MIKE Shepherd’s “first-hand” history of North Sea oil ends where it all began. The final chapter consists of seven geological reports based on a fictional well drilling through the rock under the North Sea. The drill bit acts as a time traveller, cutting through the uppermost sediments until it reaches the Eocene period which produced the youngest oil fields in the North Sea. From there it’s on to the Paleocene period which yielded the huge Forties field and the Jurassic where bides an organic rich mud stone called the Kimmeridge Clay Foundation, the source of most of the oil in the UK North Sea. The “economic basement” is the 400 million-year-old Devonian period which produced the Clair field, west of Shetland.

If you followed the Scottish independence referendum, and especially if you followed it on Twitter, you may have heard of that one before.

Shepherd is a production geologist who has worked for over 30 years in the oil business, assessing the viability of new fields and locating the remaining oil in existing ones.

He previously authored a textbook called Oil Field Production Geology, but he wears his vast technical knowledge lightly. He is as comfortable explaining the process of using water injection to support oil production as he is relating anecdotes from his working life.

It was the self-taught Scottish geologist Hugh Miller who first discovered oil in the rocks under the North Sea. Miller would drag shale into a cave on the Cromarty shore and “convert it into smoky and troubled fires”. Fast forward to 1969 when the company Amoco found oil in a well 220 miles east of Aberdeen when they were expecting to find gas. Having no other container to hand, the off-shore engineer put the oil sample in a pickle jar and flew it to the company headquarters in Great Yarmouth. From such small, eccentric beginnings the UK off-shore behemoth was born.

Miller, of course, was an evangelical Christian who detected the hand of God in his rocks, but he was not the only one gripped by religious fervour. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan also saw the Divine at work in black gold. Visiting the Forties field in 1977 he declared “God has given Britain her best opportunity for a hundred years in the shape of North Sea oil”. Two years earlier Energy Minister Tony Benn was no less excited when he hailed Britain’s first tanker of oil from the Argyll field with: “This is far more significant and historic for Britain than a moon shot. This is a day of national celebration.”

Overblown political rhetoric was all very well, but someone had to go and fetch the stuff and Shepherd’s book is dedicated to “the men and women who made it happen”. In the North Sea, the oil was usually deep down and the weather terrible. Cranes collapsed, divers were lost, helicopters fell from the sky, and Piper Alpha went on fire.

Apart from the human toll, the most striking aspect of the North Sea oil industry is its surreality. Before oil came, Shepherd’s hometown of Aberdeen “looked more prosperous than it did afterwards”. Some 3,000 Americans arrived virtually overnight – with no talk of swarms or floods – and house prices rocketed. Prosperity depended to a large extent on distant wars like Yom Kippur which forced up oil prices.

Meanwhile, at sea men lived in accommodation blocks which hung precariously from the side of rigs and oil companies named their fields after birds – fulmar, cormorant, tern – as if to add insult to injury.

The diehards on both sides of the referendum will find Shepherd a mixed bag. He regards as “nonsense” the oft-tweeted notion that Shetland’s Clair field has the world’s largest oil reserve but the British establishment kept it a secret. Instead, he says, it “has the largest amount of oil in place of all the fields on the UK continental shelf at eight million barrels” (a statistic unlikely to deter conspiracy theorists), though much of it is currently unrecoverable.

On the other hand, he eviscerates the UK Government for the short-termism and political expediency that characterised its management of the oil resource. They acted “like lottery winners, splurging their bonanza on high living while it lasted and with little to show for it now”. His analysis of the Norwegian approach – co-operative government, oil fund, innovative research – would bring a tear to a glass eye.