James Watt’s shed: Anthropocene wormholes in the Firth of Forth

As ruins go, this one isn’t up to much.

The visitor can find it a short distance off the A993, a main road running along the southern coast of Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

James Watts' Shed, 2014Walls have been shored up with indelicate licks of concrete, and shorn of graffiti well enough. The visitor should spot a ubiquitous relic, cider – lively at 8.4%.

Cider, James Watt's workshopNo patina of time-worn memory clings to this ruin. The walls wear no shroud of melancholy; no barely felt absent-presences linger to move the seeker of ruinous pathos. The stones definitely don’t vibrate with emotional or affective force; they just sit there in a bored kind of way.

A passing dog-walker looks skeptical when I ask if this is James Watts’ shed. He says maybe, who knows. Nice day though, isn’t it?

The Council or Some Other Body has provided an interpretive sign for the visitor, but its text has dropped off, disappeared, or simply given up.

Sign, James Watt's workshop

I imagine that the sign, when it was alive, would have told me a tale of Scottish engineering prowess. It might have read something like this:

“Here lies the shed of James Watt, father of the steam engine. Here this plucky Scot overcame the straitjackets of Guild power and social hierarchy; here he incubated the industrial revolution; here he began the epochal shift from horse power to fossil fuel power.”

It is James Watts’ shed, yes – the man whose improved steam engine became instrumental in the industrial revolution. More accurately, it is the shed where Watt worked for his patron and financial backer, the industrialist John Roebuck, between 1767 and 1773. Here Watt spent long years improving Newcomen’s steam engine, tinkering, trying to get his new pipe-condensers, plate-condensers and drum-condenser to work properly.

Watt’s dreams ran ahead of his powers. His image of the technology-to-be called him, urged him stutteringly forward – an address from the future that he grasped for, night by night, experiment by experiment, trial by trial, slowly assembling his powers of invention, patronage, investment and capital. Watt wrote:

“I can think of nothing else but this engine.”

With each setback Roebuck became more impatient, Watt more tenacious in his grand tinkering. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt was distraught (he wrote that he could not “bear the thought of other people becoming losers by my scheme”). But one of Roebuck’s creditors, another industrialist, Boulton, took Watt on, “for love of you and love of a money-getting ingenious project.” Boulton knew that a properly efficient machine would allow more unlucky miners – men, women, and children alike – to burrow quicker and deeper into the Earth.

Watt and Boulton began to sell their engines, the shed traded up for a northern England factory. Watt wrote how

“The velocity, violence, and magnitude and horrible noise of the engine give universal satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not … the noise serves to convey great ideas of power to the ignorant.”

Watt was never simply  the author of a new machine. Rather, he was a subject emerging from his own works; less a genius who made a machine, more a machine that made a genius.

Watt and Boulton sold ten of their steam engines a year, rising to make a cumulative total of 451 – enough for Watt to buy a small mansion that he never really lived in.

Today, Watt’s patenting of his steam engine in 1769 is invoked as a politico-geological Cape Canaveral for the Anthropocene. Commonly, accounts have the steam engine unleashing a slow but irresistible wave of modernisation: a cascade running from a small invention to planet-encompassing processes. Watt has come to occupy a pivotal point in a fable of geo-history.

Such a fable would suck the unwary visitor to this dull ruin down a worm hole: he or she need not be transported not very far, emerging perhaps less than a mile away to the Grangemouth Refinery. This belching metropolis is a mature, fair-sized oil plant, with a capacity to process 205,000 barrels a day. Grangemouth’s history of disputes between labour, capital, and geology make Watt’s eighteenth-century problems with restive Cornish workers and reluctant pumps look like insignificant hiccups.

Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS
Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS

In going down this wormhole, Watt’s engine becomes transcendent, an angel of modernity grown to straddle the globe (even though its form changes and multiplies along the way, this is mere evolution of pre-given form). As Bruno Latour puts it, effectiveness is to technology what objectivity is to knowledge. When networks of knowledge are well composed, objectivity emerges. When technology “works”, all the twisting, discontinuous, folding, puzzling zig-zags of its making become invisible. Instead of mistaking effectiveness for technology, more properly,

the adjective “technological’ does not designate in the first place an object, a result, but a movement that is going to take from inert entities and from living ones – including the body of the artisan, which becomes more skillful by the day – what is needed to hold together in a lasting way. (Latour 2013, p225)

Although in the end it gave him more, the steam engine also took much from Watt – his time in the shed was not a happy one.

To fund his tinkerings, Watt surveyed for new canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and undertook other odd jobs, “honourable and perhaps profitable employment” as he called it. Away on one such trip, Watt received news that his wife was dying; in fact she had passed away during childbirth even before he received the news, and he hurried home in vain. Watt felt his absence as a tragedy inseparable from his thirst for the steam engine. Watt’s early engines were unsatisfactory, clumsy, his time dominated by “intermediate failures and uncouth constructions”. He was a fanatical worrier, money and the lack of it gnawed at him constantly – debt and ruin often loomed large. Though he was no solitary recluse, Watt was prone to depression, anxiety and ill-health, “plagued with headaches and sometimes heartaches,” as he put it, and often filled with dread “for his approaching doom” – the failure of his engine.

Watt’s technical gropings, his setbacks, and his depression. The way his dream of mechanical elegance – and of riches to come – called him on into his uncertain future. This being of technology is a long way from the author of a geological epoch. These stutterings do not map on to an Anthropocene wormhole – to invoke James Watt as some harbinger of a new earth is to remain deaf to his disappointments and triumphs, to the intimate foldings of man and machine.

Perhaps the sign might better read:

“Here James Watt tinkered with the engines that called him into being, beings that egged him on; here he was consumed by anxiety, and got a bit depressed. He left to make a lot of money by pumping water out of holes in the ground.”

James Watt's shed, sign


Carnegie A (1905) James Watt (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York).
Latour B (2013) An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).
Tann J ed (1981) The selected papers of Boulton & Watt (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.).
Webb R (1972) James Watt : inventor of a steam engine (Franklin Watts, London).

With thanks to Julian for taking point on the cycle there and back…

Speculative geology in the Firth of Forth: Uri Geller’s cosmic island and other tales

This post is scaffolding for a small musing-project on the multinatural histories of a set of islands that lie in the Firth of Forth, the fjord sea inlet around Edinburgh.

The islands lie strung out along the coast.

Their patchworked histories incorporate Benedictine monasteries (Isle of May), dumping grounds for syphilitics and plague-carriers (Inchkeith), lighthouses to domesticate the choppy waters (Fidra), anti-Nazi gun emplacements (Incholm); they are places of murder and imprisonment, refuge and retreat for heretics, hermits and birds. I will try and land on as many as I can in 2014, be it in person, spirit, or through the archive.

But the island are no remnants, consigned to history.

In the last few decades fresh land has sprung, steely, from the deep: islands of metal scaffolding, serving new gods – North Sea oil and gas.

North Sea gas terminal, off Peatdraught Bay
North Sea gas terminal, , off Peatdraught Bay
Liquified Gas facility spilling down from hills at Braefoot Bay
Braefoot Bay marine gas terminal © Copyright Simon Johnston and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The islands of the Firth of Forth are a growing family, histories continuing to fold, one on another.

The gods of energy security may or may not bring fracking to the Firth of Forth. The pulse of geology ebbs and flows: for recently Braefoot was retrofitted to drink deeply of the North American shale gas boom, replacing its steady gorging of local, fossilised sea-critters.

Geology is not done with the Firth of Forth.


In 2009, the Palestinian mystic and spoon-bender Uri Geller bought Lamb Island, an uninhabitable basalt lump some 20 miles from Edinburgh. He paid the knock-down price of £30,000.

Lamb island viewed from Berwick Law

The spoon-millionaire ordered his island direct over the telephone from Japan, presumably in a peak of late-night shopping.

