ON Thursday morning an iconic feature of Scotland’s landscape disappeared forever.

It took millennia for geological forces to form the coal that once fed the 600 foot chimney at Longannet power station, centuries of dark and dangerous work to win those deposits, decades of ­production, years of decommissioning, and a few seconds to bring the towering ­structure crashing down.

As though aware of the occasion, the Firth of Forth put on its finest colours: a sharp winter light mellowed by a gentle sunrise. After pressing the button, dressed in a thick black coat for this winter funeral, Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that this spectacle was: “a symbolic reminder that we have ended coal-fired power generation in Scotland”.

On days like this, not so long ago, palls of smoke would have been present all across this landscape .

But on Thursday morning, as the dust gradually cleared, all was bright and sharp. You could look across the mudflats of the Forth Estuary to things that seem more ­permanent – the bridges, the Ochils, and the needle of the Wallace Monument ­steadfast in the distance.

READ MORE: Longannet power station chimney demolished in 'milestone' for net-zero

The sharp clarity provided by a fine east coast winters day was surely the ­desired backdrop for those who decided the ­chimney had to fall. Here was a point of no return: Scotland’s ancient relationship to the black stuff was no more.

The country, in global climate leader mode, was out to “Make Coal History”, words that Scottish Power projected on to the chimney on Wednesday night.

But there is discomfort as the ruins of coal production are rapidly tidied away.

Scotland’s embarrassment of carbon ­riches is linked to deep and visceral ­deposits of popular memory. This is why the ­sudden absence of markers on the ­landscape ­provokes unease: given the ­disproportionate role of coal-fired ­industries in the nation’s development, it’s difficult to see what comes next.

Without the work, communities, ideas and traditions associated with carbon ­industry, what are we? As the legacy of coal becomes less visible, there is a risk that the rich political and social traditions mining gave rise to will fade as well.

It was on a similarly fine and brittle day in November 2019 that I attended the ­funeral of Willie Clarke: Britain’s last communist councilor, first elected in 1973, and a former worker at the ­Longannet mine.

A string of Fife villages, including Clarke’s own stronghold of Ballingry, are often held up as examples of the “Little Moscows” that dotted Western Europe in the Cold War era.

According to Dutch historian Ad ­Knotter, these villages appeared in a range of different contexts, but all shared ­certain traits. Specifically: a ­mono-industrial local economy, relative isolation from bigger centres of population, and a significant influx of migrants as that industry was set up.

There is an appreciation to this day that the Communist Party in Fife, far from ­being doctrinaire, pursued a politics based on the material realities of local communities and the inherent need for solidarity below ground.

In addition to this local heft, the ­communists also exerted a significant radical pull on the Labour Party via the National Union of Mineworkers.

During the miners’ strike of 1972, a confrontation between police and ­pickets outside Longannet saw the NUM’s rising radical voice at the time, Mick ­McGahey, sustain an “accidental” leg injury as 2000 miners attempted to shut down ­production.

The pace of change in Scotland in the intervening years is perhaps summed up by observing that, although the power ­station is no more, McGahey’s ashes were interred within the foundations of the Scottish Parliament building. The politics of coal really are embedded within the modern nation.

When Longannet became fully ­operational in January 1973, it was the biggest power station in Britain, ­generating around 27% of total electricity in Scotland.

The plant was a critical plank in a ­programme to modernise coal ­mining ­following nationalisation in 1947. ­Alongside this, the village pits that men of Clarke’s generation first found work in were gradually replaced by larger ­“cosmopolitan” pits that brought together previously scattered groups of miners.

The National: Author Ewan Gibbs with the book which will be released on February 15.

According to historian Ewan Gibbs (above) these changes within coal mining ­“encouraged the development of a more pronounced collective national identity across Scotland’s coalfield territories”.

Longannet, the jewel in the crown of the National Coal Board’s plan for ­Scottish mining, was fed by a high-tech complex of mines built in the 1960s, connected by a five-mile tunnel that could deliver coal directly to the power station itself.

When this complex flooded in 2002 the work of mining coal from underneath the ground in Scotland essentially came to an end. Later, the power station’s ­closure in 2016 represented a massive leap in ­Scotland’s progress towards net-zero, ­wiping out 64% of carbon emissions from power generation at a stroke.

BUT this, of course, represents only part of the picture. Within the 50-year lifespan of Longannet, the world economy has increasingly moved beyond the boundaries of national economies and states. As our own carbon-hungry industries entered into rapid decline, many of the emissions that underpin the products we use in our day-to-day lives have simply been offshored.

The gap in electricity production left by Longannet is increasingly filled by ­Scotland’s burgeoning offshore wind sector. But the chronic failure to build a proper supply chain onshore for this new industry is itself a symptom of the ­radical experiment in deindustrialisation that Scotland experienced.

Coal was already in decline by the time smoke first poured from that 600 foot chimney. But debate around the ­industry was still premised on the pursuit of a “moral economy”: the notion that ­workers who provided the energy on which we all depended deserved a fair deal.

When this system was torn up in the 1980s mass unemployment became ­inevitable. By the mid-80s unemployment rates in Fife reached almost 20%.

According to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, there remains “a continuing legacy of poverty and deprivation within former coalfield communities”, to this day, with Fife still amongst the worst ­affected regions.

Worryingly, the nation’s reliance on imported renewable energy components suggests that policy-makers hope that the memory of the moral economy will ­disappear too.

I should declare an interest at this point. As the descendent of immigrants who ended up in the mining villages of West Fife, I am also, in a sense, a ­product of that moral economy. For me, the ­journey that led past Longannet was ­always freighted with the complexities of where you’re from.

Deindustrialisation is often described as a disorienting process, one that tends not to lead to overtly political responses, partly because the sheer scale of carbon industry created structures that ­contained what Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott describe as an “aura of permanence”.

The National: Longannet Power Station 1 SA

But I’ve also seen first-hand, in ­Germany and the Netherlands, places that have been far better at recasting the ­monuments and ruins left behind by ­carbon extraction. The cultural scars of the rapid and unforgiving forms of ­economic revolution that took place in Scotland at the end of the last century have a particular depth: this makes it much harder to agree what to do with that legacy.

It is these scars that make coal ­heritage troubling and contested still: in this ­corner of Scotland “Making Coal ­History” was an often brutal process that ripped communities apart and set worker against worker.

Meanwhile, there are high hopes that levels of employment at the site can be replicated by Spanish train manufacturer Talgo, although the firm’s failure to win an HS2 contract has put this in doubt.

On his first day in office in 2007, Alex Salmond visited Longannet to meet with the CEO of Iberdrola, the Spanish multinational that owns Scottish Power.

Perhaps the true symbolism of Longannet’s demise lies in the fact that the tallest freestanding structure in Scotland was owned by someone else.