From her studio on a hill near Dornoch, Sue Jane Taylor can see the giant vessels of the oil industry sailing in and out of the Cromarty Firth.

The Highlands-born visual artist considers herself fortunate that her career has spanned the life cycle of an industry, from the manufacturing boom of the late 1970s and the 1980s to the present day as she documents its decommissioning. 

One of her recent works features the Well-Safe Guardian, a former platform that has been repurposed from its original function of drilling subsea oil wells to its new job to “plug and abandon” them, which is how the industry describes closing depleted oil and gas fields in the North Sea.

For Taylor, the work featuring the rig, as well as other artwork on display at a recent exhibition in Cromarty, represent a contemporary Highland landscape, something very different from the couthy, clichéd images people often expect when they imagine the north of Scotland.

Taylor sees the industry on the Cromarty Firth horizon as part of a spectrum of activity in the area, from welcoming boatloads of Huguenots fleeing persecution in France in the 17th century to offering a safe port for thousands of troops of the Northern Fleet in the First and Second World Wars.

“We may see it as the heather in the hills or the stags and Highland coos, but there’s the other aspect of the Highlands – where people have to live and work,” she says.

People are often the focus of Taylor’s work, from her touching sculpture memorialising those killed in the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988 to her portraits of workers at the Port of Nigg where she recently spent some time as an artist in residence.

Working from her car, which became a mobile studio because of the need to stay safe on an industrial site during the Covid pandemic, she spent time at the Nigg oil terminal, which is being decommissioned by its owner Global Energy Group to make way for the next energy industry coming on the horizon.

 “I’m interested in looking at that. I’m interested in the people that work there. These guys were chaps who are nearing retirement age and have been on the Beatrice oil field and I’m following them getting their responses to decommissioning and what’s going on there.”

In place of the Beatrice oil field in the Moray Firth is the vast Beatrice offshore wind farm, the first part of an industrial revolution stretching from the shores of the Highlands across to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, down the east coast of the UK and out to Dogger Bank, where the first phases of what is set to be the world’s largest wind farm will start powering hundreds of thousands of homes in the UK from next year. 

For Roy MacGregor, chairman and founder of the Global Energy Group (GEG) and one of the Highlands’ most prominent industrialists, the opportunity is clear. He sees the arrival of the offshore wind industry as nothing less than a chance to reverse the Highland Clearances and restore pride in Scotland’s innovative, entrepreneurial spirit.

“I was brought up here. I went away. I learned my trade away. But I came back and I’m a Highlander through and through,” he says. “We have 350,000 people here in an area as big as Holland and Belgium put together.

“This area has not believed in itself since the Highland Clearances. I was told by eminent businessmen that when your business reaches £50m turnover you can’t be headquartered in the Highlands.

“We touched half a billion and we’re headquartered in the Highlands. The talent is here, but people need to believe in themselves. That’s what I preach.”

In August, King Charles was the latest in a series of VIP visitors to the area to see the transformation for himself. In January, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chose Invergordon to announce that the Highlands had been successful in its bid to win status as a green Freeport that brought with it a share of £52m of funding and a package of tax incentives aimed at galvanising investment and creating tens of thousands of jobs. 

MacGregor, whose business employs 4,000, says half of its income is derived from traditional oil and gas clients and half in renewables.

He added: “I had the King on site. It was great. He spent a couple of hours with us on site. He wanted to see that transition from fossil fuels to renewables live. I need the politicians and the monarchy to be on side.”

MacGregor highlighted the recent announcement by Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation of plans to invest £200m to establish a subsea cable factory at the Port of Nigg. The Scottish Government has predicted the investment will create 150 jobs to create the cables that will connect offshore wind farms to shore.

Another project for MacGregor’s yard is the proposed Nigg Offshore Wind factory. Backed by SSE Renewables, as well as Scottish and UK Government funding, the steel rolling facility led by Haizea Wind Group is expected to employ a further 400 people. 

It is hoped the facility will fare better than other wind turbine manufacturing operations based in Scotland that failed, including three yards owned by BiFab which collapsed in 2020 despite a £37m Scottish Government bail-out. 

Although he admits the “finance isn’t quite what it was” in the shift from oil and gas to renewables, MacGregor is intent on seeing the industry take root. “The Highlands have had smelters, Dounreay, and various things where subsidises have allowed manufacturing to come here – but when the subsidies run out it doesn’t happen,” he said. 

“So Nigg is pioneering manufacturing. We need to learn to be manufacturers in this part of the world. We’ve never had that industry that ensures the jobs and supply chain on the back of it so that’s a challenge.”

Another hand on the tiller steering change is Calum MacPherson, who was appointed to lead the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport (ICFGF) in May.

There are two such port areas in Scotland – the other is in the Firth of Forth – and eight similar schemes in place in England. Further regions including Aberdeen have since been also awarded status as ‘investment zones’, albeit this was more a consolation prize, the city having been pipped by Inverness and Edinburgh in a hotly contested bid process for green freeports last year.

