Costa Head, Orkney


illustration from E. W. Golding's The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955)

My first destination in Orkney is one of the most important ‘archaeological’ sites in Britain in terms of renewable energy, Costa Head. This site has no helpful information panels, nor is there a hilltop museum embedded into the shell of the old concrete hut. This now historical renewables memorial doesn't gain any mention on the plethora of brown signs that guide one around the clock face of Mainland Orkney, from rune to standing stone to the corbell sunken dwellings of Skara Brae.

Here at Costa there is only a bog-covered rock whose mound forms the North-Eastern tip of the island, edged by cliffs that the swell beatsbeatsbeats against continually.

Over time the construction that towered here has become ruin, and therefore, potentially, a monument. It is the form, function and context of this installation that I hope to begin piecing together today, with a little help from my friends, Alistair Peebles (poet, photographer, of Harray) and Laura Watts (poet, mapper, of Copenhagen).

WORD MNTN (Costa Head, from Rousay)
poem Alec Finlay, photograph Alistair Peebles

The Head is a lodestone representing the earliest years of post-war experiment in wind energy, a time when utopian vision was given impetus by the pressing memory of wartime shortages, which exerted themselves in the years of post-war austerity.

The few scientists employed in alternative energies, such as wind, had absorbed the lessons of wartime aeronautics, fighter wing fashioned windmill blade – indeed, the blades fastened to the nacelle at Costa Head were directly adopted from those of a helicopter.

These new experimental and marginal research projects grasped the potential of inexhaustible energy sources: wind, tide, sun, the warmth of the earth; their proponents foresaw the energy crisis of the 1970s – even if they were not yet able to predict the era of climate change and carbon crisis. It seems that the work of these few innovators was also viewed with suspicion and hostility by the coal industry and the new nuclear research establishment.

Costa Head, E. W. Golding, The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955)

The research undertaken here at Costa also connected Orkney to an international network of innovators, under the sponsorship of UNESCO, the recently formed Hydro board and the post-war Labour Government.

A short documentary of Costa Head can be viewed online, here.

The Headman: Golding

E. W. Golding, New Scientist (18 July 1957)
Photograph, Ida Kar

The leading figure for this new movement was E. W. Golding, head of the Electrical Research Association and a scientist who held a passionate conviction that innovative technology could supply energy to rural or isolated areas, whether in the Highlands or in the developing world. In some respects it seems Golding's work was fated to find a better reception internationally than in the UK, and he initiated experimental wind projects in Haiti and Israel, as well as evaluating other energy sources such as waste vegetable matter.

At a time when nuclear power was being presented as the key scientific frontier, offering the solution to the country's energy needs, Golding allied himself with a small committed network of wind enthusiasts, such peers as Morch in Denmark, Ailleret and Andreau in France, Hutter and Christaller in Germany, Thacker in India, Frenkiel in Israel. As Golding puts it: "It is very pleasant to be able to record that ... close contact has been maintained between almost all the people working on the subject and that, through international meetings, private conferences, and through correspondence, information on progress and experience has been freely exchanged".

Their studies were focussed on the best designs, understanding wind behaviour and the best method of utilizing the energy produced.

This particular hill on Orkney was selected to test the UK’s first large-scale windmill turbine – in what turned out to be a brief episode of wind, embedded within the great ‘Soviet’ era of the hydro-electric dam schemes of the 1950s and early 1960s.

A second British turbine was constructed at St Albans in 1952, to a design by the Frenchman, Andreau, and later moved to Algeria. This unit was never considered successful in economic terms as the frictional losses were too great.

The prototype device was commissioned by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and installed in 1955. The tower was a lattice steel construction, built by the famous Clyde ship-builders, John Brown. The 100 Kw turbine was connected to a diesel-powered grid, there being no national grid on Orkney at the time. It was only intermittently operational.

wind energy roses for Costa Head
illustration from E. W. Golding's, The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955)

Despite Golding's enthusiasm the lattice tower was badly damaged in a 200+ kmph hurricane.

Golding's book makes frequent reference to Costa Head as a test case in the discussions of siting and the calculations necessary to assess wind speed, the effects of gusting, and other crucial factors in terms of the economic generation of electricity.

diagrams from E. W. Golding's The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955)

Orkney was also used as a site to measure wind speed, with masts on Costa and nearby Vestra Fiold – which may explain why an old local guy who Alistair got chatting to could recall their having been two lattice towers.

map of Costa Head & Vetra Fiold
E. W. Golding, The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955) 

Rounding Costa Head

All technology passes away, becomes ruin, scrap and then, in time, treasured memento or museum artefact. It will happen in the same way to today’s wind-farms just as it happened to the big wheel of the colliery, or pinkish shale bings which were once so despised and are now the preserve of rare alpines.

