IN the 1970s, the discovery of oil changed the landscape of Scottish politics.

The SNP gained their best election result to date in 1974, as their "It’s Scotland’s oil" campaign got underway. Support for independence was rising and activists were spurred on.

However, the real depths of Scotland’s wealth were never revealed to Scots, only to Westminster, which buried the details in the McCrone Report. The conversation moved from independence to devolution.

So, what was it like to watch the UK get rich from Scotland’s oil over almost five decades?


In 1970, aged 25, Rob Gibson was leader of the Federation of Student Nationalists at the University of Dundee.

He would go on to serve as an SNP MSP, representing highland communities and highlighting rural issues as well as writing several books on Highland history and emigration.

But as a student during the North Sea oil boom, he was one of thousands of activists that were part of the SNP campaign to communicate the potential Scotland had.

“There was a huge degree of ignorance about potential although it was beginning to be talked about in Westminster," he said. "We had evidence from people who worked for the oil industry that there were drilling rigs sailing to the North Sea from all around the world – so this was a signal that something very big was going on up there.

READ MORE: This is what Westminster doesn't want you to read: The McCrone Report in full

“It was important that we in the SNP began to show people the potential, so in that period we were trying to get demonstrations going, produce posters, and just try and illustrate to folk so they would understand.”

Gibson, now 77, laughs as he recalls the student campaigns' use of lapel stickers.

He said: “Things like that began to be common so we had these little purple stickers that said 'It's Scotland’s Oil' and we stuck them all over the old student dines, and everywhere really.”

Gibson read an extract of Tony Benn’s diaries which are featured in Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by Terry McAlister.

Benn, who served as Secretary of State for Energy from 1975, wrote about his experience at the Forties oil pipeline opening in Aberdeen, which he attended in 1975 alongside the Queen and Prince Philip.

The National: The Queen at the switch-on ceremony where she officially starts the oil flowing from the Forties Field at the BP complex in DyceThe Queen at the switch-on ceremony where she officially starts the oil flowing from the Forties Field at the BP complex in Dyce (Image: Web)

“The first thing I noticed was that the workers who actually bring the oil ashore were kept behind a barbed wire fence and just allowed to wave at us as we drove by … to be frank, the day was a complete waste of time and money, and when you see the Queen in action, everything else is just absorbed into this frozen feudal hierarchy.

“All the old bigwigs are brought out into the open as if they were somehow responsible for a great industrial achievement, while the workers are presented as natives and barbarians who can be greeted but have to be kept at a distance.

“It is a disgrace that a Labour Government should allow this to continue. I also felt that this great Scottish occasion was just an opportunity for the London Establishment to come up and lord it over the Scots.”

Gibson calls this insight “gold dust” as it shows a British minister understood the injustice which created the momentum for independence – and therefore the logic behind burying the McCrone Report.

Gibson said: “I think it’s important to see analysis of much later, because we understand now that it was because of the potential of oil that made the middle classes see for the first time that we were being held back, despite the resources we held – and that’s how the SNP managed to take off in 1974, and that’s why the McCrone Report is so important.”

The "It’s Scotland’s Oil" campaign developed to highlight the effect, on both old and new Scot, that poor living conditions were having. One poster (pictured below) illustrated statistics of hypothermia in Scotland at the time.

The National: Campaign materials from the 1970sCampaign materials from the 1970s (Image: Archive)

“It was a powerful message and when Margaret Bain, who then became Margaret Ewing, raised this in the Commons she was dismissed but it’s absolutely true – and the irony of irony is that today, it’s absolutely the same.”

Gibson argues that Scotland’s main enemy when it comes to energy is the Labour party. He further argues that Keir Starmer’s vision for Scotland is the same as Harold Wilson’s, the prime minister who received the McCrone Report in 1974.

He said: “They want to use Scottish resources to help England heat itself, power itself and to meet its net zero targets. They want to use our renewable resources that we have now, to help England.

“I think it would be important to use the focus of the oil campaign now. It’s all being repeated and if Starmer came to power, it’s exactly what he would do – he’s not interested one bit on what happens in Scotland, just that we produce the energy he needs.”

On the ground

In the October 1974 General Election, the SNP gained their best result to date. They won 11 MPs and managed to get over 30% of the vote across Scotland.

The force behind the growing SNP was the discovery of oil as well as their successful "It’s Scotland’s Oil" campaign.

John and Cecilia Rees became members of the SNP during the campaign and were regularly out leafleting in Lochgoilhead, as they continue to do so now as organisers with their local group, AyeFyne.

John was brought up in Surrey and when he moved up to Scotland in the 1970s, he could see the stark difference between Scotland and England.