I like to imagine Geller’s perplexed reaction when the title deeds arrived on the doorstep of his Berkshire mansion months later, much like the unexplained book that arrives weeks after you’ve forgotten you even ordered it. In any case, Geller gamely declared that “I can’t believe that the Scottish Government let it go. But it’s mine now!”

Geller had read that, apparently, an exiled ancient Egyptian princess buried treasure somewhere on the island, as part of ancient pact between Scotland and Egypt.

According to press coverage at the time, Geller’s purchase was influenced by an article in Atlantis Rising [a journal of the occult…].

The gist of the article is that Lamb is one island in chain of three that matches the crooked line traced by the Egyptian pyramids at Giza (you can read Uri’s account here)… Even more mysteriously, Lamb itself sits at the confluence of two crucial ley lines. The author, ‘historical investigator’ Jeff Nisbet, asks:

“What are the chances that the freemasonic numbers 23.5, 33, and 47 would lead us to a small patch of the globe containing three islands laid out in the pattern of Orion’s Belt, near a very pyramidal hill just three feet shorter than the Great Pyramid, only 20 miles to the east of a Sphinx-shaped extinct volcano with Arthurian connections, in a city that is the acknowledged world capitol of Scottish Rite freemasonry — all in a land with an much-decried Egyptian foundation legend?”

Quite. Atlantis Rising does a good line in occultist marginalia and conspiracy. In any case, Geller became convinced that Lamb Island was animated by a cosmic energy.

It’s easy to ridicule though. But these occult histories animate the island as much as the now-settled geological controversies surrounding their birth, and have come to direct Lamb Island’s future: for they hooked Uri Geller. Such histories need not be true (or even barely credible) to have an effect on the world.

Uri on Lamb
Uri Geller (left) on Lamb

Certainly, Geller was a step up from the Brazilian businessman who owned Lamb Island before him. Although, we should have more democratic control over who gets to own Scotland’s land.

Having bought his island, and determined to visit, Geller scheduled a helicopter ride.

Luckily, he was persuaded by the local Seabird Centre to land instead by boat, to avoid upsetting the many protected bird species nesting there.

Landing on the island on a cold February in 2010, Geller exclaimed:

“How incredible it is to own an island. It’s just mind-blowing – look at it! Look at all these seagulls. Are these seagulls mine? … What are these called?”

He then spent one night on Lamb Island, feeling “the energy of the place”.

He has not been back since. The birds are still there.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock
The Bass Rock, June 2013

The gannet, a bird adapted for diving into the sea after fish, is anchored to another of these basalt islands, which lies a little over five miles to the east along the coast from Lamb. The gannet is anchored by a name, Morus bassanus; the ‘bassanus’ following the ‘Bass’ in Bass Rock.

No incarnation of eternal, universal nature, this beast of the sea/air borders is freighted with our desire for epistemic rooting, flying gamely through our scientific and naming  histories.

Each Spring, gannets flock to Bass Rock, returning from their winter hunting grounds off the coast of West Africa, or the balmier parts of the North Sea. The colony, 150,000 strong, makes its seasonal homes every year to raise chicks. Or just have a lot of ‘unproductive’ sex.

The dark rock is turned white by feathers and shit. Biology overwhelms geology.

And every year 280,000 human tourists sail out and around the island, each entering for a short time a world thick with caw-cawing divers, their smell, and their aerial energies.

Bass Rock skies
Bass Rock skies

On such a trip, when the boat approaches the Bass Rock the anticipatory tourist babble ebbs away, the commentary becomes more reverential: a sense of something different creeps over the boat. Reaching the Bass Rock we enter another world, becoming – perhaps – differently human: sharing some part of another creature’s life-world by enhancing the powers we have, or getting newly sensitive, if only for a time. The visitor enters a zone of proximity. In the gannet we glimpse a way of being that while radically different to our own, involves sharing territory: sharing the earth.

DSC00381Yet, at the same time we feel our distance and the impossibility of ever meeting in the same world, even as our different worlds come together, briefly, boating round the Bass Rock.

