The wind howls through the Sma’ Glen and up towards the village of Amulree. It’s a wet, blustery day in Highland Perthshire and inching the car across a rickety wooden bridge, towards the farmhouse we’re headed for, is a slow, treacherous pursuit. Once we’re past the stables and inside the cosy farm kitchen, however, the trek starts to seem worthwhile. There’s a pot of homemade soup bubbling on the Aga, a dog snoozes contentedly in his basket and out the window you can just see the view to Glen Quaich, which even on a windy day like this is spectacularly beautiful.
The wind, of course, is why we’re here. Sitting around the long kitchen table, poring over a number of developers’ plans and chatting animatedly over steaming cups of freshly brewed coffee, are three respectable Perthshire women with a twinkle in their eye. There is talk of work and children, of the ceilidh in the village hall the previous Friday and plans for Christmas.
To look at them, you’d never believe that one cold wintry day not so long ago they walked up Glen Quaich, stripped off all their clothes, and posed nude, covered by nothing but a hand-drawn banner, in protest at two proposed wind farm developments in the area. You may have seen the photograph. It has been suspended, on banners eight feet long, along various roads throughout Perthshire for the past three years. And it is the front line in direct marketing for the Amulree and Strathbraan Windfarm Action Group (ASWAG). The group is campaigning against Griffin Forest wind farm, which will comprise 68 wind turbines, each standing 400 feet high, and Calliachar, which will be made up of 27 turbines 330 feet high, stretching across an area of Perthshire known as the “golden triangle”, beloved of tourists, artists and writers, who have included Beatrix Potter and Sir Walter Scott.
“No-one was paying any attention to us,” says Jill Wilson, who works full-time for a horse supplies firm and is also the chairman of ASWAG, in whose kitchen we are all currently ensconced.
“I felt we had to do something spectacular. Everyone always says that the three things which sell are money, sex and power,” says Ann Lindsay, a formidable lady with tight curls, who works as an author from her home in Meikle Trochry.
“We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any power, so…” Wilson tails off with a laugh.
ASWAG is a grassroots organisation which grew out of a community. Formed in January 2004 in Amulree town hall by a group of concerned locals and, as Lindsay puts it, “helped along by a lot of homebaking”, it has become a mighty David to the twin Goliaths of GreenPower and I&H Brown, the companies behind both the proposed developments – even managing to get a public inquiry commissioned. The inquiry was chaired by Scottish Executive reporter David Russell, and the report is now in the hands of the Executive.
“I think it would be true to say it was a gentle community uprising,” says Lindsay.
“Gentle?” remarks Susan MacKinnon fiercely from the other side of the table. MacKinnon lives in Glen Quaich with her husband, a former shepherd and estate manager, and their teenage son. Their lives are tied to the land even more strongly than the others, and it is an issue about which she cares deeply. She even took unpaid leave from her job as a chef in order to attend every day of the public enquiry.
“People were saying, ‘Have you heard what’s going to happen here?’ and as the facts unfolded as to just how many turbines there were going to be, the community became more and more appalled,” continues Lindsay.
The facts are as follows: if the two companies, I&H Brown and GreenPower, get their way, 95 turbines will stretch from the National Scenic Area of Dunkeld in the hills above Strathbraan and GlenQuaich and across to within 5 km of Aberfeldy. Both wind farms would be visible from a National Tourist route.
ASWAG says they will destroy the beauty of the landscape, damage the tourist industry and wreck the local environment, home to a variety of rare birds. Hen harriers nest in the area, and there is also a golden eagle nest adjacent to Calliachar. A pair of golden eagles were seen regularly in the area as recently as 2005. Not everyone agrees, however. Kate Barlow, the principal consultant in ecology with environmental consultant BMT Cordah, a witness during the public enquiry, concluded: “There will be no significant adverse effects on the ecological interests of the proposed wind farm site”.
Calliachar, which had originally been planned as a 46-turbine site, has been scaled down to a proposed 27 in an effort to address environmental concerns. Both Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB said, after initial concerns, that the proposed development was acceptable in principle. The community is devastated, says ASWAG, they feel abandoned, left to fight the battle on their own.
