Slumbering Granite City in decline

The Offshore Europe exhibition hall in 1977
The Offshore Europe exhibition hall in 1977

Aberdeen in the mid-1960s was seen as a city in decline; a state of affairs witnessed by Energy’s editor, then just into long trousers.

This was the time of Labour PM Harold Wilson, who made an early attempt to arrest and reverse this decline; not just in Aberdeen but across Scotland and the North of England.

However, the search for growth and economic stability was thwarted by chaos. A measure of how bad the situation was is that, in 1964, through the Atlantic Alliance, the Americans had lent ailing post-war Britain £3billion as an alternative to devaluation.

1965 saw Wilson seek to reinforce the Atlantic Alliance by negotiating a secret deal with Washington to prop up the pound on foreign exchanges. In essence, the deal rewarded resistance to devaluation in order not to disrupt American trade.

However, things were stirring in the North Sea; rigs were by then out there prospecting for gas; a hunt that was to yield the first two prizes . . . the West Sole (BP) and Viking (Conoco) fields, both of which proved up to be commercial.

Importantly for Aberdeen, less than a year after Shell and Esso teamed up to create their 50:50 joint venture, Shell UK Exploration and Production, they decided to establish forward bases in Lowestoft, Hartlepool and, later, the Granite City.

Torry Quay was leased from Aberdeen Harbour Board in May 1965, making Shell Expro the first oil company to set up a private base at the port. Entry date was Whitsunday.

Tragedy also struck that year with the loss of the rig Sea Gem on Boxing Day.

In 1966, the tally of finds began to mount. All were made in the Southern North Sea and were gas, namely Leman (Shell), Ann (Phillips), Indefatigable (Amoco) and Hewitt (ARCO).

Wilson’s luck improved. He was voted back into office at the general election with a majority of 97, something he attributed to England winning the World Cup!

And while Labour celebrated Wilson’s increased majority, a development company known as the Lyon Group was in Aberdeen, prospecting for land.

The company envisaged investing £35million in setting up industrial estates in 20 locations across Scotland, having already built 40 around Britain over the preceding 12 years. Aberdeen, Arbroath and Dundee were the targets selected north of the Tay.

This had nothing to do with the North Sea; rather it was a response to Labour’s drive to check industrial decline. However, what Lyon did helped pave the way for Big Oil in Aberdeen.

The rough ride for Labour continued the following year; little wonder given the decision to devalue the pound by 14% to $2.40. Jim Callaghan was sacked from the Treasury and Roy Jenkins put in his place as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Few were interested in what the oil companies were up to in the North Sea except in the Treasury where thoughts were turning to developing a strategy to milk the resource for revenues, no matter how short-lived.

Mandarins were therefore delighted to see 1967 yield the Indefatigable South-west (Shell), Wisser (ARCO), Bigdotty (ARCO) and Camelot (Mobil) gas discoveries.

Not only that, tax revenues started to flow as BP brought West Sole onstream in July and other developments quickly followed.

July 27, 1967, saw the first North Sea helicopter flight out of Dyce. The aircraft was a Bristow Whirlwind G-AODP. A few days later, a Sikorsky S61N (G-ASNM) belonging to BEA Helicopters followed suit. These were early seeds of what was to come.

1967 was also the year that steps were taken to establish, on spec, an industrial estate at Tullos; £169,000 had been allocated to laying out the land as an act of faith in the future, with the North-east Development Council hopefully playing a key role in making it happen.

Ratcheting forward to 1968, while the pace up north remained slow, further south the North Sea gave up yet more prizes, this time Caister (Total), Rough (British Gas) and Deborah (Phillips).

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