Anti-windfarm campaigners are furious over allegations that they “hijacked” an important ceremony in Sutherland this week involving First Minister Alex Salmond.
Mr Salmond travelled north to Helmsdale on Monday to perform the honours at the unveiling of The Emigrants, a statue commemorating the achievements and resilience of those who left these shores during the Highland Clearances and make new lives for themselves overseas.
During his trip a member of Mr Salmond’s staff was quietly handed a document by Landscape, the Sutherland Campaign for Action to Protect Our Environment.
The document appealed to the First Minister to halt the “second Highland Clearances of Sutherland” and in particular to use his influence to hold a public inquiry into controversial plans for a 35-turbine wind farm at Gordonbush, Strath Brora.
But according to a front-page report in a daily newspaper the following day, the anti-wind farm campaigners had “hijacked” the ceremony.
Landscape chairman and ornithologist Alan Vittery of Brora, who was not at the ceremony, said he was flabbergasted when he read the article and initially thought it must refer to some other action group.
“Landscape fully supported the Clearances event and would not have taken any overt action to disrupt it or minimise its impact,” he said.
Mr Vittery revealed that he had e-mailed a letter to the Aberdeen-based newspaper concerned in order to put the record straight, but it had not been published.
He said Landscape now intended to write to the First Minister because of their concern that the type of publicity the unveiling ceremony received could sway his thinking over the Gordonbush development.
“I am thinking about writing to him and sending a copy of the letter I sent to the paper. We are worried that his judgement might be coloured when he looks at our document because the publicity over the ceremony was spoilt. The headline was not about him unveiling the statue, it was about the wind farm campaigners hijacking the event,” Mr Vittery said.
An unrelenting downpour at Tuesday afternoon’s ceremony in Couper Park served only to heighten the poignancy and sadness of the period in history being commemorated. A large crowd stood quietly under brightly coloured umbrellas as Mr Salmond spoke next to the 10ft-high bronze statue standing at the mouth of the Strath of Kildonan. Sculpted by celebrated Black Isle artist Gerald Laing, it depicts a family fleeing their village with the mother looking back at the empty glen and the father looking out to sea and the future.
It was commissioned by the charitable company Clearances Centre Ltd (CCL), founder and chairman of which is gold-mining tycoon Dennis Macleod who was born in the Strath of Kildonan but now lives in Canada.
The company originally had much more ambitious plans to place a 120ft monument on top of Creag Bun-Ullidh above Helmsdale, supposedly to rival the Duke of Sutherland’s huge statue on the top of Ben Bhraggie above Golspie, but spiralling costs forced them to abandon the idea.
Mr Salmond said on Tuesday: “This statue is a reminder of the men, women and children who left Scotland and took their skills, their strength and their stories across the seas and shared them around the world. While we deplore the Clearances we can be proud of the contribution that those cleared have made to humanity.”
A series of lectures related to the Clearances is to be delivered at the UHI Millennium Institute’s Centre for History in Inverness, to coincide with the unveiling.
Mr Salmond said: “The Scottish Parliament has rightly apologised for the Highland Clearances, acknowledging our debt to those who left these shores. But apologies, statues and memorials are not enough. We need to engage with our history and learn from it.
“That’s why it’s important that this statue is being unveiled, together with the launch of an academic lecture series.
“Lectures delivered by people with experience of the land and insight about the past will allow us to learn lessons and move forward.”
CCL chairman Dennis Macleod revealed that an identical statue to the one in Helmsdale had recently been unveiled by the Red River near Winnipeg, a city founded by some of those who left the Strath of Kildonan for Canada.
“It’s my personal ambition to have the same statue erected in all the areas where the Highlanders settled,” he said. “We now have two, and I can see five or six eventually, in places including the US and Australia.”
27 July 2007
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