Highlands & Islands

Coal reserves in Brora in Sutherland 'safeguarded'

Mouth of River Brora. Pic: Chris Downer
Image caption Coal was first collected from the River Brora and a beach near the town in the 16th Century

Reserves of coal at the site of the UK's most northerly deep coal mine have been "safeguarded" in Highland Council's new planning policy.

Coal was thought to have been first collected from a beach and river at Brora, in Sutherland, in the 1500s.

Mining later began inshore and the last shafts closed in the early 1970s.

Council policy protects the coal remaining from being built over or, if development has to take place, it would be extracted first.

The story of Brora's coal industry features murder and tragedy.

An earl linked to its early years was poisoned along with his wife by a servant, while 15 miners died in a coal mine roof fall in the 18th Century.

The policy regarding the coal is set out in the local authority's Highland-wide Local Development Plan.

Curing salmon

Next month, councillors will consider conclusions and recommendations made by four Scottish government-appointed officials who examined the planning document following public consultation on its contents.

The officials' 614-page report of examination allows Highland Council to push ahead with finalising the Highland-wide Local Development Plan, which guides future house building, woodland creation and quarrying.

Image caption Remains of a salt pan at Brora where salt was produced using the coal

The government-appointed officials said the council's policy "safeguarding" Brora's coal resources was adequate.

In their report of examination, one wrote: "I note that the fifth paragraph in policy 54 says that mineral reserves will be safeguarded from incompatible development, except where there is no alternative site for the development or the reserves will be extracted prior to implementation of the development.

"I find that this adequately meets the concern regarding coal at Brora."

Coal was first recorded at Brora in 1529.

It was found at Back Beach and around the River Brora. Its uses included in the production of salt and for curing salmon.

The Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (Scape), a Fife-based trust involving the University of St Andrews, investigated the remains of salt pans on sand dunes at Brora in 2007.

The pans were large metal trays that were filled with sea water and heated below by fires fuelled by the coal to produce salt.

Caught fire

According to a 2004 report by historian and archivist Jacqueline Aitken, Brora's coal mining was both the most northerly in the UK and the only one to exploit "relatively young" coal of about 200 million years old.

The rest of the UK coalfields mine coal of about 310 million years old.

Brora's coal was deposited in a huge freshwater lagoon near the estuary of a large Jurassic age river, according to Ms Aitken's report.

Slow burning and creating a lot of smoke, the coal could spontaneously combust. In the 1700s, a boat's cargo of Brora coal caught fire as it was being taken to Portsoy.

Ms Aitken said records show the 11th Earl of Sutherland was involved in the early coal and salt industries.

He and his wife were poisoned at Helmsdale Castle in 1567 by servant Isabel Sinclair, a relative of rival aristocrat the Earl of Caithness.

The murderess later hanged herself.

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