The Braer oil disaster: Scotland’s worst environmental catastrophe

The MV Braer spilled 85,000 tonnes of oil into Quendale Bay after running aground in January 1993 while en route from Norway to Canada. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL
The MV Braer spilled 85,000 tonnes of oil into Quendale Bay after running aground in January 1993 while en route from Norway to Canada. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL
Share this article
0
Have your say

At 5.19am on January 5, 1993, the Shetland coastguard was advised the MV Braer, a Liberian-registered oil tanker, had lost all power.

The local authority was informed the ship, which was bound for Canada, was in no immediate danger. But the situation soon changed. The Braer was drifting in a southwesterly direction and it was clear she could soon run aground. An attempt to tow the tanker to safety failed, and by 11.20am she was confirmed as having grounded at Quendale Bay, just west of Sumburgh Head.

Sumburgh crofters Brian and Kevin Duncan wearing the masks they were given after the Braer oil tanker ran aground at Quendale Bay. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

Sumburgh crofters Brian and Kevin Duncan wearing the masks they were given after the Braer oil tanker ran aground at Quendale Bay. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

While all her crew were safely rescued, Scotland’s worst ever environmental catastrophe was just beginning. The Braer was loaded with 85,000 tonnes of Norwegian Gullfaks crude oil, which soon began spilling into the North Atlantic.

At least 1,500 birds died and up to a quarter of the local grey seal population was affected, WWF Scotland later reported.

But favourable weather conditions meant much of the oil was swept out to sea - lessening the impact on the coastline.

READ MORE: After 20 years, Scotland ‘still risks another Braer disaster’

The final moments of the Braer oil tanker as it sinks in Quendale Bay in Shetland after discharging her cargo into the sea and the surrounding Scottish coastline in January 1993. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

The final moments of the Braer oil tanker as it sinks in Quendale Bay in Shetland after discharging her cargo into the sea and the surrounding Scottish coastline in January 1993. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

“We were expecting the worst but it did not really happen. The wind blew the oil away,” Jonathan Wills, a Shetland journalist who researched the disaster, told BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme.

“What happened was that the ship almost hit a big off-lying rock and there was a very heroic rescue for which the coastguard was never praised properly.

“They took all the crew off and landed them on the shore and the police took the crew to a hotel.

“Then the ship missed the rock and the captain of the ship, who I interviewed in Greece some years later, tried desperately, with the coastguards, to get his crew back on board but the police would not release his crew because there was a confusion over orders.”

The Braer oil tanker's prow is beaten by the waves as she sinks after discharging her cargo at Quendale Bay and the surrounding Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL

The Braer oil tanker's prow is beaten by the waves as she sinks after discharging her cargo at Quendale Bay and the surrounding Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL

By October 1995 a total of £45m had been paid out in compensation.

Speaking on the 20th anniversary of the disaster in 2013, WWF Scotland spokesman Lang Banks said: “The Braer disaster was most definitely an extremely close shave in ­environmental terms.

“Thousands of birds are still estimated to have perished and marine wildlife, such as shellfish, finfish and marine mammals were badly affected [with] thousands of pounds lost by fisheries and salmon farms. Despite the passage of some 20 years, the sad fact is that much of Scotland’s marine environment remains just as much at risk from oil and other pollution. We urgently need to see a more permanent solution regarding emergency towing vessel cover around ­Scotland’s coastline.

“Every year, the oil and gas industry is responsible for almost a thousand oil and chemical spills in the North Sea. As the recent accidents on Total’s Elgin and Shell’s Gannet Alpha platforms show, we are never far away from the next major pollution incident.”

Maureen Bain, one of the helpers at the Orkney Seal Rescue centre with a seal affected by the Braer disaster in January 1993. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL

Maureen Bain, one of the helpers at the Orkney Seal Rescue centre with a seal affected by the Braer disaster in January 1993. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL

Men wearing masks clear up flotsam from the Braer oil tanker at Quendale Bay in Shetland after she discharged her cargo into the sea. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL

Men wearing masks clear up flotsam from the Braer oil tanker at Quendale Bay in Shetland after she discharged her cargo into the sea. Picture: Donald Macleod/TSPL

A bird covered in oil at Quendale Bay.

A bird covered in oil at Quendale Bay.

Shags and thousands of other oiled seabirds were taken to Inverkeithing SSPCA in Fife in an attempt to clean them up. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

Shags and thousands of other oiled seabirds were taken to Inverkeithing SSPCA in Fife in an attempt to clean them up. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

RSPB's John Poyner holding a dead shag covered in oil and sand, one of hundreds killed when the Braer oil tanker discharged her cargo at Quendale Bay and the surrounding Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL

RSPB's John Poyner holding a dead shag covered in oil and sand, one of hundreds killed when the Braer oil tanker discharged her cargo at Quendale Bay and the surrounding Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Ian Rutherford/TSPL

A worker at the fish market, as the first catch is sold after the Braer oil tanker's load contaminated the Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Allan Milliagn/TSPL

A worker at the fish market, as the first catch is sold after the Braer oil tanker's load contaminated the Shetland coastline in January 1993. Picture: Allan Milliagn/TSPL