ship visits as an example of the way in which Orkney’s global links are continuing to develop, with Kirkwall now the UK’s largest cruise destination and the world’s largest cruise ships able to tie up at Hatston Pier.

Alex Hobday and Graham Hogg go on to say that a container port in Scapa Flow would be a massive breakthrough, and they highlight the story of Singapore to show how a small island can develop new opportunities. In 1819 it had only 1,000 people, but less than 40 years later, as new trade routes opened up, the population was over 80,000.

The combination of developments in marine renewables and a container hub could, they say, generate opportunities for employment and education. A big development in renewables at Lyness would require much better connection of Hoy to the Orkney mainland, and this should be by tunnels via Graemsay. Such a development, they say, would open up the potential of Graemsay as a place to live. Better access to Hoy would help tourism in the island.

They say that a container hub would lead to better links with Scandinavia and Europe, and to improved ferry services across the Pentland Firth and new direct links to northern Europe. They say that there should be a direct link from Orkney to the Norwegian coastal route, the Hurtigruten.

Population increase

The two postgraduates say that the demand for skilled people in renewables would lead naturally to further university developments, involving both training and research, to the extent that a full-scale marine university could develop in Orkney.

The various developments would be particularly concentrated in the South Isles, they say, but the North Isles also have a key role, with their excellent sites for testing wave and tidal power. They highlight the need for a radical improvement to North Isles transport to develop inter-island links.

An increase in population, they say, will highlight the need for fresh thinking about where people live and the types of houses that are built. They say that there should not be centralisation to one particular town, but rather than existing communities can be allowed to develop.

They point to the Faroes, where the development of good road links to the capital, Torshavn, has led to the previous long-term centralisation being reversed as people find that they can stay in a rural village, with the advantage of lower house prices, and still have easy access to the amenities of bigger settlements. Orkney, they say, should avoid urbanisation and think in terms of improving travel links to form a ‘network city’.

They say that an increased demand for new houses will mean that Orkney has to think carefully about its building styles. Each town and village should keep its own architectural identity, they say, and it is also possible to learn from the techniques used in cold climates to save energy. The timber used for houses in Norway is a better insulator than stone, and by putting the chimney in the centre of the houses rather than at the gable end, the Norwegians retain the heat better.

Their vision is for a big step forward for Orkney, over a period of time, with new opportunities for jobs and communities, and greater links with northern Europe in trade and transport and design solutions.

Warm response

The presentation of their vision, titled ‘Possible Orkney’, was made at an event at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, organised by Nordic Horizons, the discussion group chaired by writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch with the aim of opening up discussion about life and policy in the Nordic nations.

The audience for the presentations includes researchers, academics, and business people, and there was a warm welcome for the approach taken by Alex Hobday and Graham Hogg. Highlands MSP Mike MacKenzie, hosting the event, described their work as ‘inspirational and courageous’ and welcomed the way in which they had developed a big vision for the long term.

Chris Cook, former director at the International Petroleum Exchange, called their thinking ‘brilliant’ and said that they were right to highlight the potential of a European super-grid.

Transport specialist Prof. Alf Baird of Edinburgh Napier University said it was ‘a great vision’, and that the key to the immense potential of shipping megahubs was government support at the highest level.

“It’s a bold vision,” said Councillor Ian Chisholm from Fife, “and Orkney is a really good place for it. It’s a place of possibility, a can-do place where people work together, and its success has lessons for the rest of Scotland.”

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur warmly welcomed the new approach by the two postgraduates and said he would be happy to help them to follow up in Orkney.

“The more ideas that we can have, the better. The location of Orkney has worked to our disadvantage too often, and if we can now use it to our advantage, the better that will be.”

The ideas of the two researchers have been set out in a presentation on YouTube.