The National: Campaign leafletsCampaign leaflets (Image: Archive)

“Even then, I could see the inequality in the treatment between the south of England and Scotland and how the well paid jobs gravitated to the south, and I thought that was wrong.

“The campaign was then used by Westminster to make Scotland feel guilty, that we were being selfish to not help England with energy. So, we did, and look what happened.”

John said he wasn’t too surprised by the McCrone Report’s context. He said: “We always suspected [the wealth], you just had to look at what Norway was doing with her oil.”

READ MORE: The science behind why Scotland is so energy rich

Cecilia agreed. They were made to feel guilty, and didn’t realise how much the oil companies were “ripping Scotland off" as it wasn’t the people of the UK that would benefit, but companies and government.

This was all explored in The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. The play was written in the 1970s by playwright John McGrath, and told the history of the economy in the Scottish Highlands, from the Highland Clearances in the early 19th century through to the oil boom at the time.

The couple watched the play in the late 70s and Cecilia, who was raised in Devon but moved to Scotland when she was 18, said it exposed her to the horrors of the clearances which convinced her, along with the current issue of oil, that independence was the only way.

The National: Performances are still held of the famous playPerformances are still held of the famous play (Image: Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow)

“It was first the clearance of people for sheep, then the clearances of sheep for deer, and then the clearances of everybody for the black, black oil,” added John, “it was exploitation after exploitation – so nothing new there”.

They both, like many other activists, recognise the exploitation of resources continues to this day, moving now to renewables.

When asked if an updated version of "It’s Scotland’s Oil" would work today, Cecilia said: “People wouldn’t fall for the ‘you’re being selfish’ one. After all that’s happened, I think a campaign like that would probably have more success.”

However, John pointed out: “It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it – 'It's Scotland’s Wind’.”

On the rigs

Richard Johnston didn’t join any campaign for the 2014 referendum. He did his own research into big economic questions and settled on Yes.

“I had huge doubts about 2014, as it seemed to be too amateurish and too Braveheart, rather than common sense and economic arguments," he said.

Johnston had watched Scotland’s wealth pumped down to Westminster from the rigs himself and knows that it is not socially or environmentally sustainable.

“The Scottish diaspora shouldn’t still be happening in 2023. We should be able to sustain our population,” Johnston says, using his own family as an example.

“I’ve got kids who are grown up now and one of them works for an oil company in Holland, and the other two work in Aberdeen in the financial sector it just seems to be if we don’t get independence soon, firstly I’m not going to see it, but that will be a generations reality. I would like my kids not to have to move away to Holland.”

Johnston, 65, now volunteers with the non-partisan Aberdeen Independence Movement (AIM). He is credited as one of its co-founders and acts as co-just transition officer.

READ MORE: What would Scotland look like if Scots saw the McCrone report?

Originally from Aberdeen, he worked within the oil industry from the 1980s up until a few years ago and saw the city boom and bust with the wealth of oil. He also witnessed Tory ideals entrench themselves in Aberdeen’s status quo, which he says, is what AIM is looking to chip away at.

“Aberdeen has the worst record for voting for independence – so if we can swing Aberdeen, we can swing the vote, and there is a large growth of support."

Johnston recognises the regional nuances that Aberdeen has compared to the rest of the nation. Their targeted arguments are largely centred around energy wealth and transition to renewables, hitting those who have built their lives on the industry – and have reservations of leaving it behind.

“I used to use the argument at work to English colleagues that they are actually the rock pool generation. There’s quite a few English folk who are in the oil industry and to swing them I would tell them this.

“So, they’ve sold their properties down in England for maybe £300,000, they buy a house in Aberdeen for £300,000 and they stay here for 20 years. They make their money in the oil industry, they have kids here, their kids are new Scots, and they can’t return to England because the prices have gone up tenfold.

“So, it’s like the tide came in, they came in with it, and they can’t get out cause they’re stuck in a rock pool. At that point, their families don’t want to lose their community, friends, or benefits of being a Scot like free education – so like it or lump it, why not make it better for yourself? Get a better pension, get better healthcare, a freer society, control of transition – because what you’re seeing down south, it’s no longer what it was.  

“This is your home now, you’re welcome, you’re a new Scot. So, that is what I would say.”

However, Johnston discussed the referendum “very quietly at work” due to the Unionist atmosphere.

He said: “It’s unbelievably Unionist in the oil industry. There are companies – I won’t name them - but supply companies, valve companies and such, that I dealt with who basically told their staff that if they voted for Yes in 2014, they would sack them.

"There was a quite a view of those and that was a strong stance. It still is.”