They are towns of people perched in the vastness of the sea, as isolated as many other islands in rough weather. The ones tied to Aberdeen all only take an hour or two to reach via helicopter, the usual method of commute. The remodeled ones offer all en suite accommodation these days and gyms, although none of them yet - I read - include an on-board swimming pool.
They are Earthly space stations, things of struts and towers and industrial vastnesses. Most are over three kilometers above the oil they are drilling. Those struts and towers tie them to those deeps, all three kilometers and more. The model of one which fills up the atrium - four or five stories' worth - of the Aberdeen Maritime Museum makes it vivid. The model, sunlit by wide windows, is the size of a small building in its own right.
They are tied to Aberdeen through helicopters and supply ships. The supply ships are slower, taking 1-4 days to reach their rigs, where they bob beneath their towers on the waves, dwarfs by the immensity. Those are the ships which glided past me at the mouth of the Dee last night in the deeping grey of rain-dappled sunset. Those are the ships which, on this sun-warm day, brighten the expanses of Aberdeen's harbor with their industrially-enthusiastic yellows, reds, and blues. I love being able to identify their purposes from the museum window chart. The Jennifer Morgue is suddenly a much more vivid book to me: these ships, those just in front of me, are ones with moonpools within. Here, beside me, is a deep-sea remotely operated vehicle.
Oil money too surely helps procure treasures for the city's remarkable art museum. Its collection centers on contemporary art, but it has a rich arts and crafts collection too, including lace, pots swirling with color, bangles, a mourning necklace, etchings, and Bill Gibbs' papers, drawings, and clothing. By the time I have seen more of his work, this time with a passel of other outfits inspired by his work, shown at the Provost Skene House, I know his name.
One of the guards at Provost Skene's House is there on special duty, she tells me. The house, now the oldest extant ex-private dwelling in the city, was transformed back from slums to the stripped-down grandeur of selected previous historical periods. It's surrounded by council buildings. I switch centuries from room to room, jarringly. The surviving wall paintings are a delight, from a Catholic life of Christ which survived thanks to a dropped ceiling installation to the small painted room whose superficial genericness is enlivened with endless small vignettes and vistas inamongst the wainscotting edges. The guard on special duty is there to watch a single silver teapot, a valuable visitor for the viewing of some special tour guide. I'm a first believer in packaging things the right way and encourage her to put on her C.V. "teapot guard". I bet there aren't many of them.
But back to oil rigs, or rather, to the other major monument I visited today in addition to the art museum, the maritime museum, and the House. St. Nicholas Kirk is an oasis of green, tombstones, and seagulls in the city center, but I have never met a more confusing church in my life. Churches are orientation. By definition, they face east. The east may be very approximate, but it is fundamental.
I came to the substantial west facade first, the mid-eighteenth century James Gibbs revision of the building, but the doors didn't look particularly opened. I tried again from the south, this time successfully. The doors led me in - to a modestly small medieval parish church, a fraction of the building's side. With the altar facing north. It was all wrong, all confusing, and made no sense to me, given the scale of the building.
But it was absolutely beautiful. Oh, not for the hodgepodge of medieval remnants, but for the gorgeously-carved wooden screen before the altar, and the striking, elegant wooden chairs beyond it. The layers upon layers of types and shades of wood in the table legs, and the curve, breath-like, in the lectern. Luminous blue waves shown benignly down on the wooden splendor, Aberdeen and its fishes tucked into the bottom of the stained glass window with bright red and yellow supply boats above, and, above that, two oil rigs towering above the waves out at sea, glowing in midday light.
The chapel, which I had originally taken for the high altar, was funded in the wake of the Piper-Alpha disaster, but oh, the beauty which has come of it. I would love to see more of Tim Stead's woodwork. It's a pity he's now dead.
What I took for a medieval church confusingly buried in a larger space was what used to be the north and south transepts on the original medieval church, long since divided into two churches + crossing & transepts by the Reformation and changing community requirements. The West Kirk is the eighteenth century one, complete with wooden box pews, and still in use. The East Kirk has intact walls but is otherwise a large archeological dig in preparation for making it into some sort of church center. It's still confusing.
And so, today, oil rigs are glowing fragments of glass over sublime woodwork. They are the ties which bind city to sea by means of ships and helicopters and the funds which enable such good museums. They are the space stations of the ocean, alien, industrial, and impossibly vast.