That which once was great is passed away

And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.


William Wordsworth, On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic


Yes, I realise that this epigraph is over the top. But I also think that the passing of Cockenzie Power Station, at least in its current incarnation, deserves further tribute, even one that falls short of outright regret.

I have previously extolled the architectural virtues of Cockenzie in other writing on this site and in The Guardian. But when I was finally offered a guided tour of one of my favourite buildings – thanks Scottish Power – I couldn’t help but brace for disappointment.

It didn’t disappoint.













































Wow. Just wow. The scale is impossible to capture in photographs or, at any rate, in my photographs. You’ll find markedly better portraits of Cockenzie here by Alex Hewitt of The Scotsman.

But I’m posting these images in the hope that they convey some impression of this nationally significant building (Historic Scotland, unfortunately, doesn’t share this view).


Cockenzie’s closure has been on the cards since the advent of the European Large Combustion Plant Directive. This meant that Scottish Power had to either make Cockenzie compliant with the new emissions limits or ‘opt out’. They chose the latter, leaving only 20,000 hours of generation time which expired in March 2013.

In 2011, planning permission has been granted for a new CCGT plant but Scottish Power has not committed to such a station until the market conditions in the forthcoming Energy Bill become more apparent.


In the meantime, Cockenzie is subject to a long period of dismantlement. Technically speaking, this is not a case of demolition though with the impending demise of its iconic 500ft chimneys this does feel like ‘the shade of that which once was great’ is passing away.

Scottish Power’s sub-contractors, Brown and Mason, are now recycling all that they can from the site – much of it to be kept for spares in the sister plant at Longannet.

Auditing and re-sorting all this the equipment is an enormous task and is expected to take at least two years. Ultimately, the aim is to make the site ready for the CCGT plant if Scottish Power ever choose to make the investment.

Visiting the station in its current guise is rather odd. It is neither operational nor a ruin. It is not, in Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, an object of ‘irresistable decay’. The site remains very active. Dismantlement turns out to be a very involved process – not altogether unlike construction.


I wish I could more closely document the unmaking of Cockenzie Power Station. Somewhere in the doorstop that is Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, he introduces a collection of quotations on ‘demolition sites’ with the following directive: ‘sources for the teaching of construction’.





To prise apart this elaborate machine, built with the precision of a watchmaker but over 24 hectares, presents a rare opportunity to think about the origins and legacies of Scottish coal and its infrastructures.

Someone should really write about this.



Why I love Cockenzie Power Station

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: I love Cockenzie Power Station.

When I hit Portobello prom of a morning, I invariably give it a backward glance.

Later, when I’m crossing North Bridge over Waverley Station, I like to check that it is still there.

From this vantage point, the tourists are agog at the Scott Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Castle – even, heaven help us, at the Balmoral Hotel.

I’d flatten them all for Cockenzie Power Station.

Even from a proximity of ten miles, it looks monumental; the distant outline of Byres Hill gives it a picturesque frame.

If you have ever lived in Edinburgh you’ll likely know Cockenzie’s distinctive twin chimneys. But given that it is due to close at the end of March, now is probably a good time to give them some proper attention.

Cockenzie is closing because it positively belches carbon. That is, of course, what it was designed to do – turning coal into electricity – and it has done so productively since it opened in the midst of a turbulent May 1968.

I understand why these behemoths must die and I’m not going to attempt to defend their continued existence.  Borne of good intent into an age of carbon innocence, they have served their purpose well.

Permissions are now in place to convert Cockenzie from coal to (more efficient) CCGT gas.

This is good news (sort of) for greenhouse gas emissions but bad news for one of the most distinctive landmarks on the east coast. These stately chimney stacks are set to be demolished in favour of two rather diminished replacements.

The aesthetic effect of this change is, as you can see from Scottish Power’s visualizations, fairly lamentable.

This is perhaps why I’ve been particularly attentive to Cockenzie in recent months – enjoying it, as it were, from every angle.


I can see that it doesn’t make sense to import coal from Russia now that our own industry has been destroyed or exhausted.

But the presence of Cockenzie Power Station in the landscape is one of the last monuments to a wider modernist project for the Forth that saw the development of Livingstone and Glenrothes, the Forth Road Bridge and sibling power stations at Longannet, Methil and Kincardine.

In Portobello, the outline of Cockenzie has a particular resonance given that it was the replacement to our own no less remarkable power station, opened by George V in 1923, and finally demolished in 1976.

It is doubtless too late to save the twin towers of Cockenzie. But it does seem symptomatic of a wider disregard of our modernist heritage as well, perhaps, as speaking to a more general discomfort with our having been modern in the first place.