We park by Swannay Loch and follow the track that winds up, anti-clockwise, around the contours of Costa Head. In the turbines day this was a road you could take a car up, now it’s little more than a wide sheep track.

As we climb higher we come on tufty bog-cotton plateau’s with low squared off pools where black peat banks have flooded. Every now and then we pause for a breather and turn to take in the view

E: little Eynhallow, lining up the era of Mid Howe with that of Maes Howe and the hills of Hoy, drawing the eye along a quarter point SW.

E: the ‘black sheep’ of Rousay, from the top of Ward Hill and Twelve Hours Tower to Westness, the incised edges of Quoynalonga Ness and the fields of Quondale, the only Estate that was cleared on Orkney

S: the farms of Evie and wind turbines on Burgar Hill which are facing our way

W: Once we’re high enough, west toward Greeny Hill Sandwick and the rook of Birsay

N: north, the outlying form of Papa Westray, Fitty Hill with the turbine in its lee; beyond that, some imaginary isle on the horizon where the low reflected cloud lays onto the surface of the sea – Orcadia’s own Ultima Thule

WORD-MNTN (Greeny Hill)
poem Alec Finlay, photograph Alistair Peebles 2011

WORD MNTN (Fitty Hill)
poem Alec Finlay, photograph Alistair Peebles 2011

Over the next few days Alistair guides me around the Orkney Mainland and the east coast of Rousay. Fresh in our thoughts, Costa Head offers itself as a new aligning feature for the island; a blunt raised prow overlooking the churning sea channel, the great door that carried vessels into Orcadia, around Eynhallow, where the tidal race collides. This sea/land ending/beginning was articulated as a gateway by the ancient inhabitants of Orkney: arrayed in the processional alignment of Mid Howe, Eynhallow and the broch at Gurness.

The lattice tower on Costa Head followed no such alignment; unlike those ancient monuments it was placed on the highest point, an articulation of dominance.

The Remains

WORD MNTN (Burgar Hill from Costa Head)
poem Alec Finlay, photograph Alistair Peebles, 2011

Make for the squat ruin first, on an island dotted with Nissan and all forms of surplus hut, many left over from the war, adapted to every purpose, from storage to chapel.

When the turbine was operational there was always someone on watch. Who was here on the day or night the tower collapsed?

Scattered hereabouts there are rusty steel fragments fastened to concrete and the remains of foundations and, farther off, smaller earth ‘pegs’ and immense sloping blocks, scattered around the hilltop in what one can, with difficulty, reimagine into an arc sweeping around the tower.

First up, Laura writes an in memoriam.

tomb (Costa Head)
poem and photograph, Laura Watts 2011

mica encrusted

to the unknown

mesostic Costa Head
photograph, Alec Finlay 2011



The original lattice structure is one of the key motifs for my renewables project, symbolic artefact of an earlier eras thinking and attempts at alternatives to energy production.

Alec Finlay, 2011

At the time the lattice would have represented the strongest engineered form for a tower of this height. Alistair, who has assembled a playful photographic survey of the aerials of Orkney, explains, that such a sight would have been familiar to Orcadians from the experimental radar station at Netherbutton naval station, Holm, built during the war.

Alistair Peebles, from Some Aerial Views of Orkney

Whether it wasn’t strong enough, or because the mechanism of the nascelle and blades were too unstable, the Costa Head experiment failed. It seems even steel can be blown away. Maybe mainland scientists – Golding and his team – were unable to fully conceive the sheer brutal force the wind can command here, a force beyond the numbers their graphs and charts were capable of recording?

Perhaps what was lacking was that Neolithic knack for understanding the lay of the land: the world is not always best understood by means of commanding heights? There’s a balance to be struck in place of extremes.

Alistair and Laura, Costa Head
photograph, Alec Finlay, 2011

Alistair and Laura walk on towards the sea cliffs, shadowed over their shoulders by some snarky bonxies, to look for Standard, a rock stack hung off the highest cliffs on the Mainland.

I sit awhile on one of the great concrete plinth remains then walk over to the remains of the windmill base, where the tower fixed itself to the earth. A rusty trig-point, the single remaining pin marking not so much a height as a falling. There’s peaty tea to drink and some poeming to do, joying in the sun and conspectus of loch and hills, eyes roaming calmly from island to island.

Costa Head Windmill Turbine in Tea
photograph, Alec Finlay, 2011

The concrete’s warm, weathered soft, a Corbusier northern sun-lounger. Settled here I try to imagine the tower over again, using my own wide-armed shadow, following the line where the guy hawsers would have run up at an angle to gauge it’s height.

There was a circus big-top here that moved on; that tower is now air.