The ICFGF is currently pulling together consortium partners as well as defining the geographic boundaries of the freeport. Under initial proposals, green freeports take in a 28-mile radius in which a range of tax and other incentives provide investors and businesses who locate there an edge. 

 “That was great and a big sense of relief and celebration when it happened,” says MacPherson.

However, the establishment of the green freeport is just the start. Infrastructure owners behind the green freeport consortium include GEG along with the Port of Cromarty Firth and the Port of Inverness, which are both trust ports. The group also includes Inverness Airport, owned by the Scottish Government. 

Recently the partners agreed to include Ardersier Port in their plans. The historic 450-acres shipyard between Inverness and Nairn is the home of the former McDermott construction yard where some of the North Sea’s most iconic oil rigs were built by a workforce numbering in the thousands before it was abandoned in 2001.

Haventus acquired the mothballed site in 2021 and recently private equity fund Quantum Energy Partners, based in Houston, Texas, committed to invest £300m in the port’s future, setting its sights on the offshore wind opportunity and the £44bn North Sea decommissioning industry.

As far as the green freeport partners are concerned, the more the merrier. A recent report from trade body Renewable UK recommended investing £4bn in expanding port capacity across Great Britain to accommodate deepwater floating offshore wind projects, adding that an initial focus on Scottish ports would be needed as most of the schemes were in Scottish waters.

MacPherson says: “Even if our area were to be involved in creating a quarter of the offshore floating wind turbines required, there would certainly be enough work for all of the infrastructure – Port of Invergordon, Port of Ardersier, Port of Nigg. There’s more than enough to go around.”

Since MacPherson was appointed to the job, he’s been in a race to ensure infrastructure in the region can be ramped up in time to achieve the potential growth. ICFGF will submit a final business case to both the UK and Scottish governments before Christmas ahead of final approval in January or February – but the clock has already started ticking.

“Take for example the cable manufacturers,” says MacPherson of the Japanese investment plans at Nigg. “They are saying we need product rolling out of a factory by early to mid-2026. We need to get our factory built in the two years before that, so we need our permissions, our funding and design green-for-go by early 2024.

“If you work back from some of these deadlines it means we have got to hit where we are going at pace. What we have got – and it is not very often this happens in life – is a huge amount of investment from the private sector, and investors from abroad wanting to come to Inverness and the Cromarty Firth.”

MacPherson is highly suited to the role of leading the group. Not only is he a Highlander born and bred whose family worked the shipyards at Ardersier, but in his previous role he worked for a housebuilder, Robertson. 

This gives him insight into one of the area’s biggest constraints: affordable housing. He has also acquired some knowledge along the way of the workings of some of the big beasts of Highlands industry, including Sir Bill Robertson, founder of the eponymous housing firm based in Elgin in 1966, and now MacGregor, who is a linchpin of ICFGF.

 “There are formidable individuals who are helping to guide this. But we need ten Roy MacGregors – or a Roberta MacGregor would be even better,” says MacPherson.

He acknowledges there is a shortage of housing to rent and buy but says it is a “chicken and egg” market where the industry, bereft of bricklayers and other skilled labour, is forced to focus its resources on areas of higher-density population where demand is easier to predict.

“The housing industry is challenged at the moment because a real shortage of builders and joiners,” he says. “Ideally the market will pick up, especially to deliver options including three-bedroom flats for rent.

 “What I am hopeful of is that as opportunities improve here and prospects improve, housebuilders will increase their housing stock delivery.”

Neither MacGregor nor MacPherson believe capitalising on the upcoming revolution will be easy. Both point to the somewhat ironic – considering the potential for offshore wind in the region – lack of power infrastructure needed to support the predicted industrial growth. There is also the dearth of export connectivity to the UK power grid, which is currently the focus of major investment by SSE. 

Sue Jane Taylor, who has been a regular visitor to the offshore rigs – she calls them “these metallic isolated islands” – over the course of her career, grasps what it means for locals who for decades have seen their fortunes rise and fall and potentially rise again along with dramatic changes in the energy industry.

 “Most of the workers offshore, want to be in renewables. They don’t want to be in a dirty industry. Although, when their platform comes to end of life, they’re in tears because they’re so attached to that platform – that rusty bit of metal. It was a family, their offshore family. It’s like miners, it’s a kind of community,” she says.

Meanwhile, MacGregor says it’s time to act. “It is happening now. Four offshore wind farms have already been created – Beatrice, Moray East, Seagreen and Moray West. We’ve done the lot. They’ve spent £200m with us.

“It’s happening, it’s real and it’s going to grow. Scotland alone will not be able to deal with the demand. For the entrepreneurs, for the ingenuity in Scotland, for the challenge for Scotland it is huge. We need to step up to the mark, private and public.”