The moors of north Lewis are desolate in midwinter, a treeless expanse of ochre grasses and rich black peat, pummelled by Arctic winds driving in from the north Atlantic.
That moor is now at the centre of an increasingly bitter battle between local opponents and two powerful corporations, Amec and British Energy, who are fighting to save controversial plans to build one of the world’s largest wind farms – a vast arc of 181 turbines curving down the northern half of the Hebridean island.
If it were dropped onto London it would stretch from the Olympics park in Stratford to Epsom in the south and Hampton court in the west. Each turbine is 140m high, dwarfing all other man-made things on the island.
Eight days ago, to the jubilation of its critics and environmentalists, it emerged that the Scottish executive was “minded to refuse” the £500m scheme as it would seriously damage the moor’s extremely fragile, internationally-protected habitats for rare birds such as dunlin, golden eagles, merlin, golden plover and red-throated divers. The moor itself is one of the most ecologically-significant peat bogs in Europe.
Scottish ministers have since come under intense pressure to reverse that provisional decision before making a final announcement this month. Councillors, crofters’ leaders and the developers are vigorously lobbying ministers and the European commission to save the north Lewis scheme, or at least find a compromise. Today the local Scottish National party MSP, Alasdair Allan, will face those bitterly-disappointed people at a meeting on Lewis.
The 600mw project, they insist, could supply a tenth of Scotland’s renewable electricity, significantly boosting the UK’s efforts to cut our increasing CO2 emissions, and energise the Western Isles’ faltering economy.
But for Catriona Campbell, 50, a primary school teacher in the village of Bragar, the wind farm would be a disaster. “We’ve been brought up to respect and love the moor ever since we were tiny,” she said. “It’s a piece of ground which means so much to us. It’s just part of us … I knew right away that I didn’t want the moor to be dug up or concreted over in any way. That would just break my heart. I don’t see how it will be anything other than a completely devastated area.”
Even the £2,000 a year in rent which each crofter stands to earn from the wind farm has failed to persuade Dina Murray, a crofter and vociferous opponent. The moor, she said, is pitted by unmarked archaeological treasures vital to the community’s heritage – old grazing huts called shielings and uncounted prehistoric sites, which the council and developers have ignored. “Do they really think they can buy our agreement to this wind farm?” she said. “Do they genuinely believe that the crofters will capitulate if a big enough financial sweetie is dangled in front of them? If so, we have news for them: we are not for sale, not at any price.”
Only 77 people wrote to the executive in support, while 13,000, three quarters of them islanders, have opposed it, they said. Regular surveys of crofters and tourists find often overwhelming opposition to the scheme, Campbell added. It is said the Labour member of the Scottish parliament, a prominent local journalist called Alastair Morrison, lost his seat last May to the SNP because he backed the scheme.
The Western Isles council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, is adamant that the project is vital to the island’s economy – a view shared by the Stornoway Trust, a community-run body which owns much of the moorland earmarked for the development. One recent study showed that the Western Isles has a trade deficit of £163m a year. Its economy is officially designated as “fragile”, kept afloat by state subsidies.
Although unemployment has fallen sharply, its population is projected to fall by more than 5% – chiefly because it will see the largest migration of any area in Scotland over the next 25 years, with roughly one islander in six expected to leave to work elsewhere. Birth rates too are expected to fall dramatically.
Supporters of the wind farm say many skilled islanders – particularly engineers – have been forced to leave to find work, moving to the mainland, to the North Sea oil rigs, the Middle East and the United States.
They believe men like Lionel McIver, 23, who works in Inverness for the wave energy firm Wavegen, with his aeronautical engineering degree, would flock home if Lewis became a centre for renewable energy. “If the job was right, I would work on Lewis. But with my degree, unfortunately the opportunities just aren’t there,” he said.
Iain MacIver, the Stornoway trust’s estate manager, believes that rejecting the wind farm would be an economic disaster, seriously harming the council’s long-standing ambition to make the Western Isles a hub for renewable energy, first mooted in the late 1990s. “We started this race before anybody else. We’ve been overtaken and now it looks like we’re going to be lapped,” he said.
The original plan was to install 1,000mw of wind turbines on Lewis. There are three other schemes – ranging from a 13.8mw project to a much larger 53-turbine, 160mw scheme – currently in the planning system, all being opposed by campaigners.
The island stands to earn up to £6m a year in benefits from the wind farm, with the crofters earning £2m a year for 20 years. That money, three times more than their agricultural subsidies, could renovate village halls and schools, and invest in local renewable energy programmes. The wind farm, however, would only directly affect 2% of the legally-protected moor. Other senior figures on the islands agree. Neil MacLeod, a prominent crofter in the village of Tong, said it would be an “absolute tragedy” to lose the wind farm. “What we need are jobs and a stable economy, and we had that promise with the wind farm.”
But for MSP Alasdair Allan, this scheme was simply too big, too brutal for Lewis. Its economy should be rebuilt with a mix of initiatives and industries, backed by deep cuts in ferry fares.
“There is no one magic bullet which will solve the island’s problems,” he said. “I think it’s a big mistake to believe that it will. We can’t progress on the basis of one enormous industrial wind farm, particularly if it doesn’t enjoy community support.”
By Severin Carrell
4 Februay 2008
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