Completed and unveiled in 1991, this is a large bronze figurative memorial sculpture by Sue Jane Taylor for the Piper Alpha Memorial Fund Committee and dedicated to the 167 men killed in the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. It is located at the centre of a memorial rose garden in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen. A casket of unknown ashes is interred within the plinth.
The memorial consists of three 7-foot high (2.1 metre high) cast bronze figures standing on a square inscribed plinth of Pink Corennie granite, locally quarried at Tillyfourie, Aberdeenshire. Representing the platform's offshore workforce, they comprise a central mature figure facing north to the entrance of the gardens, a 'roustabout' figure facing west, and a 'survival suit' figure facing east.
The mature figure holds in his left hand a pool of oil sculpted in spiral form. His right hand points down, indicating its source. A fish and seabird motif on the helmet symbolises environmental aspects of the North Sea oil industry. The dynamic pose of the 'roustabout' figure recalls the physical nature of many offshore trades, while a tree of life motif on his sleeve with leaves gilt in gold leaf symbolises the exploration and production of crude oil. The 'survival suit' figure represents youth and eternal movement. His left sleeve has a sea-eagle motif, partly gilt in gold leaf. This is a reference to the symbol of the North American eagle as the patron of oil, but with the native sea eagle in its place.
The design of the 6-foot high (1.8 metre high) square polished granite plinth was a collaboration between Sue Jane Taylor and John Fyfe Granite Ltd (Taylor 1990). It is inscribed on all faces with gilt lettering. The inscription on the north face reads, 'Dedicated to the memory of the one hundred and sixty seven men who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster 6th July 1988'. Their names and ages are inscribed in alphabetical order on the east, west and south faces of the plinth. The names of the thirty men with no resting place on shore are inscribed in the centre of the south face, above a rectangular slab of granite with a gilt Celtic cross, behind which is interred a casket of unknown ashes. The names of the two crewmen of the MV Sandhaven rescue vessel are inscribed, slightly apart from the others, on the east face of the plinth.
The Piper Alpha oil platform was destroyed on 6 July 1988 by a series of explosions that caused major fires and the substantial collapse of the platform. A total of 167 men were killed, including two rescue crewmen from the MV Sandhaven. Only 61 survived, many with injuries and long-term trauma. Thirty bodies were never recovered.
The idea for a public memorial to the Piper Alpha dead took hold in the months that followed the disaster. In 1988–89, the Piper Alpha Memorial Fund Committee and the Families and Survivors Group came together to consult with affected families as the basis for discussions on a suitable site and design.
The site chosen was the centre point of a new formal rose garden in Hazlehead Park designed by Aberdeen's Director of Parks, David Welch. In April 1989, the council announced that this garden, underway at the time of the disaster, would be dedicated to the victims of Piper Alpha (Aberdeen Press and Journal 29/04/1989). In the meantime, the Memorial Committee reached a consensus on the design brief for the sculpture.
The artist, Sue Jane Taylor (b.1960), emerged as the obvious choice for the commission. In January 1990, she moved to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden to start work on preparatory drawings (exhibited in September 1990) and creating scaled models. A survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster, Bill Barron, advised on costume detailing and modelled for much of the initial work and for the mature central figure. The other two models were a visiting sculptor at the workshop, and a recent arts graduate.
The cost of the memorial was £100,000. This was raised following a hard-won campaign by the bereaved women from the Memorial Committee from 1989–1990. Contributions from the offshore industries that were lower than expected by the fundraisers meant that the success of the project was sometimes in doubt (Aberdeen Press and Journal 21/09/89). The target was finally reached through a combination of public donations, including from the Piper families themselves, and a £40,000 government grant. From the combined oil and gas companies operating in the North Sea, the committee received a total of £14,000 (Taylor 2015: 153; Aberdeen Press and Journal 26/01/90; McGinty 2008: 271–272; O'Byrne 2011: 99; Taylor 2015: 153).
