Concealed in a disused oil depot at Invergordon, a town and port in Easter Ross, is the Inchindown oil tanks. Between 1938 and 1941 provision for the bomb proof storage of furnace fuel oil for British warships was made with the excavation from the solid rock of the nearby Kinrive hill to create the Inchindown admiralty underground oil storage depot – a series of six underground tanks and access tunnels. The site was closed in 2002, decommissioned thereafter, and is now in private ownership.
In 2014 the remarkable sonic properties of the tanks attracted interest from acoustic engineering professor Trevor Cox, who fired a blank pistol and measured the reverberation as 1 minute and 52 seconds (112 seconds). Bettering the existing Guinness World Record previously held by the Hamilton Mausoleum by a gigantic 97 seconds for the longest reverberation in any man-made structure.
A reverberation is a familiar concept to those working with sound, not to be confused with the more commonly known concept of an echo. A reverb is in fact the result of overlapping multiple echoes as sound waves bounce back off the surfaces met.
Programme leader, Simon Bradley describes his motivation to include a visit to this site in a recent student residency.
Inspiring sound exploration
What really excites me about leading the MA Music and the Environment course is providing students with stimulating and thought-provoking environments as a central element of learning. The Highlands and Islands is rich in sources of inspiration that can be drawn upon from study of its environment, culture and historical context.
I was introduced to this unique local record holding site, Inchindown oil tanks, by a recent graduate of mine Liam Ross and was immediately intrigued. Liam is a local musician from Invergordon and had incorporated the sonic properties of the site in his final master project.
Our visit to the site had an immediately powerful impact on everyone involved; staff, students and our film-making tour guide. It was a perfect location to start this year’s academic journey and has furnished us with material for future projects, musical compositions and collaborations.
What follows is a collection of accounts from those that took part in the sonic material experiments and recordings.
Picture 1 (L-R) Stephen Bull, Liam Ross, Martin Gilligan, Peter Noble, Anthony Cowie, Simon Bradley
Sound mining at the world’s longest reverb
Anthony Cowie, MA Music and the Environment student
Accessing the tanks is not for the claustrophobic or faint-of-hearted! Entrance is only by arrangement as health and safety briefing is essential. Given the prior contents of the tanks, it is necessary to come prepared and we were each wearing protective disposable overalls and sturdy boots to deal with the residue from the remnants of oil.
To gain entry to the interior of one of the tanks we had quite a journey. We walked the 365m length of the access tunnel before being presented with the next stage. Even before being fully inside the tank, the tunnels that lead from outside down to the entrance pipe already make for a ‘sonic miasma’ seldom experienced in everyday life – the slightest noise or disturbance echoing incessantly as one moves through the dark.
The only way into the tanks is via a trolley, on which prospective visitors lie flat, with their arms extended above the head in order to minimise the body width as the trolley (with are you are lying flat on) is pushed through an eighteen inch pipe which takes you through the wall of the tank.
It felt like we were being loaded and fired like human torpedoes through the wall. Once in the tank we were able to stand, and after my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could begin to get a sense of the vastness of the chamber of the tank.
Our filmmaking tour guide Simon, had brought along some blank rounds to fire in the tank, allowing us to experience the sound of the world record. It was still 112 seconds. The duration is unbelievable. We turned off our headtorches and extinguished the working lights and waited for the sound.
When the shot rang out, there was the initial fast attack of the noise, and roughly a third of a second later it could be heard rebounding off the far wall. There then followed a rolling wash of frequencies that seemed to fall overhead in wave after wave. Personally, I found the extent of what I was experiencing so intense that it elicited an equally physical experience. I could sense my balance shifting as I waited for the sound to die down and became unsteady on my feet. This was sound in its’ most transcendent form, and as we took a moment to gather our thoughts in the final silence the childlike glee in me shouted, ‘Again!’ I can’t wait to go back.”
Peter Noble, MA Music and the Environment lecturer
I am based at the Alness campus which is four miles from the Inchindown tunnel. I am continually fascinated by the local landscape of where I live and work in the Highlands and Islands. To experience the entombment within this environment even for a short time was a very inspiring experience.
We recorded the sound experience. I later simulated the reverb of the tunnel space and used this to develop a song with two musicians based in other areas. I am looking forward to cultivating a unique collaborative networked performance using the results.
The group was accompanied by filmmaker Simon Riddell, who was moved to include a recording of the team singing in his new feature length documentary about this fascinating place.
Simon was taught to shoot film and embrace adventure by his father. He explains why he chose to include the Amazing Grace clip.
As soon as I heard the guys perform in the tank, I thought that the audio would be a very fitting way to close the documentary. The atmospherics of the tanks sound great! This song was close to dad’s heart and mine also. He was a preacher and I have dedicated the film to him.
See for yourself
Hosted by FLOW Photofest and the University of the Highland and Islands, Simon’s film debuts at an event hosted by Inverness College UHI on Wednesday 6 November 2019, 7pm. This will be an excellent opportunity to talk to the authors in a special questions and answers session.
Tickets are free. Book here
There will be a second showing in Sligachan Hotel on the Isle of Skye on Thursday 7 November 2019, 6pm. Book here
Simon Bradley (@Uistsimon) is the programme leader of the MA Music and the Environment at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He is also a lecturer on the BA Applied Music course and is based at Lews Castle College UHI, Benbecula
To find out more about studying music at the University of the Highland and Islands visit the website. #thinkuhi