The Black, Black Oil

North Sea oil

In 1964 the UK Continental Shelf Act was introduced. It granted licenses for the exploration of the North Sea for oil. This was a hugely significant economic development. Up as up until this point Britain’s oil and gas were imported at great cost to the country. The first North Sea oil well was drilled in 1967, with a further three discovered soon after:

  • Montrose field in 1969
  • Forties field in 1970
  • Brent field off Shetland in 1971

The North Sea Oil industry has grown to become one of Scotland’s most lucrative industries ever. At the time of writing The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil John McGrath could not have known just how dramatically the discovery of oil would transform northern parts of the country, particularly Aberdeenshire.

In 1973, rising oil prices brought increased development. Cheap land was bought up for housing to accommodate the new oil workforce. Already there were signs that history might be about to repeat itself – increased prices threatened to displace the existing population who could not afford to compete for housing.

McGrath’s play hints at further exploitation of the North, this time by billionaire tycoons and American oil companies. Texas Jim represents the new breed of economic coloniser.

Property developers began to buy up huge portions of Aberdeenshire very cheaply, and sold it on for a profit. McGrath turns the spotlight on politics. He scrutinises government involvement in the oil business accusing politicians of selling out local people in the pursuit of oil profits.

In the final vignette of the play, the audience is given a glimpse into the future. Tourists might one day be flocking to the north to “see all the big bonnie tankers come steaming up the loch”; they might even like to take a boat out to watch the rockets whooshing off down the range.

The ecological toll of the oil industry is hinted at. McGrath suggests that the oil rigs might not be visible because of the layer of stour or dust obscuring them; half of the Five Sisters of Kintail have also been cleared away by excavators now mining the land for minerals.

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