ebban an' flowan
Alec Finlay, Laura Watts, Alistair Peebles
Morning Star, 2015
Review by Amy Liptrot
In waters off the coasts of the islands of the UK, over the last decade or so, strange devices have appeared: great hunks of engineering with turbines and pumps and hinges, like technical sea beasts. The machines are designed to harness the power of the sea to convert into electricity. Hopes have been high for the establishment of a new energy industry in the northern isles - adding to the prosperity of the oil industry - of ‘renewables’: wind and sea power.
A new industry needs a new poetry and this is where this book, a “primer on marine renewable energy in Orkney and the Nordic countries”, comes in. It launches the ambitious and modern project of building a new lexicon around renewables. The slim, attractively produced book concentrates on marine renewables (tidal and wave power) and also on Orkney, the home of EMEC (the European Marine Energy Centre) since 2003. Huge infrastructure including new piers and offices has been constructed for the burgeoning industry, and parts of the ocean and seabed assigned as test sites. Near Stromness, Billia Croo on the rough Atlantic coast is the wave test site, while another area with a large tidal range, near the island of Eday, is used to test tide power devices.
Marine renewables - with their elemental jargon, ocean setting, links to seafaring history, and potential for metaphor - are ripe for poetry. And the writing in this book exploits this potential well, often using old terms for new functions. For example, they christen wave and tidal engineers as “wave-wrights”. A stanza by Alec Finlay encapsulates the project: “when will knowledge and vernacular sayings/ transfer from the old fisherman/ to the new breed of wave-wright”.
Finlay makes the simple yet arresting observation, “tidal energy is/ moored to the moon”. The moon is the very stuff of poets and transformation - here, from one type of energy to another - the stuff of literature. It’s irresistible. The mixing of nature and engineering language is successful in Finlay’s lines such as “the sea’s density wields/ a high torque load”. He also explores the challenges of testing the devices at sea: “it’s not the median tide/ but the storm/ that will finally decide”.
Laura Watts has written a contemporary myth, adding to the rich Orkney folklore of part-human, part-animal beings. The story is of a Draukie, the offspring of a selkie and a draugr, who embodies wave power. Watts is unafraid to mix modern, technical words (“hydrophone”, “oscilloscope”, “perspex”) with the timeless vocabulary of the sea to create a new tale from ancient folklore, and we’re encouraged to search the beaches near wave power machines for bright pieces of the Draukie’s skin - a lovely fresh tradition.
Finlay and Watt’s writing is accompanied by photographs by Alistair Peebles documenting some of the changes marine renewables have brought to Orkney’s coastline including a gorgeous panoramic photograph of Hoy Sounds in low evening light with a large crane and wave energy device in the sea. There are pictures of a number of the energy devices with brief explanations of how they work and a list of names given to the devices, often drawn from sea creatures and mythology.
The authors have also gathered maritime dialect expressions from across the Norse world: Orkney, Shetland, Icelandic, Norwegian, Old Norse and others. One is the Orkney Norn word “swaa” - the sound of the sea heard from a distance. There’s also a bibliography and further reading list. If the book at times feels unfinished and bitty, this is because it’s a "primer", a toolbox for an emerging culture, to be used by others.
The longevity of this culture and lexicon, however, remains to be seen. Last month wave energy firm Aquamarine ceased trading after running out of funding for its research. A similar fate befell the company Pelamis last year. It is unclear how far the new industry will develop. Planned huge wave farms off the Scottish northern and western isles may not materialise, a new connection to the National Grid has not yet been funded. Orkney may end up being no more than a test site and this book and its new vocabulary maybe mark nothing more than a brief ripple in the relentless story of the sea.