WICK, my mother’s birthplace and the county town of Caithness was in the spotlight this week – for the usual reason. The legacy of nuclear energy. Or, more specifically, the opening of Nucleus, Britain’s nuclear archive at a brand-new building near Wick Airport.

I listened to a sunny description of the opening on Radio Scotland and got the impression the facility will be a supremely good thing.

The Caithness collection with civic records dating back to the 16th century has also found a home there and 23 permanent jobs have been created – as the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) points out, those jobs have a lot more value in a remote, ailing former fishing community like Wick than anywhere else in their nuclear portfolio.

So, media coverage has been upbeat and uncritical, and local dignitaries have sounded happy and grateful. After all, this investment could easily have gone elsewhere.

Meanwhile, across Wick in freezing rooms by the harbour, another archive sits, backed by little more than local perseverance, volunteer labour, luck and hard graft – the fabulous online archive of 41,000 images that constitutes the Johnston Collection.

It’s the work of three generations of a Wick family of photographers who captured images of local life between 1863 and 1975, producing around 100,000 glass-plate negatives – 43,000 of which have been salvaged and lovingly digitised by a team of local people.

Over 112 years, brothers Alexander and James Johnston, Alex’s son and his grandson captured an era when Wick was the “herring capital of Europe”, with more than a thousand boats crowded into the harbour, packed with migrant workers who swelled the town’s population. Fishermen were photographed preparing their boats, setting the tan sails for sea and landing catches.

Onshore scenes of intense activity showed the teams of workers – mostly women – who gutted, cured, packed and carted the salted herring barrels for export across the world. The Johnston plates also show the boat builders, coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shopkeepers and others in supporting industries to give a wonderfully vivid glimpse of social history. The pictures of local barefoot children and “tinkers” living in caves are also moving, and the images of Wick harbour solid with dark sails and busy ships are astonishing.

I wonder where Wickers would rather have seen £21 million spent as Dounreay’s legacy to Caithness? On a fabulous new museum, civic and cultural centre, tourist attraction with an avalanche of fishing-related images to record, honour and commemorate Wick’s epic herring industry and the whole of Scotland’s extended fishing community – with maybe a back room for the nuclear archive – or what they have now? With the nuclear money spent, it will be well-nigh impossible for the collection of volunteers in the Wick Society (owners of the Johnston collection) to do what they dream of – finding the money to develop a harbour gap site they own which is large enough for a two-storey building with a car park.

Couldn’t the NDA have consulted people? I suppose after half a century of secrecy, talking to the public doesn’t come easy.

Now, I acknowledge there have been other economic benefits from the NDA – such as refurbishing Wick Marina. I understand a couple of Caithness councillors lobbied for this facility to come north. I realise many Caithnessians are happy enough with the new archive and have fond memories of a nuclear era that employed 3,000 folk at its peak and created well-paid jobs.

It may seem curmudgeonly to rain on the Nucleus parade – but £21m could have delivered a massively greater boost to Caithness through fitting modestly into the county’s far wider fishing, agricultural, linguistic and industrial heritage.

Culture matters because it creates social confidence. But what Nucleus seems to be doing is providing an archive and creating an audacious, positive spin on the whole, fairly disastrous Dounreay story.

At the opening, NDA chairman Stephen Henwood apparently said: “Today we see a new chapter in the important role Caithness has played in the UK’s nuclear history. For many decades, Dounreay was at the forefront of the development of the British, and world, nuclear industry and now Nucleus will see this knowledge protected for future generations.”


Veteran nuclear campaigner Lorraine Mann has a rather different take on Dounreay’s legacy: “The Caithness experience of nuclear energy went nowhere. Yes, there were major scientific discoveries but Dounreay only demonstrated the enormous economic and environmental costs of the fast breeder system. Essentially, Dounreay stands as a great warning to everyone and if a full range of documents is available, people will marvel at the excess, folly and near disasters. One document I was given by mistake from the mid 1960s described a dangerous and chaotic attempt to extract fuel pins to produce weapons-grade material that involved reducing the coolant below the reactor core. That would ring alarm bells everywhere these days because it can cause a meltdown.”

I wonder if that document will be readily available.

And, of course, there was the notorious shaft. Material that was too radioactive or bulky to dispose of normally was shoved down an underground disposal pipe which become an unofficial dump. It was not lined and material seeped away in badly fractured rock. In 1977, the shaft exploded but Dounreay’s operators denied any danger. By the mid-1990s, pictures emerged of devastation.

According to journalist Rob Edwards: “The [1977] explosion blew off the shaft’s huge concrete lid, threw its steel top plate 12 metres to one side, badly damaged the five-tonne concrete blocks at the mouth of the shaft, and blasted scaffold poles up to 40 metres away. An eyewitness reported a plume of white smoke blowing out to sea. And, as government watchdogs revealed for the first time [in 1995] the ground around the shaft was littered with radioactive particles hot enough to injure and kill.

Over the next 18 years, almost 150 such particles were found on Dounreay’s beaches.”

Is this story going to be showcased or even available at Nucleus?

Meanwhile, Wick locals are still trying to tell a story they are genuinely proud of – the story of a bygone fishing era saved for posterity by a modern-day masterpiece of digital cooperation.

A permanent physical exhibition space and non-freezing archive home would help the Johnston collection achieve national recognition – and that would be an enormous boost to morale and self-esteem in Wick, a town which declined when neighbouring Thurso grew in size and importance with the construction of Dounreay and the Forss American base.

This town that’s been a royal burgh since 1589, is now just a stopping place on the way to the Orkney ferry and Caithness has little of the dynamism exhibited by the entrepreneurial Orcadians. Dounreay’s been wound up, Wick lost port status six years ago, bridges have reduced journey times, closed branch offices and allowed most businesses to run from Inverness.

And despite sitting beside Europe’s top tidal energy site, the only company planning turbine manufacture in Wick lost out in the Pentland Firth leasing round.

Thurso-born and based poet and playwright George Gunn says: “The Nucleus archive is not only a white elephant, it is more like a white rabbit from the Wonderland economics Caithness has been subjected to for over half a century.

“Secrecy and dishonesty, war and pest, have rendered the Caithness population into a state of apathy. We have no theatre, no concert hall, no art gallery of any size. We have a nuclear archive. With Caithness, it seems, the British state can do what it likes.”

It’s hard to disagree.