“It’s going to change this whole area for ever,” says Wilson. “And it’s not just the life of the wind farm, because you’ve got all this infrastructure involved in the building of it. People think it’s clean energy and it doesn’t damage the landscape, but that’s just not true: it’s very ecologically damaging.
“For every turbine base you’ve got to put in 1,000 tonnes of concrete. You’ve got to put in roads, you’ve got to build sub-stations. As far as Griffin’s concerned, they’ll be building a cement works; plus there’s going to be 30 miles of tracks over these hills, as well as two years of construction traffic going up and down our little glen road.”
MacKinnon widens her eyes: “It’s going to be horrific.”
Wind farms are one of Scotland’s hot issues, dividing those who think that in order to harness natural energy some landscapes must be changed, and those who say they ruin the countryside, and simply don’t work.
First Minister Jack McConnell said in April this year: “With the best will in the world, our renewable energy industry is unlikely to plug the gap nuclear will leave at the end of its life.” After the publication of the Government’s long-awaited Energy Review in July – which signified a renewed focus in England on nuclear energy but an emphasis on renewables – north of the Border, wind farms are more likely than ever to pop up with increasing regularity in the next few years.
“Scotland has vast potential to exploit energy sources like marine and wind power,” McConnell said, following the publication of the report. “I have no doubt Scotland’s most important contribution to the UK’s energy future can and will be through renewables.”
None of this is of any use to the members of ASWAG, who are aware that they could be seen as anti-green – “actually, you couldn’t get a group of greener people than us”, interjects Lindsay – or as NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”-ers).
I ask them what they would say to those who might accuse them of NIMBYism, and why anyone outside the Amulree and Strathbraan area should care about their cause?
“Because this is Scotland’s backyard,” Lindsay says without hesitation. “This has been a tourist hotspot since before tourism was an industry. Beatrix Potter came up here, wandered up and down this glen, and painters have been inspired by the area for hundreds of years. It’s a national tourist route. People have been coming here for the past 180 years. And this will change it for ever.”
“Sir Walter Scott called it ‘the whole of Scotland in miniature’,” Wilson chips in. “And it is.”
“It’s a very beautiful area, and that’s hugely valuable to the economy as a whole,” Lindsay continues. “We destroy that at our peril. An area the size of Perth is going to be turned into an industrial estate. Why should we stand by and say, ‘Well that’s fine, you just go ahead?'”
It’s a fair point. And ASWAG certainly haven’t stood by. Indeed, without their efforts, the public inquiry would probably have never taken place at all.
“We went on to the streets of Perth and Dunkeld. We spoke to locals, we spoke to tourists, and got 1,000 rejections [of the proposed developments] written down, which were sent to Perth and Kinross Council,” says Wilson.
“At the council meeting the developers spoke, and it was recommended by Perth and Kinross planning officers to approve it. But the councillor who listened to all the evidence voted to reject them. That is what triggered the public enquiry.”
The group also wishes more attention was paid to alternatives. Michael Funston, another ASWAG member, who retired to Amulree two years ago after a career as a farmer in Cambridgeshire, says: “There’s no doubt that there are government incentives to put in wind farms – tax incentives, grants and so on. If instead they put it into upgrading the hydroelectric schemes, we could have twice as much power.”
Altogether, though, the cause has not been an easy one.
“It’s [been] two and half years of meetings at nights, lobbyings, going to all sorts of meetings. It takes over your whole life.” says MacKinnon.
“Most of us work, and have families,” interjects Wilson, a point underlined when her teenage daughter pokes her head round the kitchen door to enquire when lunch will be ready. “Soon, darling,” she says. “We’re just having a meeting.” It’s obviously a common phrase in the Wilson household.
All those involved are tired, but they’re not willing to give up the fight. “Communities across Scotland are the last line of defence in protecting the landscape they love,” says Wilson. “The developer’s attitude was, if you only looked in one direction out your window you wouldn’t see it. That was never the issue. The issues is trying to protect the area for future generations.”
By Emma Cowing
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