FFifteen miles southwest of Edinburgh, a knuckled red fist rises from a soft green landscape: five rose gold gravel peaks are found linked by grass and moss, like a Martian mountain range or earthworks on the larger one. of the scales. They are heaps of rubble.
Each peak rises along a sharp ridge from the same point on the ground, fanning outward, with geometric simplicity. Along these ridges, the tracks once carried raised carriages, carrying tons of smoking, shattered rock – debris from the early days of the modern oil industry.
For around six decades beginning in the 1860s, Scotland was the world’s leading oil producer, thanks to an innovative new distillation method that turned oil shale into fuel. These strange peaks are a monument to those years, when 120 works belched and roared, fighting 600,000 barrels of oil a year off the ground in what had been, shortly before, a sleepy agricultural region.
However, the process was costly and time consuming. To extract the oil, the shale had to break down and overheat. And it produced huge amounts of waste: for every 10 barrels of oil, six tons of spent shale would be produced. In all, 200 million tons of material, and it had to go somewhere. Hence these huge piles of scum. Twenty seven of them in total, of which 19 survive.
But to call them piles of scum is to underestimate their size, their stature, their constant presence in the landscape; unnatural in both form and scale. Locally, they are called “bings” – from Old Norse, bingr, a lot, a tip, a trash can.
This particular formation, the five-pointed pyramid, is known as the Five Sisters. Each of the sisters gradually descends to its highest point and then falls steeply. They emerge from a flat and otherwise rather nondescript landscape – muddy fields, pylons, hay bales, cattle – to become the most important landmarks of the region: some pyramidal or square; some organic and lumpen; still others climbed bare red flanks to plateaus like Uluru.
Oil production continued here on a massive scale, until the vast reserves of liquid oil in the Middle East took hold. In Scotland, the last shale mine closed in 1962, ending the local culture and way of life, leaving the mining villages with no mines to use, and only the huge red brick bings as souvenirs. For a long time, bings were not liked: barren wastelands that dominated the horizon, serving only to remind the inhabitants of the region of a broken industry and a looted environment. Nobody wants to be defined by their piles of loot. But what to do with them? That was not clear.
Some were leveled. A few later mined again, as the redstone flakes – “blaes” as they are technically known – found a second life as a building material. But mostly the bings lay neglected and ignored. After a time, the villages in its shadows got used to its silent presence. To enjoy them, even.
It is not difficult to find the bings. You can see them from miles away. But the newly released Shale trail, makes it easier to map out a route to explore them. The 16-mile biking and walking trail between West Calder and Winchburgh includes the shale heritage sites and communities connected.
My aunt and uncle live in West Lothian, not far from the Five Sisters and even closer to their older cousin in Greendykes. The last time we went to visit relatives, my partner and I took a detour to climb the sleeping giant. The light was flat and silver, the sky gray and cloudy. We park in a semi-abandoned industrial estate, amid rust-stained Nissen huts and faded signs, and enter a landscape of almost unbelievable strangeness, like the first settlers on a new planet.
Deep bottle-green ponds had gathered in hollows at the base of the slope, at the foot of each dell and ravine formed by the ruffled edges of the tip, their outlines highlighted in the acid green of the pond’s weeds and grasses. fine as hair that intermingled. in the shallow waters. Water lilies poked their noses through the surface, where tiny insects skidded past. The whip-thin birch trees sprouted with improbable fervor from their gravel beds, silky-skinned, shiny, and with tiny buds of sweet new leaves. We hurried through the birch trees, along a narrow path, to emerge at the base of the bing proper, and found its vast red flanks rising in front of us, outlines and crevices dramatically marked in the vegetation and striated with footprints.
We started to climb, but the going was difficult. The blaes had solidified into a dense conglomerate to form rock faces in some places, stony in others. In other places, the outermost layer was grassy but wrinkled, like washed clothes, where the skin had slid down, and when we put our weight on it, we pierced like we were going through rotting snow. Sand accumulated in our shoes.
After a fashion, we made it to the top, a windswept mountain that offered panoramic views across clean fields to Niddry Castle, a 16th century tower, behind which another bing: a sheer cliff of worn blaes. , with a ruddy face but streaked with green and gray – he was breathing down her neck. And further afield, even more, rising proud from the floors.
The flora here was a strange mix; It was difficult to determine the type of climate we were in. Reddish buds of willow sprouted from the tops, as might occur on any roadside in the country. But other than that, the vegetation had a sparse, sub-arctic feel: a close crop of soft-furred leaves and starry flowers and short, blond grass. But there were also red clovers, with their sweet nectar heads just beginning to open, and spotted orchids. The first bumblebees of the year stumbled past, revving their engines. Sprouts and sprouts peeked out of the gravel. The earth basking in the sun, warming up, ready to bloom. It was the end of April. Impossible not to think of TS Eliot:
Lilacs from the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, touching
Dull roots with spring rain.
In 2004, ecologist Barbra Harvie did a study of the flora and fauna of the bings and discovered, to almost everyone’s surprise, that although no one had been looking, they had become unlikely hotspots for wildlife. “Island shelters”, he called them: small islands of wild nature in a landscape dominated by agriculture and urban development.
Hares and badgers, red grouse, larks, ringed butterflies and elephant moths, 10-spot ladybugs. Among the flora were a diverse variety of orchids: Young’s strangely rare helleborine, a delicate many-headed flower in pale greens and pinks, found only in a handful of British locations; the early purple orchid in spotty mauve; the larger butterfly orchid, with its winged petals, and a genetically distinct birch grove that had naturally established itself at the base of the tiny bing in Mid Breich.
Overall, Harvie recorded more than 350 plant species in the bings, more than can be found on Ben Nevis, including eight nationally rare species of moss and lichens, including the exquisite brown shield moss, whose slender tendrils they rise into the sky like a miniature army. For half a century, these once bare wastelands somehow magically came to life.
The wasteland of Eliot emerged from the “dangerous forest” of Celtic mythology, a land “arid beyond description” through which a hero must pass to find the Otherworld, or the holy grail. The bings also already offer a glimpse of what we could find on the other side: recovery, claim. A willful ecosystem is in the process of building a new life, of emerging bodily from the rubble. Starting over from scratch and creating something beautiful.
Bings, and abandoned sites like them, give us insight into the repair and retrofitting processes and, even more valuable, they offer us hope. They remind us that, even in the most desperate circumstances, all is not yet lost.
This is an edited excerpt from Islands of Abandoment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn (HarperCollins, £ 16.99). To order a copy for £ 14.78, visit guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism