It is a quiet landscape of dramatic beauty which was immortalised by one of Scotland’s most famous authors.
But Dunbeath Strath, through which runs the Highland river of the title of one of Neil Gunn’s best-loved works, has become the focus of the debate on whether wind farms are a boon or a blight on the land.
The area, described as one of Europe’s last true wildernesses, is an environmentally important stretch of sparsely populated bog and moorland.
But the Scottish Executive is to consider an application for a £35m wind farm to be built there which could potentially create enough power for half the homes in the Highlands.
RDC Scotland and Falck Renewables UK want to erect 23 turbines which will rise 125 metres above the strath. The 66-megawatt scheme would use 1,200 hectares of Dunbeath Estate moorland. It is the latest in a string of wind farms planned or already springing up across the blustery Highlands. It is a subject which raises fierce passions but has a new focus at Dunbeath, where Gunn was born in 1891, in the village 20 miles south of Wick.
In his 1941 work, My Bit Of Britain, Gunn wrote: “These small straths, like the Strath of Dunbeath, have this intimate beauty. In boyhood we get to know every square yard of it. We encompass it physically and our memories hold it.”
The Executive has so far received 650 objections and 25 submissions of support for the proposed wind farm. Gunn’s nephew and literary executor is at the centre of the protests.
Dairmid Gunn, at 73, is determined that the wind farm will not blight the scenery beloved of fans of his late uncle who make pilgrimages to the area every year from across the world. He said he
believed the author would have thought the move to build the turbines was a step too far in the pursuit of progress.
“When there was controversy about pylons after the war, my uncle used to say: ‘We’ve got to think of the people who live here.’ I think he would have said if the wind farms were being used in moderation for local people it would be OK, but if it was for outsiders he would have been upset quite honestly.”
Neil Gunn used Dairmid’s father, John, as the inspiration for Highland River’s central character Kenn.
Speaking from his Edinburgh home, Dairmid added: “Dunbeath is lucky to have someone to describe it as beautifully as Wordsworth did with the Lakes. It is a small intimate area he has done so much to enhance.”
He added: “There has to be a balance between the quality of life and the needs of the nation. However important economically, it is not going to improve the number of people who visit.”
According to the British Wind Energy Association, which represents the renewable energy industry in the UK, there are 39 onshore wind farms across the country and 47 waiting to be completed. A further 77 are awaiting planning approval.
If they were all built, there would be a total of 3,419 turbines across Scotland. There are currently 642, another 703 are either being built or have planning permission and 2,074 are at the application stage.
In addition, the Renewable Energy Foundation last month reported that the best performing wind sites are in the north of Scotland and on Shetland.
In Dunbeath there is little open talk about the proposed wind farm.
Some whisper that crofters are set to receive payments or that big cash benefits are in the offing for the village.
Discussions have taken place between the developers and the community and it is understood that, through a number of schemes, up to £250,000 a year could go to Dunbeath.
The community council has so far refused to comment and although it has held public meetings it is leaving it up to individuals to make their own comments.
Even the Dunbeath Preservation Trust, which does much to promote Neil Gunn, has remained silent.
One voice which has consistently opposed the plans is that of Meg Sinclair, who works at the trust’s heritage centre, housed in Gunn’s old school with views up the strath and over the proposed wind farm site.
“The centre here is so much entwined with the landscape, through Neil Gunn’s work, our archaeological interest, guided walks, etc,” she said. “I dread to think of how it will be if this gets the go-ahead; even a walk along beside the harbour will be affected.
“Because the turbines are standing at 200 metres above sea level you will see them the whole way up the strath.”
But the developers are convinced their proposal is good for Dunbeath. Charles Williams of Falck Renewables said: “RDC Scotland and Falck Renewables are currently in the process of installing some 110 megawatts of wind energy capacity in the Highlands to assist in the implementation of the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy.
“The Dunbeath proposal, with a potential installed capacity of up to 66 megawatts, will provide benefits to the global environment and the local community in line with this strategy.
“The planning application for Dunbeath has recently been modified to take account of environmental issues, and we hope the local community, Highland Council and the Scottish Executive will consider the revised application favourably.”
Public consultation on the Dunbeath wind farm closed on Friday, with Highland Council expected to make a recommendation in March. The Executive will then decide on the planning application.
Muses on the map
The sights and sounds of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song are taken from the Howe of the Mearns – the farming area in the north-east of Scotland where the author grew up. They are as crucial to his work as the Highland settings of Neil Gunn’s novels.
Despite being born in Edinburgh, from a Borders family, many argue Sir Walter Scott invented the Highlands, or at least the romantic Hollywood version of them. Scott’s breakthrough novel Waverley did the most to popularise the idea of the Highlands as a wild, romantic place filled with spectacular scenery and doomed heroes.
Scotland’s national poet fell in love with almost as many places as he did bonny lassies. Alloway, the area Burns farmed as a young man looms large; whether it be the ruined kirk that inspired Tam O’ Shanter or the barley fields where he uncovered A “wee sleekit, cow’rin tim’rous beastie”.
Poet and story teller George McKay Brown spent almost all his life on Orkney until his death in 1996. Most of his poems and stories are influenced by the landscape, weather and folk tales.
By Nick Drainey
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