Concrete plinth, poem-label, Costa Head
poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles, 2011

The old fixtures allow for the pun.

as every guy knows
time releases

What if the experiment hadn’t been toppled? Would wind power have flourished in Britain decades earlier? Is Costa Head a monument to a lack of nerve, a misreading of the extremity of the locality, so obvious in it’s ecology?

Was it conceived in the laboratory minds of London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow, following a regime of drawing-board, stress tests and calculation, but without factoring in that extreme element, the Orcadian wind, the skreevar that gusts so brutally?

There is a comparison to be made, between the old research station installed on Orkney, imported from Mainland-Britain, with the pioneering renewables experiments now being conducted on the islands by local companies, scientist who live here.

After chatting with Alistair and Laura I allow myself the thought that Orcadia may now have the advantage of combining the skills of engineering with the ingenuity of an island consciousness. This conceptual pragmatism relates to ingenuity, a wide-reaching term Alistair has long reflected on.

Orkney Futures, Brae Editions, 2009
Available here

Laura and Alistair are, in their different ways, puzzling and answering, in the tradition of poetic speculation, and the collection of Orkney Futures that they edited together is a sampler of island consciousness, its flexibility, wry humour and sense of wide horizons.

It is possible to wonder what windmills were, and could be, here and elsewhere, without thoughtlessly imposing towers where they don’t belong. But how gauge what belonging means? How could such belonging learn from another installation of verticals, the stones at Brodgar.

Understanding Costa Head may deepen our awareness of what defines that elusive term, ‘belonging’; after all, its an issue which every technology has struggled with. There is a period of adaptation in any new experimental technological outpost, where plans and concepts are refined by the particularities of place and weather, needs and beliefs. These adaptations and innovations can then flow back, from ‘island’ to ‘mainland’, being imported, undergoing further adaptations and refinements.

Nowadays knowledge about renewables, reports and assessments, pilot plans and prototypes, washes in a tidal swell of data between Orkney and the Mainland. The weather may be local, but Orkney is no longer a periphery in terms of thinking and experiment. What is placed here may, in the future, have evolved here.

Sitting here on the soft bog-grass weave, taking in the broad sun, no sense of failure accrues to the Costa Head experiment, nor is it a site of scientific bravura. Progress is a walk forwards, over uneven ground.

As a culture we’d to live through coal, oil and gas. As with the other remains for which Orkney is so valued – the ancient aligning stones and rune scratched tombs that have been set down in this salt and honey landscape – we’ve only to gaze at the remnants of this once great lattice turbine to set ourselves the task of wondering what forms of life they represent and how these might bloom in our own time.

Costa Head

   for Alistair Peebles Laura Watts

in the mainland lab
white-coated minds calculated
sums minus the winds
standard island blast

the lattice form fell
Head down
erasing criss-cross shadows
from bog-cotton and rushes

the steel tower outlasted
by its road and ruined hut
rusty pegs, twined cables
workings hid among moor-grasses

an arc of grasping guys
shorn of tension
sagging from concrete bays
open-maws gripping on
                          to nothing

Alec Finlay, 2011

Imaginary Guy

   for Alec Finlay

Two of us walked further on – matters,
wonders we might see, like the ‘Standard’ stack,
and Hether-Blether, both somewhere beyond
this headland, past cotton grass and orchids,
tormentil – all the salt and gritty, windblown,
thriving stuff of summer – the bonxies,
and further yet, fulmars in the sun-blue air.
So we left you, resting on the anchoring slab,
to other wonders – guylines whining, tower
and turbine shuddering out some kilowatts
till a 50s hurricane tore the whole lot down.
‘They’d no control of it,’ said a farmer later,
telling of a landmark that he still could place,
and you could, still defining all that space.

Alistair Peebles, 2011


Alistair Peebles:   Brae projects    |    blog

Laura Watts

E. W. Golding portrait is from New Scientist 

Orkney Defence Interest Network is a group set up to highlight the importance of Orkney’s wartime heritage.

In 1939 a radar station was constructed at Netherbutton, Orkney, as part of the defenses for Scapa Flow, the main anchorage for the British Fleet during the war. Here you can see an image of the masts as they stood, and here an image of a torn-down mast after they were decommissioned in the 1980s.

A silent film of the experimental wind turbine on Costa Head was produced in the Autumn/winter of 1950. The film is in the Scottish Screen archive at the National Library of Scotland. This link is to Orkney Sustainable Energy:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I asked around about Costa Hill after seeing the building some years ago then finding it described as a radar station on Canmore.

    There is nothing to suggest there was radar there but the postwar aerial photographs on NCAP look as if it could have been a RAF DF site. The images are not very good but there is something that looks like structures that they used on these site.

    I would be interested to know if there is the remains of a hexagonal brick building like this.

    Or even one like this one but that is very unlikely