By Richard Baynes
TAKE a trip up the Highland west coast and down the east and you’ll see
soaring mountains, glittering lochs, stags in glens, eagles on the wing,
and dunes and moorland echoing to the cry of the curlew.
But among all the majesty you will also see bitterly fought battlegrounds,
where developers trying to set up shop face environmental groups opposing
them. From Loch Lomond in the south to the far north, hotels, golf courses,
fish farms, energy schemes and other developments have been planned in some
of our most sensitive land and seascapes.
Every time, the businesses behind the schemes say they will bring jobs and
money to areas stripped of people because of the lack of opportunities, and
promise to restore the wild places they impact on.
And every time, defenders of nature say the very beauty people visit these
areas for, and the environment we all treasure, is being trashed.
The cynicism of the environmental lobby would seem to have a point: last
week saw Scottish Natural Heritage recommend that Donald Trump’s Menie
Estate golf course should lose its status as a site of special scientific
interest (SSSI) because the golf development had done so much damage to the
area’s famous dune system. Many of the development’s promised economic
benefits have yet to materialise.
So is Bruce Wilson of the Scottish Wildlife Trust right when he says the
proper priorities are being “turned on their heads” when it comes to
Or should we instead heed Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch,
when she warns that outsiders trying to block development risk treating the
Highlands “like a museum”?
The proposed Coul Links golf development near Embo in Sutherland has many
parallels to Trump’s effort in Aberdeenshire.
Apart from being backed by a wealthy American Chicagoan Mike Keiser the
Coul dune system is also an SSSI. It has two other levels of protection,
through the Ramsar international treaty on wetland habitats, and as a
European Natura 200-protected habitat.
It is the very nature of the wild dunes at Menie and now Coul that attracts
big-money developers such as Trump and Keiser: the SWT and other groups
proposed an alternative version of both golf courses, outside the SSSIs,
but developers rejected them. “The whole point is that golfers want to play
on the dunes,” Wilson says.
What baffles Wilson is why developers want to move in to Coul Links at all
despite their protected status. The area is a fragile network of
undisturbed dunes noted for protected birds including terns, geese and
waders, and a rich variety of plants.
“It’s the most highly-designated kind of site you could have,” he says. “It
should just be that a developer sees that, and just says: ‘It’s not worth
our while doing that’.
“But we repeatedly see this, with very special sites being opened up to
Not everyone shares his view. The golf firm behind the Coul plan promised
to boost the local economy, with 250 new jobs and “more than £60 million
gross value-added” in its first 10 years. It will only use part of the
protected area and says it will manage the site to help local wildlife and
combat invasive species.
The Dornoch Area Community Interest Company, set up by local people to
promote the area, says its board “unanimously, fully and enthusiastically
supports the Coul Links project”.
“We believe the environmental issues can be constructively addressed and
the project will materially strengthen the Dornoch and East Sutherland
communities,” it declares.
With such support the plan won approval from Highland Council, and Scottish
ministers are expected to make a final decision on it in the next few months.
Wilson says the way such development decisions are swayed by economic
arguments is wrong: “The focus on the short-term economic gain really
misses out on the long-term economics the reason that people would go to
these areas is being eroded by these short-term economics. Priorities are
being turned on their heads.
“And there’s a burden on us to prove the environmental argument while
economics are always taken at face value. They say a development will
create so many new jobs and bring so many millions to the local economy and
those figures are just accepted.”
It is not just tourist developments that impact on our finest natural places.
Glen Etive is in a national scenic area, with much of it officially “wild
land”. The narrow road that threads the glen for 14 miles to the sea gives
less active tourists the chance to see untamed land up close.
The same easy access and steep tumbling burns that are a tourist draw are
what attracted hydro-electricity developer William Dickins.
Campaigners including wild-land charity the John Muir Trust fought hard
against Dickins’ plans for seven “micro-hydro” schemes on the major burns
flowing into the River Etive.
