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Who Pays the Piper?

Nancy Nicolson, one of Scotland’s finest contemporary songwriters in the traditional style, wrote this angry questioning lament for the men of the Piper Alpha oil rig who lost their lives in an explosion and fire in 1988. 167 men died, only 59 survived.

The song is performed by Nancy Nicolson (vocal) and Derek Moffat (vocal and guitar).

Who pays the piper, who pays the piper
Who pays the piper, who calls the tune?
Who pays the piper, what is the fee?
Flames on the water, death on the sea

And the tune is old and has always told
How the great, brave and bold they do flourish
How bravely they gamble with other men’s lives
And profit as other men perish

And the tune resounds and is always found
Where the ground receives yet another
Father of dazed and despairing young bairns
Or a son of a desolate mother

And the price is dear for the folk who fear
And who bear the burden of sorrow
For those who were lost where the graph of the cost
Crossed the graph of rich pickings tomorrow

The Cullen Enquiry was set up in November 1988 to establish the cause of the disaster. In November 1990, it concluded that ‘the initial condensate leak was the result of maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and related safety valve’. The enquiry was critical of Piper Alpha's operator, Occidental, which was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance and safety procedures. But no criminal charges were ever brought against it.

Nancy wrote for the sleeve notes of a recording of the song by the McCalmans group that, 'The money-wells in the North Sea are owned by immensely rich companies and fed by workers’ lives. The men off-shore have to watch their tongues or lose their jobs. We can be their voices.'