Sue Jane Taylor completed her plaster figures by early spring 1991, and the bronze casting took place at the Burleighfield Foundry in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire from March to June of that year. The gold leaf was applied by Pam Bramley, a visiting Australian artist to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. The granite for the plinth was donated by John Fyfe Granite Ltd, who also collaborated on the plinth design.The completed memorial sculpture was unveiled on the third anniversary of the disaster - 6 July 1991. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother performed the unveiling to a crowd of over 1000 people. The casket of ashes was interred within the plinth in a private ceremony for survivors and the bereaved the evening before.
The garden continues to be the venue for anniversary memorial services every summer with the reading of the names of the 167 killed on Piper Alpha, a minute's silence and the laying of wreaths and flowers. In 2020, all of the engraving on the plinth was regilded.
Statement of Special Interest
The Piper Alpha Memorial meets the criteria of special architectural or historic interest for the following reasons:
- As an unusual example of a later 20th century commemorative monument in the style of earlier figurative war memorials
- For its prominence within an intact garden setting, which has a strong reciprocal and functional relationship to the memorial.
- As a rare example of a commemorative monument related to the North Sea oil and gas industry and its history
- As a potent symbol of the post-disaster response by the community of survivors and bereaved families and for the leading role of women in completing the project of memorialisation.
- For its association with a historic event of international significance
The design of the memorial follows an established monumental, figurative style normally associated with notable war memorials of the earlier 20th century. Prominent examples of this period in Scotland include the Glenelg War Memorial by Robert Lorimer, 1920 (listed category A, LB7236) and the Killin War Memorial, 1920 (listed category C, LB50326).
The choice of a figurative group for the memorial followed a brief set by the Piper Alpha Memorial Fund Committee in 1989. Inspired by a long tradition of prestigious and figurative war memorials, and in particular by the 1951 Second World War Commando Memorial, near Spean Bridge (listed category A, LB6842), the Committee agreed that the work should figuratively depict the offshore workforce to represent the men lost in the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and prominently display their names on a plinth (Taylor 2015: 152; McGinty 2008: 271).
The use of this traditional design for a more recent, non-military disaster is unusual and adds to the architectural interest of the memorial. Additional design details that reference the offshore North Sea oil and gas industry (the dress, poses and small symbolic motifs) contribute to the interest of the memorial.
The Piper Alpha Memorial, completed 1991, was the first major public sculpture commission by the visual artist, Sue Jane Taylor (b.1960). Born on the Black Isle, Taylor is renowned for her documentation of the technology and engineering of the offshore energy sector since the early 1980s, and for her empathetic depiction of its workers (Sutherland 2005 in Taylor 2015: 196). She has led numerous community art projects to create collaborative public art. A later sculptural work is Kromer Hat in Clydebank (unveiled 1994) - a cast bronze head bust of a shipyard worker commissioned by Clydebank District Council (information courtesy of Taylor 2023).
Taylor was the obvious choice for the memorial due to her personal connections with Piper Alpha. One year before the disaster she spent time on the platform observing, drawing and speaking with the men. In its aftermath, she gained the trust of the Piper families, consulting them before refusing Occidental the rights to her work and inviting them to a special exhibition preview (O'Byrne 2011: 100; Lives in the Oil Industry: Taylor 2003; Taylor 2015: 150). Taylor's well-documented connections with Piper Alpha and the people affected by the disaster, (including her working relationship with the Memorial Committee and her collaboration with the survivor, Bill Barron) contributes to the design interest of the memorial sculpture.
The memorial is built from high quality materials that are typical for a sculpture of this type. The figures are cast bronze and the Pink Corennie granite is locally sourced from Tillyfourie. John Fyfe Granite Ltd, who collaborated on the design of the plinth, was a major company in Aberdeen's local granite industry from the mid-19th century until its closure in 1998 (Herald 19/12/1998).
The memorial is a notable example of traditional figurative sculpture used to commemorate a later 20th century civilian industrial disaster, with the details of the design informed by personal connections to the place and event which the work commemorates.
The setting of the memorial sculpture is a large dedicated memorial garden known both as the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden and the North Sea Memorial Rose Garden in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen (GDL00412).