Eventually the development won approval from Highland Council. There will
be a grant to the local community from profits, and there will, of course,
be more “green” power going into the national grid.
Davie Black, access and conservation officer at climbers’ and walkers’
organisation Mountaineering Scotland, says under the present planning
system developments such as the Etive hydro schemes will go on happening
despite opposition: “The protections are there but if you look at the
planning policy there is always a caveat that it doesn’t prohibit
development entirely … that’s how the system works and you have to argue
With Scottish Government backing for economic development, and no right of
appeal by objectors to planning decisions, the odds, he says, are stacked
But Kate Forbes forcibly makes the point that, while the environment is
important, the wellbeing of local people should take precedence when it
comes to development: “The most pressing issue in the Highlands is
depopulation and the deficit of young people.
“Recent statistics … show that deficit is due to grow, which could be
disastrous for public services, local schools and rural communities in the
Highlands. My focus is on retaining and attracting people.”
She says environmental quality is vital to the Highland economy, boosting
tourism and food exports: “The environment can take years to recover if it
is wrecked in the pursuit of quick economic gain.”
However, she adds: “Today, there is a danger that the Highlands are treated
like a museum to be enjoyed at a distance without thought to the needs of
the local population, who live here and need jobs, infrastructure and
“Often it’s those living furthest from the Highlands that have the
strongest opinions about what should happen here. That is not local
democracy. Those who live here know how important balancing economic
opportunities with environmental protections is.”
Coul and Glen Etive the latter in Forbes’ constituency are probably the
most extreme examples of development allowed in highly protected areas.
But can developments in what seem to be inviolable areas do what they set
out to leave the area undamaged and boost the local economy?
The Kingshouse Hotel sits not far from Dickins’ hydro schemes at the
junction of Glen Etive and Glen Coe. It has one of the most photographed
views in Scotland, of the huge sentinel of Buachaille Etive Mor and down
into Glen Coe itself.
The old hotel was tatty and needed a major upgrade, but the owners
demolished almost all of it and replaced it with a three-storey
steel-framed structure that brought howls of objection from, among others,
the National Trust for Scotland.
The Trust said it was an eyesore but the argument was that it would create
jobs, and the hotel company brought in to run said it could only be
sustained at a much bigger scale than the original hotel.
The Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council backed it and the developers
where at pains to say they would make the building fit in with the local
Whether they have succeeded is another matter, but the hotel opened in
February and instead of a charming but damp, mouldy and battered building
that would have had to close, there is now a modern hotel and bunkhouse in
a remote place employing 54 people, and serving walkers and climbers as
well as bus tourists.
Environmental groups themselves agree development is necessary if the
Highlands is to thrive. So how do they say it should it be done?
The nature of the proposals is key, says Davie Black: “It’s a question of
how the development goes ahead. Is it an intensive extractive process or is
it some light harvesting or harnessing of resources?”
As well as fighting the Glen Etive plan, the John Muir Trust has opposed
several large wind-farm developments. It accepts the argument for renewable
energy to cut carbon emissions but Andrew Bachell, its chief executive,
says the trust backs “local power for local people” such as schemes on Eigg
and in Knoydart, which have their own micro-generation for local consumption.
“When our energy strategy is largely dictated by corporations whose first
and foremost priority is to distant shareholders, and by landowners
determined to squeeze every penny of profit out of the land they own, it
starts to get more complicated,” he says.
His thinking chimes with Wilson’s: locally-run developments, with all the
profits returning to the area, are his ideal. SWT itself agreed after much
thought to a single wind turbine on land it owns in a national scenic area
at Achiltibuie. The turbine is managed by a local community company and
profits go to the local community.
“We’re not against development, and that development can take place in such
areas where jobs and attractions can boost the economy, as long as it does
so without causing damage,” Wilson says.
William Dickins, the developer of Coul Links, and the agent for the owners
of the Kingshouse were all approached for this article, but did not provide