BP’s announcement of a huge discovery in 1970 transformed life for thousands in the north-east as Neil Drysdale recalls out
It was the discovery which changed everything in the north-east and transformed the Granite City from an ancient port to the centre of a new energy movement.
And, in the years after BP executives told the media they had found abundant reserves of oil in the Forties Field on October 7 1970, a revolution swept through many parts of the region as companies began work on erecting a network of giant platforms and creating the infrastructure to extract the precious fuel source.
In the space of less than a decade, thousands of people arrived from all over the world, but principally the United States, as they realised the vast potential of the Forties Field – the first and largest oil field discovery in the United Kingdom sector.
Those who were present at the birth of the oil boom say they were exhilarated by their role in a radical new culture and overwhelmed by the rapid retail, commercial and housing expansion it brought.
Jimmy Milne, the chairman and managing director of Balmoral Group, was among the more pragmatic individuals who carefully laid the foundations for his company’s success.
He said: “I witnessed the city move from such traditional industries as quarrying, shipbuilding, paper making, fishing and farming to become an internationally recognised centre of excellence for the offshore energy sector.
“Many great people and organisations have come and gone during these 50 years – too many to mention, actually. But one thing is for sure: the north-east has benefited enormously from this slice of geographical and geological good fortune.
“Standards of living have improved enormously for thousands of people. I appreciate that not everybody in the region is directly involved with the industry, but most sectors have benefited from the spin-offs associated with it.
“The city and its residents have shown they can adapt to change, seize opportunities and enjoy the substantial benefits for those who are willing to work hard – and we have an outstanding work ethic in this part of the world.”
“We have been fortunate, but we have also made our own good fortune by being flexible, adaptable and inventive and I cannot see that changing.”
But it was the minority who flourished and that disparity generated problems which created a social divide. At several stages on either side of the millennium, there was discussion about introducing an Aberdeen Weighting Allowance – such as exists in London –to help attract key workers, including teachers, nurses and emergency service personnel, to relocate from other parts of Scotland to the city.
Some of the problems were detected early by the likes of historian and former Aberdeen councillor John Corall, who could anticipate trouble brewing even four decades ago.
He said: “The influx of rednecks from the southern states of America was a source of bemusement to many people, because until then, stetsons were not normal head attire for Aberdonians.
“They also had plenty of money to spend, so many locals looked on enviously and tried to get jobs offshore.
“So yes, the oil has transformed Aberdeen and many individuals associated with the business have benefited from the developments, but collectively, the town is bereft of any lasting statements, apart from the monument in Hazlehead Park, which commemorates the deaths of 167 men in the Piper Alpha disaster.”
That tragedy was the first reminder that an often reckless disregard for safety would wreak a dreadful toll on those employed in the North Sea.
However, when the oil began flowing and new fields were unearthed, it was widely regarded as an economic miracle. Few at the outset questioned how long it would last, let alone contemplated strategies to prepare for a day when the wells ran dry.
The Aberdeen Children of the 1950s project has provided an illustration of how the oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s enhanced many people’s lives.
The venture followed 12,150 state school children in the Granite City from 1962 and collected information from childhood, including school tests, through to adulthood, using such initiatives as questionnaires about health.
Two of those involved in the Aberdeen University analysis, Marjorie Johnston and Krzys Adamczyk, unveiled some of the lessons of the study.
They revealed around 75% of the 7,183 members who completed a postal questionnaire in 2001 – who are now aged 63-69 – were still resident in the Grampian region, indicating that many people enjoyed job security in and around the offshore sector, allowing them to remain close to their roots.
The research also highlighted that around 10,000 of the original participants are still alive with average life expectancy having risen by almost a decade in the north-east since the 1950s.
Mr Adamczyk said: “The oil boom made a significant difference to the lives of so many members of the Aberdeen children’s group.
“It happened just as many of them were leaving school or progressing into further education and there were so many more opportunities for that generation.
“In the 1970s, a lot of American expertise was required after the discovery of oil but many Aberdonians who started out in blue-collar jobs graduated into white-collar positions and management roles in the 1980s and 1990s.
“That transformed the jobs situation in Aberdeen and the surrounding areas.
“Usually, when you look at what your classmates have done, you’ll find many of them have had to travel elsewhere to find the work they want. But the fact so many state school children from half a century ago are still in this area is remarkable.”
Not everyone in north-east ecstatic over Aberdeen oil and gas bonanza
Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood recalls there was no immediate eureka moment when the consequences of the energy breakthrough became clear.
On the contrary, the protagonists in the sector had to create a network of rigs where none existed and be innovative and inventive as they advanced.
When a group of BP executives arrived to witness the installation of the first structure, they were entering uncharted territory.
Sir Ian said: “I remember watching the live film of the Forties platform being taken out to the site and there was a group of BP senior management on a semi-submersible – I think it was a pontoon – and the camera strayed down to their hands.
“Without fail, all of them had their fingers crossed.”
One might have imagined the Aberdeen business population would have been thrilled at the news about the Forties Field.
Yet, according to Sir Ian, the initial response wasn’t exactly ecstatic when he was invited to take part in a discussion programme on the old Grampian TV channel.
He said: “I appeared with maybe 15 or 20 people from Aberdeen and about half of them were saying ‘we don’t really want this’ or ‘we don’t like all these strangers coming in’, especially the American wildcat guys.”