Rich in biodiversity, the vast expanse of blanket bog that spans Caithness and Sutherland is Europe’s largest of its kind, a rare haven for plant and wildlife and with an important role in the fight against climate change.

The Flow Country is so special that moves are afoot to have its expanse of peatlands and wetlands confirmed as a World Heritage Site.

While such is the importance of peat in carbon capture, that next month’s COP26 delegates will be able to step inside a ‘Peatland Pavilion’, a giant hub where they can explore the story of peat in detail, discuss and negotiate its future.

Yet 70 years ago this winter and just a stone’s throw from the site of the climate crisis conference in the grime of a Clydebank engineering workshop, a major step forward had been taken towards using Scotland’s huge peat reserves to fuel a new breed of electricity power stations.

Had what now sounds like an alarming plan to remove up to 600 million tons of Scottish peat to burn in electricity power stations around the country proceeded, not only would Scotland have lost a highly efficient carbon sink, but immeasurable damage would have been done to countless rare plants, creatures and the environment.

In the days long before concerns over a global climate crisis, the unveiling in December 1951 of the world’s first peat-burning gas turbine – effectively a modified jet engine - at John Brown & Co’s Clydebank testing shop created huge excitement.

The idea had originated in the post-war 1940s, as attention turned to how to make the most of Scotland’s vast areas of peatlands, with suggestions ranging from sending it to America’s dust bowls to extracting oils, waxes and chemicals for a variety of products.

The success of Scotland’s new hydro-electricity plants, which overcame natural obstacles to harness the power of Highland water, and rising coal and oil costs provided inspiration to put peat to a previously unexplored use.

By October 1949, a £50,000 survey of Scotland’s peat bogs was underway with the intention of determining peat’s suitability to be used as fuel, while Sir Edward MacColl, Deputy Chairman of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and the driving force behind successful hydro schemes, pushed ahead with plans for a new source of electric power.

At shipbuilding giant John Brown’s in Clydebank, engineers and scientists were put to work figuring out how to reduce the moisture content of the waterlogged peat, and to develop a closed cycle turbine which could burn it and turn it into electricity.

The result, unveiled in December 1951, was an experimental 500 horsepower gas turbine, originally run on oil and equipped with a peat-burning air heater and peat-drying equipment – the first of its kind.

Its development was, Sir Edward Appleton, chairman of the newly formed Scottish Peat Committee, an achievement “to be compared with Stevenson’s Rocket and Henry Bell’s Comet”.

Enthusiasm was riding high: although peat has a lower calorific value than coal, total workable deposits were put at 600,000,000 tons – the equivalent to 500,000,000 tons of coal and enough to keep burning to ten years.

Studies were carried out from Perthshire to Ayrshire, Lewis and the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland to find the best location for a new peat power station. One focused on Flanders Moss in west Stirlingshire, now a nature reserve and one of the largest remaining intact raised bogs in Britain. In existence for 7000 years, highly regarded for its mosaic of sphagnum mosses and a haven for small creatures, it also narrowly avoided becoming a site for horticultural peat harvesting.

The “most notable findings” of the survey, however, were found hundreds of miles north, within the 200,000 hectares of Flow country blanket bog.

Surrounded by huge areas of moorland and with a population of just 50 people, Altnabreac in Caithness was barely known beyond the Caithness boundary.

However, peat-fuelled electricity was set to put it on the map.

In July 1953, Scottish Secretary James Stuart, the MP for Moray and Nairn, announced the small community would be at the heart of a £500,000 plan for the UK’s first peat power station, and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board set about commissioning a 2000kW closed-cycle peat-fired gas turbine.

If successful, the hope was to proceed with larger schemes “in a number of suitable areas in the Highlands”.

There were plenty of reasons to push ahead: in Caithness and Sutherland alone, peat-fired power stations were said to have the potential to provide work for up to 500 men with up to 20,000 jobs across the country.

And once drained, the once soggy peatland could become rich arable and pasture farmland, supporting dozens of new farms and workers.

A nagging problem was peat’s soggy and fibrous nature, and whether the John Brown test turbine could work on a commercial scale.

While hindsight would suggest an even bigger issue would be the loss of unspoiled peatlands and their effectiveness as a carbon sink, while the burning peat to make electricity would lead to more carbon dioxide emissions than natural gas and coal.

That, however, would be for future generations to worry about.

By 1954 national and international eyes were on Altnabreac’s peat-fired Braehour power station and its innovative closed-cycle burner.

But while it was a marvel of 1950s technology, it turned out to be the peat power station’s undoing.

Work began in 1954 with huge machines the like never seen before in the area, delivered by train and used to extract the first supplies of peat.

But it was a slow process. A 1956 AGM report to the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board – which would later become part of energy business SSE – reported: “Peat experiment at Altnabrea: the power station building is completed and erection of peat handling and pulversing plant is started. Steady progress has been made in harvesting peat over a working area of approximately 200 acres.”

The project was two years behind schedule by the time full-scale tests began in August 1959. Luckily for Scotland’s peatlands, they were less spectacular than had been hoped.

Brown, fluffy ash created by the burning peat blocked up the heater passages, while the power consumed by the pulverisers and fans was far higher than had been expected, making the entire plant less efficient than originally hoped.

Costs soared. A £70,000 investment needed to amend the gas turbine coincided with an influx of cheap oil imports and improved coal production.

When it emerged a unit of peat-generated electricity would cost 1.77d compared to 1.27d for a diesel-generated unit, a rethink was inevitable.

By 1960, the dream of peat-fired electricity was over.

What was a failure at the time, however, could scarcely have been better news for the environment. Scotland’s peat avoided the fate that befell others in Ireland, Finland, Germany and Russia, where a different kind of turbine method had been adopted.

There was, however, one benefactor from the electricity generated by Altnabreac’s peat-fuelled turbines.

Transmitted a few miles north, electricity sparked by burning peat moulded by nature over thousands of years, was put to use in the construction of a different kind of power plant, at Dounreay.

Professor Roxane Andersen of the Environmental Research Institute, UHI, said: "We know now that our degraded peatlands in the UK contribute an estimated 23 million tons of CO2e yr-1 into the atmosphere, enough to switch our whole land use sector from a net sink to a net source.

"This perhaps exemplifies the importance of keeping peatlands wet, and in good condition, and the role that peatland conservation and restoration can play in our current efforts to limit global climate change and biodiversity declines. 

"Global change wasn’t a reality back in the 1950s and in subsequent decades, when peat was mostly considered a resource to be exploited, and peatlands as areas to target for land use conversion. 

"If the plans for large-scale extractions had gone ahead, their legacy today would be higher emissions still, and most likely the loss of some wildlife and peatland plant refugia.

"While our understanding and appreciation of peatlands is growing, it remains a challenge to convey the urgency with which we need to act to safeguard those peatlands that remains and the ones that need to be restored now.”