Something taints this meeting: The skies, immediate and full of birds, juxtaposed against an injunction to worry about the fragility of abundance, and the possibilities of extinction.

Leaving the Bass Rock, we can answer Uri Geller’s question:

No, these gannets are not ours.

Western Isles: cycling

I’ve long been told that the Western Isles of Scotland are magical. Or interesting. Or Weird. Or some combination of weirdly magically interesting.

Cyclists I’ve met have raved about the quiet, hilly roads and long empty beaches. My family have enthused on its archaeology, others about its incubation of radical land politics. And since moving to Edinburgh these islands, their difference – historic and contemporary – as a landscape apart, has strangely shifted my sense of the geography of Britain.

This summer I cycled up from Vatersey, the most southerly inhabited island, to the Butt of Lewis (and on to the northern reaches of Scotland – more stunning cycling). Here are ten photos about it.

1. The machair, a thick band of just-off-the-coast land up much of the West side of Barra and the Uists, is covered every summer in a thick blanket of meadow flowers. None are especially rare, apart from a few orchids, but the overall effect is amazing. It was a bit depleted by drought [sic] when we were there.

2. Birds. There are birds everywhere. Being very, irrepressibly noisy: all the time. The corncrake, that “little god of the field” (the description Kathleen Jamie likes so well) which is extinct on mainland Britain, has a stronghold here. To encounter them you don’t need to go birding, certainly binoculars are a bad plan. Just camp near the machair and you can listen all you want to the “crex crex” call of wandering corncrakes. This is certainly enchanting the first night, but does get wearing when they awake at 3am…

3. Stony inheritances. The ruins of former settlements are everywhere.  We cycled up to Barpa Langass and wandered around that big pile of stones. Incredibly, this stone age dwelling was around before much of the peat bog had even formed. Elsewhere, everywhere, there are standing stones. No one really knows what these are for, even at the bigger sites like Calanish. I like Tim Robinson’s speculation that washed-up beacons like the one above are the fossilized forebears of a more modern will to power; the same desire to master space animating prehistoric politicos, nineteenth century cartographers, and those who count climbing to the top of mountains as an important achievement.


There are other ruins too, from those of the clearances, to cold war remnants, to echoes of high modernity. Pictured on the left is the vestige of one of Lord Leverhulme’s many schemes to bring, against their collective wishes, industrial wage labour to the inhabitants of the islands. On the right, the crumbling buildings that used to occupy the staff of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse (famed from BBC Radio 4’s shipping forecast…) before its automation. There is no wilderness on these lands.


4. Land ownership. Apparently, successive owners of the silly-looking, Victorian Amhuinnsuidhe Castle (left) have all been mighty pissed off that the dead-end road to Huisnis goes right by their front door. Good. We resisted the temptation to pitch our tent on the ridiculous lawn (replete with cannon). But although the plutocrats may no longer own Harris, you still certainly can’t play golf on a Sunday (right).

 5. Religion. Our guidebook described the north west coast of Lewis as a “string of bleak and fervently Presbyterian villages”. This pretty much sums up all that is wrong with (i) tourism in general and (ii) the Rough Guide in particular. As if architectural aesthetics were there only to be consumed by the metropolitan flaneur. In any case, I liked the stark churches up here, but they couldn’t compete with the dour Catholic bling of the church of Our Lady of Sorrows, South Uist. This is modernist Concrete brilliance.

6. Hills. The American-born folksong collector Margaret Fay Shaw, before she settled down to live in South Uist for five years to collect, archive and salvage Gaelic songs and stories, cycled a lot around Britain. In 1924 she cycled from Barra to the Butt of Lewis. This factoid joins other kernels for a future project on amateur anthropology, landscape and the bicycle. Anyway, I’m mightily impressed because since her jaunt many roads have been re-graded, but are still really really really steep, so I can only imagine doing them on 1920s technology. Cycling hats off to Margaret, whatever her contested folklorist credentials.

7. Finally, here is some evidence that it is, in fact, really sunny almost all of the time on the Western Isles. Go there.