IT was a battle which pitched a small rural community against the might of the oil industry, with the fate of one of Scotland's rarest species at stake.

Residents of the small highland village of Cromarty, population 716, rallied to oppose the nearby Port Authority when its plans emerged to transfer hundreds of thousands of tonnes of crude oil between tankers just offshore.

The waters are home to Scotland's only pod of bottlenose dolphins, and it was warned that a single oil spill - or even the water from the giant ships' ballast - could destroy the fragile ecosystem.

But despite the vested interests ranged against them, last week the campaigners struggle ended in victory when a simple statement in a Port of Cromarty Firth Authority newsletter, announced they had abandoned the proposal.


The dolphins live in the shadow of the Port

It was a sudden, but fitting end to a three-year fight which began when one man spotted a notice in a local newspaper, and grew to a movement backed by more than 100,000 people.

READ MORE: Victory declared as ‘damaging’ oil transfer plans in Firth are sunk

The plan envisaged by the Port,which has turnover of £8.4 a year and employs one in six people in the area, would have seen 180,000 tonnes of crude oil flowing between ships moored out at sea 48 times a year.

Alarmed, the resident who spotted the application for a ship-to-ship (STS) transfer licence put up a notice in the Cromarty Post Office, to inform people about the scheme.

A month later, in January 2016, the first public meeting held by the Cromarty Community Council saw 125 people voted, unanimously, to oppose STS, and the Cromarty Rising campaign was born.

Cromarty resident Duncan Bowers, a member of the campaign, said:"We were appalled at the proposal to conduct industrial-scale operations inside a marine Special Area of Conservation.

"Noise, fumes from volatile organic compounds and ballast water bacteria are all hazards with the potential for significant impact.

"The application gave one tonne as the maximum possible oil spill volume, yet these ships were to carry 180,000 tonnes of crude oil and operate close to a rocky shoreline and busy shipping lanes."


The grassroots campaign drew wide support

The campaign's tactics were moulded by the community, with no-one taking on the role of leader or issuing orders.

READ MORE: 80,000 people sign Cromarty Firth campaigners petition

Instead, opposition grew organically, spreading along the Moray coast and by March 27 Community Councils had raised objections to STS.

Three months later, a petition calling for the scheme to be dropped signed by 11,000 people was handed to the Port.

Mr Bowers said: "Cromarty Rising wasn't a group that had a lot of experience with campaigning or going up against large commercial interests like this.

"But what we did was sit down in people's houses, have a cup of tea, and talk the thing out. That's the way we moved the thing forward.

"We didn't make a move until we had reached a consensus on the next step."
The campaign kept growing. Through publicity stunts such as forming a human chain of 515 people along Nairn beach - the length of an oil tanker - and continually reaching out to other groups it began go national.

With the help of online activists 38 Degrees, the petition grew to 100,000 signatures received the backing of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Whale and Dolphin Conservationists and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland , among others.

A demonstration outside Holyrood drew support from crime author Ian Rankin, who owns a house on the Firth and by May last year the matter was being debated by MSPs in the chamber.


The Holyrood demo. Pic: Cromarty Rising

READ MORE: Concern for dolphins in Cromarty oil transfers​

Lawyers were also engaged to increase pressure on the Scottish Government to protect the dolphins, although the law governing SRS licences remains reserved to Westminster.

And although the Port, which declined to comment for this story, kept silent, pressure kept growing until this week's announcement that the plan had been abandoned.

Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Scotland for 38 Degrees, said: "This is a fantastic story of people power in action.

He added: "It goes to show that when people come together and take action, we can make real change happen."


Bottlenose Dolphins swim in the Moray Firth

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the decision by Cromarty Firth Port Authority to abandon their plans for ship-to-ship transfers of oil at sea.

"The waters of the Cromarty Firth are a haven for seals and dolphins and – as Scottish Ministers have consistently made clear – we believe oil transfers in this area would pose an unacceptable risk to the marine environment."

He added: “Regrettably, powers over the licensing of ship-to-ship oil transfers are reserved to the UK Government, therefore we would have had no control over the final decision for any such application.

"We have repeatedly asked for those powers to be devolved to Scotland and because this has not yet been forthcoming, we will continue to press for licensing of ship-to-ship oil transfers in Scottish waters to be devolved.”