Major oral history project celebrates 30 years of North-east oil

Major oral history project celebrates 30 years of North-east oil

The North Sea oil and gas industry secures its place in history this week as it celebrates two key milestones.

In the 30th anniversary week of the Queen’s visit to the North-east to switch on the flow of oil from the Forties field, oral historians at the University of Aberdeen announce the completion of one of the largest life-story documentation projects undertaken on a particular industry.

Lives in the Oil Industry began in the summer of 2000, when New Zealander Hugo Manson – a pioneer of oral history in his home country – came round the world to record the stories of some of the people who have helped make North Sea oil and gas happen.

On November 3 1975, the Queen told politicians, industry leaders and other public figures assembled at BP’s Dyce HQ that bringing oil ashore from the North Sea was a story ‘of excitement and romance’. She went on: ‘And, like most great stories, it is the people who have played a part that matter most. The job was done by their brains, their skills, their labour and their courage.’

But Tony Benn, Energy Secretary at the time, recorded in his diary that ‘the workers who actually bring the oil ashore were kept behind a barbed wire fence and just allowed to wave’, while ordinary Aberdonians who turned out to greet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were treated like ‘animals in a zoo’. He thought that ‘this great Scottish occasion was just an opportunity for the London Establishment to … lord it over the Scots.’

On the initiative of the British Library Sound Archive, Manson, working at the University of Aberdeen, has assembled long, unedited interviews with nearly 200 people including workers, industry leaders and people from North-east Scotland and many other parts of the country.

Over the next year, the oral-history centre in the University’s History Department will be organising a number of lectures, seminars and other events to publicise – and add to – the archive. There will be receptions at the British Library and the University of Aberdeen Historic Collections to mark the formal depositing of the recordings, which will become available to researchers and the public.

A bi-product of the Lives in the Oil Industry project has been the development of the University of Aberdeen as a centre for oral history. It now offers a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the subject and is attracting graduates to carry out innovative research. It is intended that a new university library, currently at the planning stage, will include state-of-the-art oral history facilities.

Manson’s interviewees range across the industry and were conducted in North America as well as in the UK. They include Fred Hamilton whose US company brought the first oil onshore (on June 18, 1975), Alexa Reid, one of the people who kept the platforms clean and provided food for the tens of thousands of offshore workers and the late Bob Ballantyne, a survivor of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster.

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