Dounreay nuclear power plant
Cnoc na h-Uiseig chambered cairn
an inventory of atomic performance
‘The half-light, with its glimmer, had always had for him a curious historic reality, as though the world in this quiet hour turned itself into a stage whereon all that had once been could once more be, but invisibly now and therefore magically. The word ‘magic’ was as professionally real to him as the word ‘atom’ to a physicist. He knew his learned theories. But, unlike the physicist, he had to translate his concepts in terms of human behaviour’.
the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces
“…it would drain him through death to the negation of stone; and even then, he would not be the stone, he would be the darkness”.
the architecture of containment
approach with caution
wear protective clothing
invited participants only
inside and outside
“The upended stone was about three feet high, a small ‘standing stone’ or orthostat…These upended stones or orthostats would go right round the cairn forming its containing wall or peristalith. There were theorists who said that the great stone circles themselves were but a later development of this peristalith which kept back the cairn – or kept in the dead’.
systematic investigation of a death chamber
a steady hand
‘Then, as always in such fluid fancy, a knot formed about the one solitary fact, namely that the cairn was a great tomb; and instantly, as if his mind were indeed a radioactive substance emitting thoughts of an inconceivable swiftness, he completed the destruction of the world by atomic bombs, saw the cairn of Westminster Abbey and a future race of archaeologists opening it up’.
ideological demands for absolute decommission
preservation by record
“The evidence would disclose
that this had been
a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.
A Tripartite tale: some notes
The long quotations contained within this post were written by Neil Gunn (1891-1973), the Scottish author who grew up in the small village of Dunbeath, about 40 km south-south-east of Dounreay, Caithness. He wrote a series of evocative novels about the transformed and transforming Highlands in the middle of the twentieth century. All the extended quotations in this post come from his 1948 book The Silver Bough. This book tells the story of an arrogant academic archaeologist based in central Scotland who spends a summer on the northwest coast of Scotland in the fictional town of Kinlochoscar excavating a prehistoric megalithic tomb encased in a stone circle. (This is the best book I have read about an excavation other than Peter Ackroyd’s similarly themed First Light.) Nuclear matters are a recurring theme: Gunn was by all accounts disturbed by the dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, while his archaeologist protagonist was active at a time when that profession was on the cusp of being transformed by science, and in particular the radioactive science of radiocarbon dating. In many sense, it is a novel about individual, disciplinary and social ‘loss of innocence’ to coin archaeologist David Clarke’s memorable phrase.
A Neolithic chambered cairn, Cnoc na h-Uiseig, is situated right next to the former nuclear power plant of Dounreay, near Thurso, Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland. This monument is largely ruinous, and was investigated by Arthur JH Edwards in 1928. Excavation of this ‘horned cairn’ showed it to contain various internal chambers, and recovered from the interior were sherds of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, a perforated bone object, a sandstone axe and the remains of at least five individuals. The site has been much damaged by its location near twentieth century infrastructure, notably a nearby (now defunct) airfield, and in 1964 OS field workers noted that, ‘This chambered cairn, a grassy mound, has been mutilated large-scale construction work and is now slightly rectangular in shape, measuring 22.0m E-W and 17.5m transversely, by about 2.5m high’. It has for many decades been contained within a square fenced enclosure. This tomb was located well within the blast zone and almost impossible to visit for that reason. There are a number of other prehistoric and later heritage sites within a notional exclusion zone.
Dounreay nuclear power plant was established from 1955 onwards, and had three nuclear reactors. For decades the plant lived in uneasy equilibrium both with the population of the county of Caithness, but also the ruinous Neolithic megalith on its fringes. The plant was famous at times for unorthodox practices involving the disposal of some nuclear material, while there were often tales of radioactive particles on the nearby beaches. This was not an environment conducive to megalith visitation. Closure and decommissioning of the site began in 2005, and is expected to take over two centuries to entirely return the site to its former state. Since its closure, the nuclear plant has undergone a gradual decommissioning process, brought to my attention recently with the inclusion of a glossy brochure about this in the pack for a conference I was attending in the county. Here, we see the act of un-polluting the land, reversing the radioactive decades, as a triumph of technology carried out by robots and scientists wearing protective outfits straight out of science fiction. The decommissioning process has brought with it a longish tail of employment, and some funds to support community projects including those related to heritage and archaeology, although as yet this has not included re-excavation of the chambered cairn.
The end of the Dounreay decommissioning project is anticipated to be in AD 2300. By that time, the chambered tomb will be over 6,000 years old.
It is becoming post-atomic.
Sources: Edwards’ excavation report can be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 63 (1928-29), the paper being called, ‘Excavations at Reay Links and at a horned cairn at Lower Dounreay, Caithness’. There is a very nice introduction to Gunn’s The Silver Bough by Dairmid Gunn, in the 2003 Whittles Publishing edition which shed some light on the motivations behind the book. The timescales for the complete decommissioning process for Dounreay came from this article in the The Engineer Magazine.
Material culture and other items related to Dounreay can be viewed in an exhibition in Caithness Horizons, Thurso.
Photo and image credits: All of the black and white images related to the chambered cairn are reproduced from the Edwards’ excavation report. The photo of the excavator at work (actually on a nearby site, not the chambered cairn) comes from a poster produced by Headland Archaeology entitled, Lower Dounreay: an archaeological landscape. The photo of Neil Gunn comes from the website about him linked to in the text.
The rest of the images, from top to bottom:
Half-built reactor (B&W) Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Getty, via The Times
Reactor diagram (colour) The Open University
Inside the reactor (B&W) National Archives
Masks (B&W) Alamy Stock Photo
Debris (B&W) Friends of Bruce
Control panel (colour) BBC
Removing x 2 (B&W and colour) Decommissioning webpage