Experiences of an SFU Grad Student: Why Study Scottish history?

Grant Alexander Gillies is an MA student in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Grant is the current recipient of the David & Mary Macaree Graduate Fellowship.

When I tell people that I am writing a thesis on the history of “Scotland’s first nuclear station” they often respond with a variation to one simple question: why? Why, in a land of whisky and golf, Jacobite rebels, and Celtic folklore, would you want to study the history of nuclear Scotland? The answer to this question is complex.  Believe it or not, not all graduate students enter their various institutions and programs of study with a clear project or thesis in view. With this post, I hope to not only answer the question, ‘why?’, but speak to some of my own experiences as a graduate student studying Scottish history at Simon Fraser University, which have led to the evolution and development of my project.

While writing a thesis on the history of the Chapelcross nuclear power station was not the prime directive for my undertaking a Master’s degree at SFU, the choice to study Scottish history was.  My original plan was to write a thesis which aimed to explore systems of agricultural production and the cash nexus used under agrarian capitalism in the last quarter of the 18th to the mid- 19th century in Scotland. This very vague thread led me to a moment in Scottish history known as the Highland Clearances, a phase of intense land restructuring that occurred from ca. 1770-1850s, in which a significant number of tenants in the Highlands and Islands were evicted from their homes to make way for increased livestock rearing.  With a time, place, event, and a general theme narrowed down, I felt optimistic about a tenable project to complete for my MA.

ewart library

The Ewart Public Library, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies

However, as many Scottish history buffs already know, the clearances are a well studied period in Scottish history. Admittedly, my encounter with the secondary literature on the topic squashed my initial ambition to undertake it as a topic for my own MA thesis. Instead, I conferred with my supervisors over the decision to take on a project that would be more investigative, thereby reigniting that flame of passion, or at least that sense of discovery I wanted from an MA thesis.

Chapel cross Station

The Decommissioned Chapelcross Works nuclear power station, Annan, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies.

The decision to change my research to the history of Scotland’s first nuclear power station was ultimately inspired by one book: Kate Brown’s, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, And the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, an investigative, transnational, historical study which examined workers’ experiences and managing practices in the Handford plutonium plant near Richland, Washington, and the Maiak plant next to Ozersk in the USSR.   Brown argues that in order to entice workers and their families to agree to the risks and sacrifices involved in plutonium production, American and Soviet nuclear leaders created something new: ‘plutopia’, or amply subsidized communities with visions of middle class prosperity.[1]

I wanted to know more about how these American inspired nuclear villages, that as Brown explains, were strictly monitored and segregated into nuclear and non-nuclear zones in which plant managers were free to run up budgets, embezzle, conceal accidents, and pollute. Taking Brown’s work as a model for my own work, I set out to investigate the history of a Scottish nuclear town.

Newspaper

“The Opening of Scotland’s First Nuclear Station,” The Annandale Observer, May 2, 1959. Ewart Public Library, Dumfries and Galloway.

With some quick research, I learned that in the late 20th Century there were 15 nuclear stations in operation in the United Kingdom, 4 of which were located in Scotland. The first in Scotland was the Chapelcross Works nuclear power station, which opened in 1959.  Located 3km north-east of Annan in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, Chapelcross’ primary purpose was to produce weapons grade plutonium for the UK nuclear programme, but it also generated electricity for the national grid.  Despite my minor set-back early in the program, this early discovery sparked an entirely new thesis project.

One of the most important parts of the research was to spend as much time in the street talking with people in the town about the station as I did in the judicial and national archives. Before I left for Scotland, I posted an advertisement in The Annandale Observer asking if people were willing to answer a few questions about their memories or experiences with Chapelcross.  Unfortunately, the response was not as I hoped, and I began my research primarily in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Ewart Public Library in Dumfries and Galloway.

NAS

The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2016. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies

However, my time spent in the archives proved imperative as I dug through over a thousand recently declassified government files pertaining to policies over the authorizations for the disposal of radioactive waste, and letters, correspondence, and meeting minutes between local liaison committees, the Scottish Office, and managers for the station.  Moreover, as locals seemed to be more interested in discussing local landmarks and Robbie Burns, who, as anyone whose visited Dumfries knows, spent his last years of his life writing in a house near the River Nith, I spent many days sifting through old newspapers on a micro-fiche reader that was less than forgiving to use.  It was an experience I think all historians in training can relate with in some way. What might seem as banal or boring work in the archives turned out to be one of the more exhilarating parts of the entire trip.

Devil's porrige

Playing around in the Devils Porridge Museum, Eastriggs, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies.

This is not to say that my time in the archives outweighed my persistence to get out into the street and speak to members of the community.  I spent many days biking to the station and snapping photos, siting in cafes and pubs asking people what, if anything, they remembered about the station, and visiting the local war museums such as The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. It was there that I met Edwin Rutherford, a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool who also works for the museum, who is starting an oral history project for the Chapelcross station.  Unfortunately, his luck was as good as mine at the time, and I was forced to be more creative with strategies for finding sources.

Eventually my patience payed off as mid-way into my research trip I received word that the Dumfries and Galloway Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (D&G CND) were holding a demonstration in the Dumfries town centre.  Due to this wonderful stroke of luck, I was able to set up an interview with a man and his brother-in law, both of whose fathers worked at the station. While a few interviews with long time members of the D&G CND fell through, I was lucky to have the time I had to learn a bit more about people’s reactions to the station.

Protest1

Photo of the Dumfries and Galloway Campaign for Nuclear Armament Demonstration, Dumfries, Scotland. Photo Credit; Grant Gillies.

Of course, all this would not have been possible without the gracious support from the History Department at SFU, and the Centre for Scottish Studies at SFU and its various supporters.  Currently, I am drafting my thesis which I plan to defend by the end of the summer. What I’ve discovered is that there is not a single history to this station. The Scottish people that worked and lived alongside the station were not only pioneers of a new technology, developing safety standards and protocols for the industry, but also grassroots activists, raising awareness to some of the risks and moral dilemmas which came with the use of nuclear technology for military and commercial purposes.  While there is no single reason as to why I chose this topic, it is clear to me now that the story of the Chapelcross Works nuclear power station deserves its place within the annals of Scottish history, and I was more than happy to be a part of this process.

–Grant Gillies


Sources:

[1] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, (Oxford University Press: 2013) pp. 3.

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