DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Books

The Black Eden by Richard T Kelly review: A story of Scotland's black gold rush

Richard T Kelly's novel uses Scotland's oil boom as a way of exploring the state of the nation

The Black Eden by Richard T Kelly book cover

It’s obvious why the oil and gas industry hasn’t inspired much great art over the years, JR and his thrillingly treacherous Ewings aside. But drill down deep enough into pretty much any subject and you’ll strike drama, romance and narrative. That’s precisely what Richard T Kelly has done for his magnificent new novel. 

The Black Eden is the story of how Scotland first struck oil in the late 20th century and of the black gold rush that followed. It is an adventure of personal and corporate fortunes being made, of lives transformed for better and worse, of a nation’s politics revolutionised, and of ancient, pastoral communities that suddenly found themselves tossed in a whirlwind of capitalist modernity. 

As all good novelists must, Kelly tells the story through people. Aaron and Robbie are childhood friends in a heavily religious 1950s coastal village. They are destined for careers that do not yet exist – Aaron will be a geologist working for tough Americans, searching for the liquid treasure buried beneath the North Sea; Robbie is destined for a hard, dangerous life on the rigs. Privately educated Mark is a journalist on The Scotsman who, as nationalist sentiment soars with the oil price, is radicalised and becomes an SNP MP, while his cocksure schoolmate Ally gets filthy rich after setting up a boutique Edinburgh investment firm. Joe fights to transform his father’s ailing fishing fleet into one that services the booming new industry. 

Everything and everyone collides. Friendships and marriages are broken and repaired and broken again. Reputations rise and fall with the tide. The politics are increasingly ferocious as Westminster and Whitehall are dragged into the 1970s debate about whether or not it’s “Scotland’s Oil”.

“Stop justifying every damn thing done for oil when a blind man can see some people are coining it and others getting robbed,” Mark spits at Ally. The disparate fates of the main characters are by turns inspiring, infuriating and, ultimately, heartbreaking. 

Though Kelly’s novel ends in 1982, it is so much more than a historical work. It is also a map of today’s Scotland, a foundation myth for a disputatious, unsettled 21st century nation: wealth and ambition versus community and compassion, progress versus stasis, independence versus union.  

Kelly, a Northern Irishman, is too smart and experienced a writer to come down on one side or the other of these arguments. He explores what has been gained and what has been lost for good with a light touch and delivers a rewarding and affecting page-turner. There won’t be a finer piece of Scottish fiction published this year. 

Chris Deerin is a journalist and the director of Reform Scotland

The Black Eden book cover

The Black Eden by Richard T Kelly is out now (Faber, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'The threat to our rights': Women share what keeps them awake at night in honour of Ulysses' Molly Bloom
Illustration by Chris Bentham
Books

'The threat to our rights': Women share what keeps them awake at night in honour of Ulysses' Molly Bloom

Top 5 children's books for summer
Books

Top 5 children's books for summer

'Future is as shaky as its ever been': Will Baillie Gifford funding row kill our book festivals?
Books

'Future is as shaky as its ever been': Will Baillie Gifford funding row kill our book festivals?

How books can help children understand the crushing challenges of poverty
Books

How books can help children understand the crushing challenges of poverty

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know