There is a strong and reciprocal relationship between the design and function of the memorial and its garden setting, which retains its late 1980s formal design of axial paths, rectilinear rose beds in a repeating, symmetrical pattern and enclosing boundary planting (2023). Although the garden was originally conceived as a mirror- image extension to the adjacent Queen Mother Rose Garden, it was selected in 1989 as an appropriately quiet, attractive and contemplative site for the planned memorial sculpture. Sue Jane Taylor therefore commenced work on the memorial knowing in advance that it would be installed as the central focus of a public garden newly dedicated to the memory of the 167 lost in the disaster.
A memorial garden is a place where people and events can be remembered and commemorated within a tended environment. Often found within cemeteries and public parks, they are recognisable, bounded sites for private grief, contemplation, and shared mourning. In terms of aesthetics, the Piper Alpha Memorial is the dominant focus within the garden. It is the only architectural feature of scale, and its size, figurative design and central position means that it has visual prominence from all vantage points within the garden space, including the north entrance point and the memorial benches, which face inwards towards the memorial from the garden edges. The garden as a whole is sheltered by deep boundary planting and belts of trees, making it a suitable environment for more peaceful remembrance within the wider setting of a busy public park.
The orientation of the memorial aligns with the overall orientation of the formal design of the garden. The inscribed faces of the squared plinth face outward along the axes of the four paths. Immediately surrounding the memorial are four central box-lined rose beds planted in the early years of the memorial garden with 167 separate roses, each symbolising a life lost. While these are now maintained as simple rose beds, some people report that the centrepiece arrangement of the memorial and four symbolic rose beds holds special personal significance (see GDL00412).
The memorial functions within this setting as the physical focus of bereavement practices, including individual contemplation of the figurative sculpture and the names on the plinth, the laying of wreaths and flowers at its base, and for the formal anniversary service on 6 July every year. The garden setting allows for large numbers to gather in attendance.
The garden setting of the memorial contributes to the overall architectural interest of the memorial. Its character and components (seclusion, open grounds, plantings, memorial benches and paths) allow the memorial to function as intended as the focus of a site of remembrance for the Piper Alpha disaster.
Age and rarity
The Piper Alpha Memorial was unveiled in 1991 to commemorate the 167 lives lost in the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988.
Memorials to collective loss of life can be found throughout Scotland. Most ubiquitous are those erected in a great variety of architectural forms in the period immediately after the First World War in remembrance of the fallen from a particular locality.
Memorials dedicated to those killed in other historical disasters, such as mining and fishing accidents, are becoming more common in the public realm. While some were dedicated soon after an event, such as the granite obelisk to the 1870s Blantyre mining disasters in Blantyre Cemetery (Canmore ID 374819), many date to more recent times, installed as lasting reminders of significant and traumatic local events.
Examples include the Blantyre Centenary Monument (1977), Valleyfield Disaster Memorial (1989), Gloup Fishing Memorial, Shetland (1981), 'Widows and Bairns' in Eyemouth, Cove, St. Abbs and Burnmouth (2007), Tay Bridge Memorials, Dundee (2013), and numerous local mining memorials (e.g. Muirkirk 2004, Moodiesburn 2010, Wallyford 2010 and Kingshill 2017). The Lockerbie Air Disaster of 1988 is also commemorated with an inscribed memorial set within a remembrance garden (Imperial War Museums: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/57967).
These memorials occur in diverse architectural forms and materials. Few are comparable to the Piper Alpha Memorial in terms of their scale, or the extent and quality of their associated setting, and for the internment of associated ashes. The memorial is also rare in that the impetus for its creation and the brief for its design came directly from those personally affected by the disaster.
The Piper Alpha Memorial also has significance as a rare physical marker of the cultural heritage of the North Sea oil and gas industry. While attention has focussed on the political and economic impacts of the industry, and efforts to document its oral histories (University of Aberdeen, Lives in the Oil Industry) there remains little recognition of the industry's built heritage (Oglethorpe 2021). In this context, the Piper Alpha memorial and its garden setting remains a relatively rare physical monument in the public realm relating directly to the history and consequences of the industry (Brotherstone and Manson 2007: 33). An international comparator is the Broken Chain Kielland Memorial, Norway, unveiled in 1986 to the offshore Alexander Kielland disaster of 1980.
