On September 26, 2015, thousands of spectators gathered in East Lothian, Scotland to watch the controlled demolition of the 50-year-old Cockenzie Power Station, one of the last coal-fired plants in the United Kingdom. One of the people in attendance that day was Edinburgh-based photographer Craig Buchan, who was on hand to capture the booming explosions that brought down the plant’s twin smokestacks.
“Me and my friends had all planned to go, but we were out the night before, and maybe some of us enjoyed the night too much,” Buchan recalls. “I had a pretty bad hangover, but I got there just in time to pick out a good spot.”
The photograph Buchan took shows the immediate aftermath of the demolition, when all that remained of the smokestacks was a towering column of gray smoke in the eerie shape of a human, complete with head and arms. “Nobody expected the chimneys to make a figure of a man,” Buchan says. Friends who have seen the image liken the figure to a “wicker man,” a giant effigy supposedly used by ancient Celts to perform human sacrifice.
To Buchan, though, the shot was more about an older Scotland giving way to a newer, more vital country. “It’s kind of a metaphor for what’s going on in the world right now, with the transition to renewable energy,” he says. Scotland is a world leader in green energy, getting 68 percent of its electricity from renewable sources (mostly wind and hydroelectric power) in 2017, compared to 15.6 percent in the United States. The Scottish Green party, for which Buchan’s girlfriend works, is the country’s fourth-largest party by membership.
The Cockenzie Power Station photograph was the first in what has become an ongoing series tracing Scotland’s River Forth from its source in Trossachs National Park eastward to where it meets the North Sea in a long estuary known as the Firth of Forth. Other photographs in the series show the Forth River Bridge, a jetty looking out over the estuary, and a man working on the roof of his seaside Edinburgh home. Buchan recently completed a second series, “Splendid Isolation,” documenting the distinctive people and places of 21st century Scotland.
Buchan grew up in the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago in the North Sea that represents the northernmost part of Scotland. “It’s quite remote,” Buchan says. “The nearest city of Aberdeen, which is 200 miles and an overnight boat trip away, so you had to make your own fun.” Although he’s traveled around the world to shoot and exhibit his photographs, he said he can’t imagine ever moving away from Scotland.
“Being a Shetlander, Edinburgh’s a big city for me,” he said. “I like London, I like going and visiting, but I don’t think I could live there. It’s too big for an islander.”