ISLE OF LEWIS, Scotland – Those who inhabit this faraway island of windswept moors and rocky crofts seem to possess a sense of place that does not leave them at a loss for words.
Listen to Finlay MacLeod, a local broadcaster and writer who enjoys long ambles on the desolate moors, a jelly-like terrain that is more liquid than solid: “I know this place through the soles of my feet. I revel in it. I serenade it. I never go on holiday. When I do go away, I’m desperate to get back,” he told a visitor.
“And now we are facing this terrible thing that threatens the very essence of what Lewis is. It’s a small island. It’s unique. And this will tear it asunder,” he said.
The “terrible thing” to which he refers is a plan to construct what some promote as an environmental and economic blessing–a vast wind farm. Two British energy conglomerates have applied for permission to build 234 giant wind turbines that would generate 702 megawatts of power, one of the largest such projects in Europe.
The turbines would be 460 feet high; their rotors would have a diameter of 330 feet. A Boeing 747 jumbo jet could fly through the circumference with room to spare.
“There’d be no escaping them,” said Catriona Campbell, whose kitchen window view would be compromised by dozens of the turbines about a mile away. She calls them a “physical and cultural desecration.”
“This is the land of our ancestors. If we lose it, we’ve lost the thing that makes us who we are,” she said.
Campbell, a schoolteacher, is chairwoman of a group called Moorlands Without Turbines. She also is a part-time crofter who tends to about 20 sheep.
Crofting is a traditional form of land tenancy that remains an essential way of life on Lewis. The typical croft here consists of a few acres of arable land that extends from the crofter’s house to the sea; the inland moors are held collectively by the crofting villages for grazing sheep.
`Windiest place in Europe’
The Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris, home of the famous Harris tweed, are actually a single island in the chain that forms the Outer Hebrides. Harris is mountainous; Lewis is flat and mostly moorlands.
If you are in the wind farm business, Lewis looks like heaven.
“This is the windiest place in Europe,” said Kevin Murray, local representative for Lewis Wind Power, the project developer. “It’s pure wind, a perfect horizontal flow coming across 3,000 miles of the Atlantic, unbroken until it hits Lewis.”
The arguments for and against the project fall along lines familiar to other places that have grappled with the issue, such as Cape Cod in Massachusetts and Padre Island in Texas.
Developers of the Lewis project say it will give the island a much-needed economic boost while helping Britain meet its European Union-mandated targets for renewable energy. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other groups back the project. Lining up against it, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, among others, argue that the turbines will cause incalculable damage to the flora and fauna of the moor. The RSPB, which has been particularly vocal, speaks of “bird genocide,” and even the developers concede that the giant rotors are not ornithologically friendly.
But even more fragile than the bird habitat is the human ecology of Lewis.
Crofting, weaving and fishing are the island’s main economic activities. Gaelic is still widely spoken. For many islanders, English is a language they learned at school. Gaelic remains their first language.
The problem is that Scotland’s Western Isles have been in steady decline for more than a century. The fishing fleets are nearly gone. The number of active weavers has fallen from several thousand a generation ago to about 200 today. The population has shrunk from 36,000 in 1951 to 26,500 in the last census. With Britain’s highest death rate and lowest birthrate, the decline can only continue.
Lewis does not have the air of an impoverished place, but its GDP lags far behind the rest of Britain, and there are deepening concerns about its long-term economic viability.
So it was no great surprise in June of 2005 when the Western Isles Council, the local governing body, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the wind farm project. But it was not a decision made lightly.
Benefits and doubts
“We knew we had to get it right,” said Angus Nicholson, a council member who heads the environmental services committee and who voted in favor of project. “We knew that if we came to the wrong decision, it could mean the end of this community as we know it.”
Calum Ian MacIver, head of economic development for the council, can reel off the pertinent statistics with PowerPoint precision: More than 330 local jobs during the project’s 4-year construction phase; a similar number of full-time jobs during its 25-year operational lifetime. In addition to the rent they will pay for the land, the developers have offered the community 20 percent ownership of the project and have pledged to pay some $20 million a year into a community benefits fund.
Campbell, who stands to collect about $6,000 a year in rent for the turbines on her croft, said she is not interested in handouts or “corporate bribes.” She also points out that unemployment is not one of the island’s problems–the jobless rate fluctuates between 3 and 6 percent–and that if the project goes through, workers will probably have to be imported from Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe. She believes the project will hasten the population decline.
Others are dismissive of the developers’ “green energy” claims, noting that the moorland traps greenhouse gas in much the same way as a rain forest.
“You wouldn’t chop down a rain forest to build a wind farm, would you?” asked MacLeod, the writer.
But Murray, the Lewis Wind Power representative, illustrates a different set of trade-offs.
A native of Lewis, Murray left the island to attend university. Those who leave rarely return, and after obtaining a degree in engineering, Murray worked jobs in the U.S., New Zealand and England. The wind farm project drew him back.
“It’s a great place for a family,” he said. “My children have two great-grandparents living in the same village. How often do you get that living anywhere else in the world?”
Murray, like many of his neighbors, is a part-time crofter.
“It’s a lifestyle thing, a communal activity. You cut peat with your neighbor, you plant potatoes with your neighbor. I enjoy it, but it doesn’t pay the mortgage,” he said.
“I’m a realist. I know these big multinationals are not coming here to save Lewis. If the wind didn’t blow, they wouldn’t give a damn about us,” he said. “But we’ve got this natural resource blowing over us everyday. To harness it–I think that’s the most natural thing we could do. As an engineer, it’s a no-brainer.”
An opinion survey taken earlier this year showed a divided community: 41 percent said they supported a wind farm project, 40 percent were opposed and 19 percent hadn’t made up their minds.
What the survey didn’t show was the growing sense of foreboding.
“It’s a feeling almost like a war approaching. Or some other great calamity,” MacLeod said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. It overwhelms. Everything feels threatened.”
By Tom Hundley
Tribune foreign correspondent
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