Other objects and sites associated with the Piper Alpha disaster include a condolence banner gifted by the Victorian Trade and Labour Council in Australia, and now in the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen, a stained-glass window in Ferryhill South Church, Fonthill Road, Aberdeen, dedicated 1994 (Listed category B, LB20689), and a memorial stone in Strathclyde Country Park commemorating the men lost from that region (erected 1992). The Oil Chapel in St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen (Listed category A, LB19966) was dedicated in 1990 to mark 25 years of North Sea oil. It contains a book of remembrance to all those who have died offshore in UK waters (The Oil Chapel, www.ukoilandgaschaplaincy.com).
While lasting memorials to collective losses in society is a common building type of the 20th -early 21st century, the Piper Alpha Memorial is a rare example of a traditional-style, monumental figurative memorial commissioned and erected in the immediate aftermath of a civilian disaster with the direct involvement of those personally affected. It is set apart from other memorials due to its associated garden setting and for its rarity as relating to the North Sea oil and gas industry.
Social historical interest
All memorials dedicated to collective loss of life have social historical interest. They contribute to our understanding of commemorative practices in society and how people represent their past, identity and values in the public realm.
Beyond this, the Piper Alpha Memorial also has particular significance for its relevance to the history of the North Sea oil and gas industry in Aberdeen and for the post-disaster response by the community of Piper Alpha survivors and bereaved families.
The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s and early 1970s marked the start of Scotland's oil boom. Aberdeen emerged as its capital as further offshore discoveries including the Piper and Ninian fields transformed the UK's energy sector. The UK became a net exporter of oil by the early 1980s. Aberdeen's infrastructure expanded during the last decades of the 20th century and better paid job opportunities attracted a growing population.
Economic success came at a cost. Hundreds have been killed offshore in accidents on rigs, supply boats or helicopters, and many more have sustained serious injuries (Kemp 2013, vol 2: 517). The capsize of the Sea Gem rig in 1965 with 13 fatalities and the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988 with 167 fatalities, were landmark incidents exposing the risks specific to oil platforms and the inadequacy of prevailing safety regimes and regulations (Ibid).
The campaign to erect a lasting memorial to the dead by the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Group and the Memorial Committee coincided with the official public inquiry into the disaster and a wider, heated political climate around issues such as compensation, causes of the accident, the accountability of Occidental, and the need to reform safety regulations within the industry. From the start, the families recognised the acute need for a permanent physical memorial, not just for private grief, but as a public symbol of relevance for the future and a lasting reminder of the enduring legacies of the disaster. The memorial and garden continue to be valued for their didactic role in understanding the evolution and importance of health and safety in the offshore industries.
The memorial, therefore, has interest as a potent symbol of a landmark event in the history of North Sea oil and gas, and the efforts and tenacity of the Piper families in achieving their goal. There is additional interest in the leading role of women in completing the project of memorialisation. The Memorial Committee, chaired by Molly Pearston (who lost a son in the disaster), selected the site, artist, consulted with families and set the design brief. A small cohort of women successfully raised the funds despite a lack of support from Occidental and the wider industry (O'Byrne 2011). The sculpture was completed by a female artist. Fundraising for renovations in the garden for its 25th anniversary was also begun by women (Pound for Piper). Women in the past have rarely had opportunity to conceive, design, install and mark public space with permanence (Burk 2003: 329). The Piper Alpha Memorial is of interest as a rare example of this coming to fruition in a later 20th century context.
Association with people or events of national importance
The Piper Alpha Memorial has a close historical association with an event of national and international importance. It is a memorial to those killed in the world's worst offshore disaster, which left 167 dead and only 61 survivors, many with injuries and long-term trauma.
