Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – He Saved Orkney from Uranium Mining?

Sad news that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has died.  In these days of fanatical and state sponsored nuclear cheerleading it is a given that the obituaries in the National Press  will make little or even no mention of the history behind one of the composer’s most accessible and hauntingly beautiful works.  “Farewell to Stromness” was written as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s crazy “home grown” nuclear plan to mine uranium ore on Orkney.


First performed on 21 June 1980, Stromness Hotel, Stromness, Orkney (at the St. Magnus Festival) Eleanor Bron voice, Peter Maxwell Davies piano.

Composer’s Note: “The Yellow Cake Revue takes it name from the popular term for refined uranium ore, and concerns the threat of the proposed uranium mining to the economy and ecology of the Orkney Islands which islanders are determined to fight, down to the last person.

Stromness, the second largest town in Orkney (pop. 1500) would be two miles from the uranium mine’s core, and the centre most threatened by pollution etc. Yesnaby is the nearby clifftop beauty spot under whose soil the uranium is known to lie. Warbeth beach is the most popular beach in summer for Stromnessians. The ‘Dounreay dragon’ refers to British Nuclear Fuels’ Establishment at Dounreay, opposite Orkney on the Scottish mainland coast.

The voice may be a man’s or a woman’s. The songs are tonal and may be transposed to suit different voices”.

‘Yellow Cake’: The Facts behind the Icing by Archie Bevan

During the early 1970s, a geological survey being carried out as part of a check-up on strategic reserves of uranium in Britain revealed a corridor of uranium ore (‘yellow cake’) of ‘nuclear’ quantity between the town of Stromness and the cliffs of Yesnaby on the main island of Orkney. The South Scottish Electricity Board, with an eye to the possibilities of nuclear energy, negotiated individual agreements with the local farmers (who didn’t realize their significance at the time) to make test bores in the area. Application was subsequently made to the Orkney Islands Council.

In 1977 the Orkney Heritage Society started a campaign to prevent the exploitation of local uranium resources, and the Orkney Islands Council, alerted to the implcations, formalized local opposition by turning down the Electricity Board’s application. The Islands Council then tried to launch a private members’ bill in Parliament which would grant it full control over Orcadian mineral resources. This attempt failed.

The Orkney Islands Council had to produce a structure plan of its future developments, and included a clause concerning permanent resistance to any future plans to extract uranium. This was submitted for the approval of the Secretary of State for Sotland who chose the uranium clause as a point for public examination, and appointed a Public Examiner to hear both sides of the issue.

The Orkney Islands Council and the entire local population were now totally opposed, and a large silent protest demonstration was organized to make the Public Examiner aware of the extent of local opposition. The case was heard in the spring of 1979, with Orkney arguing not only from the fear of pollution itself, with the gravest consequences for the second principal town of the islands, but also from the point of view of the psychological damage and disastrous social and economic implications of uranium extraction on Orcadian fishing, dairy farming and tourism.

Late in 1979, the Examiner’s report was made public, and he recommended to the Secretary of State that the Orkney submission be rejected in the national interest. Maxwell Davies wrote The Yellow Cake Revue in the aftermath of this report, and it was first performed at the 1980 St. Magnus Festival. The Secretary of State for Scotland gave no immediate authorization for uranium mining to begin, but the long-term threat remains.

The original local agreements negotiated by the Scottish Electricity Board have since run out, and there is now strong activity afoot in the direction of alternative energy sources, with Orkney the centre of experimentation in wind power generation. In the meantime, The Yellow cake Revue symbolizes the active position of vigilance inside Orkney. Well-maintained placards still stand outside the town of Stromness, and the campaign would be immediately resusitated if there were any suspicion of attempts to re-open the matter.

2 thoughts on “Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – He Saved Orkney from Uranium Mining?

  1. Thank you for this great piece of writing (and music). Already Dounreay is a constant menace. Who will go see the historic Skara Brae that proves how early on Nordic peoples were well-advanced, if they know that they may be exposed to radiation? Very recently there have been radiation leaks into the air. Thatcher is an embarrassment to the very great saints whose names she carried, Margaret and Hilda, and an embarrassment to John Wesley who cared for the poor, animals and the environment. Wesley was an early advocate for humane care of farm animals, dogs, etc.

  2. The Guardian and The Telegraph are both shamefully schtum on the reason behind what is considered Peter Maxwell’s most lyrical and hauntingly beautiful work. “Farewell to Stromness” is about the Orcadians having to pack up and leave their radioactively contaminated homes.

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