As the world drains out of Edinburgh this week following the end of another round of festivals, and tourists and students and performers from across the globe take away their glorious impressions of a beautiful city set about with picturesque hills and romantic countryside, this writer and artist couldn’t help wonder if our visitors would have had quite the same feelings about the place were it covered with white wind turbines.
Yet those who came to see us via the south would have seem them everywhere, the minute they left England behind them, the Borders now thickly massed with them, as did anyone leaving the city to head north, particularly towards the north east, marked out by the Scottish Government as a “red zone” for turbine development.
There, one only has to drive anywhere off the A9, or take a walk into the hills to see how the Highlands are being turned into massive tracts of turbine industry land, making big money for impoverished estates and foreign investors and energy companies that simply doesn’t translate into jobs for communities or money off the electricity bill.
They can put a soft focus picture of a wind turbine and a dandelion on a massive poster at Inverness airport to greet passengers off the plane, maybe, but whatever way you look at it, gigantic white pillars on every hill and rise is not the landscape anyone thinks of when they think “Scotland”.
The SNP may be committed to a policy of so-called “renewable” energy – but at what cost? It seems the price we pay is the countryside we call home, that we put on all the calendars and tourist posters, but that increasingly is being sold off and turned into industrial land. That word “renewable” may describe the capacity of wind itself to continue to blow, but it does not speak for the land that supports the same initiative.
For the land that hosts wind turbines becomes, most certainly, industry land.
There is nothing “farm”-like about the planting of enormous structures into soft peaty earth that is fast becoming eroded by the effect of the amount of aggregate sunk into their foundations. If they dominated Edinburgh and the wealthy south the way they do in the Borders and sparsely inhabited north… Well, there would be fewer of those International Festival visitors for a start.
Recently, as noted in this newspaper, an independent inquiry funded by public subscription and the John Muir Trust returned a verdict that opposed a massive new turbine development, the size of Inverness, on the Monadhliath hills, set right next to the more celebrated Cairngorms.
Despite this, and despite the amount of money that had been found by private citizens, aghast by the prospect of a beautiful landscape being given over to the white towers, the SNP summarily overturned the decision and are now pursuing the Trust for legal costs.
This cuts deep – into the idea of Scottish land that’s there for everyone, meaning that its there for all of us to think upon and visit and roam freely about and enjoy and, in that way, if you like, emotionally “own”, and into the very reality of having a democratic debate about its future.
For what chance have we, private citizens, to have a say in the future of our landscape when landscape itself is deemed “useful” only if it can be sold off or alternatively roped off into so-called “wild land” for designated recreation, that is, in turn, fenced in by the other sort.
That’s not roaming as we know it. It’s not the Scotland we recognise. Or that visitors come here to see.
A recent article about the lack of wide uninhabited places on the planet cited that in America, even in the furthermost reaches of the Yellowstone National Park (itself established by the Scot John Muir) one is still never any more than 20 miles from a public road.
This summer, my family and I walked for two days and nights up in the North East without seeing a soul – let alone a road. We may not have been in one of the SNP’s designated “wild places” – but does that make it less wild? Less valuable? Less part of our Scotland?
I told German and French and American friends all about our ramble at the Books Festival this past weekend, and of course, they were not surprised. Empty places. Remote hills and valleys…This to them is what Scotland is all about.
Yet sitting up in our house in the hills in Sutherland, thinking about my next book, I wonder how long that version of our country can hold out. All these remote places I love and write about, that I travel the world to describe and celebrate… I worry, too, about what the future holds for our own community. Thanks to the organisation of the protest group we have established in Rogart, and to the hard work, and the legal costs we managed to cover through our own private donation, we were able to resist a massive turbine development – the fourth in our area – that threatened to enclose us completely. We took our local councillors out on a day trip and showed them how hemmed in we already were by giant white windmills, and they listened and looked and filed a report that, in the end, was sympathetic to the needs of people who live here.
But how long will we have to maintain those kinds of relationships with councils in far flung places when there are plans already in train to centralise all local authorities and have all decisions come straight from Holyrood?
How long will we have to have the Scotland we – and the world – think we have?
• Kirsty Gunn is Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee and an associate of the Scottish Land Futures Centre, founded at the University, as part of the Centre for Scottish Studies. She is also a founding member of the protest group “No More Wind Farms” in Sutherland.