Located 110 miles northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea, the Piper Alpha platform had been built and installed in 1975–76 to exploit the newly discovered reservoirs of the Piper oilfield. Operated by Occidental Petroleum, Piper Alpha was, for a time, among the largest, most profitable, and most productive of all the North Sea installations (Guardian 04/07/2013).
A Public Inquiry into the disaster led by Lord Cullen from 1989–1990 revealed systemic failings in the management of safety and inadequate regulation as causal factors (Cullen 1990). The Piper Alpha disaster was the UK's worst industrial accident for over half a century and the event is regarded as a defining moment in the history of the North Sea oil and gas industry (Kemp 2012: 614; Brotherstone and Manson 2007).
The Piper Alpha Memorial, together with its memorial garden setting are the only memorials of architectural significance in the public realm that are specifically dedicated to Piper Alpha, and which can function as a place for shared mourning, for public ceremony and other acts of commemoration. The association is evident in the planning, setting and design of the memorial, which depicts the workers, records the names the dead, and which contains a casket of unknown ashes.
Maps and archives
Aberdeen Press and Journal
Memorial to pay tribute to North Sea Dead, Saturday 29 April 1989, p.1
Memorial plan facing cash crisis, Thursday 21 September 1989, p.2
Boost is sought for memorial statue fund, Friday 26 January 1990, p.44
'Plea for Cash by Piper Alpha Women' Friday 08 September 1989, p.17
'Last block is cut in city that took its name from granite' 19 December 1998
Piper Alpha Disaster: How 167 oil rig workers died https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/04/piper-alpha-disaster-167- oil-rig
Lives in the Oil Industry: Oral History Archive and Associated Records, University of Aberdeen, MS 3769
Recording – Interview with Sue Jane Taylor (1960-) MS 3769/1/151
Taylor 1990: 'Piper Alpha Memorial', Piper Alpha Bulletin, p.2, University of Aberdeen Special Collections: ACC 915.
Burk, A. L. 2003, 'Private Griefs, Public Spaces' Political Geography 22(3): 317-333
Brotherstone, T. and H. Manson 2007, 'North Sea Oil, its Narratives and its History: An Archive of Oral Documentation and the making of Contemporary Britain', Northern Scotland, vol. 27, 1, 15–41
Cullen, W. D. 1990, The Public Enquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster, Department of Energy, https://www.hse.gov.uk/offshore/piper-alpha-disaster-public-inquiry.htm
Kemp, A. G. 2012, The Official History of North Sea Oil and Gas. Vol. 1, The growing dominance of the state: Routledge: Abingdon
Kemp, A. G. 2012, The Official History of North Sea Oil and Gas. Vol. 2. Moderating the state's role, Routledge: Oxon
McGinty, S. 2008, Fire in the Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster, Macmillan: London
O'Byrne, C. 2011, Remembering the Piper Alpha Disaster, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 37, 2, 90–104
Sutherland, G. 2015, 'Sue Jane Taylor: A critical introduction' in Taylor, S. J. Oilwork: North Sea Diaries, p.193-198, Birlinn: Edinburgh
Taylor, Sue Jane 2015, Oilwork – North Sea Diaries, Birlinn: Edinburgh
Imperial War Museums: Lockerbie Air Disaster – Dryfesdale Cemetery Garden of Remembrance and Memorial Stone https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/57967 [accessed 22 May 2023]
Oglethorpe, M. 2021, Energy: Scotland's Forgotten Industrial Heritage? Part 2, Blog 21/07/21, Centre for Energy Ethics, University of St Andrews https://energyethics.st- andrews.ac.uk/blog/energy-scotlands-forgotten-industrial-heritage-part-2/ [accessed 2 May 2023]
Pound for Piper, https://poundforpiper.com/ [accessed 2 May 2023]
University of Aberdeen, Lives in the Oil Industry, Oral History of the UK North Sea Oil and Gas Industry, https://www.abdn.ac.uk/oillives/index.shtml; [accessed 2 May 2023]
University of Aberdeen, Capturing the Energy, https://www.capturing-the- energy.org.uk/ [accessed 2 May 2023]
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