The first time it happened, Pat Spence thought she was having a heart attack. ‘I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic with my heart hammering and thought, “Oh my God, this is it.” I was terrified.’
Alone in her remote farmhouse in a secluded part of Ayrshire, Pat lay back in bed and breathed deeply as her heartbeat started to slow. A musician, she was accustomed to tuning in to the sounds around her.
‘That’s when I became aware of a steady “thump, thump, woof, woof” sound,’ she says. ‘Eventually it dawned on me: the only thing around here big enough to make a sound like that is a wind turbine.’
Over the past ten years Pat, 75, has watched helpless as her rural idyll has been turned into a nightmare.
Where she once gazed out on peaceful woodland, fields and moors she is now surrounded by a whopping 184 wind turbines. She says the sound and vibrations of the turbines have made her ill, causing serious pains in her ears, high blood pressure and terrible headaches.
‘My life is an absolute hell because of this and I’ve just had enough,’ she says.
‘I just can’t live with it any more.’
Pat and her late husband John, a public relations specialist, moved to Scotland from Staffordshire in 1987 in search of the good life. A successful flautist who played with a number of professional English orchestras including the celebrated D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, famed for staging Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Pat had set up her own music publishing company and needed more room for the business.
‘We had a house with a building in the grounds which we used for the publishing and we just outgrew it,’ she says. ‘Property got very expensive down there and it was either buy something else and convert a whole lot of buildings, or go on living where we were and set the business up on an industrial estate.
‘My father worked at Edinburgh University and had a weekend cottage in Sanquhar, in Dumfriesshire, and he said to us, “You’ll get a lot more bang for your buck up here”.
‘We had always talked rather wistfully about living in Scotland and then when we found this place, with all this space, we thought it was wonderful. We bought it and looked around and thought, “What could possibly go wrong?”‘
Pat’s farmhouse sits on 35 acres of land near the village of Barrhill. To the east lies Galloway Forest Park, to the west, the rugged Ayrshire coast. Her nearest neighbours are sheep and livestock and until the arrival of the turbines, the only noise pollution she had to contend with was the occasional noisy cow.
But all that changed when ScottishPower started building wind farms on nearby land that is mostly owned by Forestry Commission Scotland, a branch of the Scottish Government.
Construction of the first wind farm, Arecleoch, started in 2009, and finished in 2011. Situated just north of Pat’s home, it has 60 turbines. At the same time Mark Hill wind farm, to the east of Pat’s house, was constructed, with a further 28 turbines erected.
Kilgallioch to the west, with 96 turbines, was built in the past 18 months and has been undergoing tests for more than a year. The siting of the three wind farms mean Pat’s home is surrounded on three sides by the turbines, which loom over the landscape for miles around.
And it doesn’t end there, either. Plans for a fourth wind farm which will be built by EDF are currently in the works, while expansions to Mark Hill, Arecleoch and Kilgallioch are also being considered.
Pat, who lost her husband in 1993, says the problems really began for her around three years ago, after a large number of trees were cut down so more wind turbines could be built. The lack of noise buffering from the trees, she says, has made the turbines audible from her house and also causes vibrations. Sometimes she hears a low hum, other times a thumping sound. Often it’s the vibration itself that causes her the most anguish.
‘Sometimes the clash of them wakes me up in the night. It’s almost as if they get into sync with each other. Every now and again there’s a crash and the house shakes.
‘It hurts my ears, they become very painful, and when it’s really bad it’s as though someone’s banging a hammer on the back of my head.
‘When it gets that bad I just grab the car keys, get in the car and go. I’ve slept in my car dozens of times over the past few years.
‘I try to drive somewhere out of the way to find somewhere to sleep. Some days I just don’t get any sleep at all. Whenever there’s a windy day my heart just sinks.’
Sitting at her kitchen table on a blustery August day, I can see what she means. Listen carefully and there is a very low hum, a deep sound right at the edge of my hearing.
And something else, deeper still, a unpleasant vibration that I can feel at my temples. Within just 30 minutes of being in Pat’s house, I have developed a headache.
Pat has started taking medication for high blood pressure, which she believes has been caused by the wind turbines, and says she finds it hard to get anything done in the house now, as she simply doesn’t want to be there.
A once well-tended cottage garden and veg patch have grown out of control as she can’t face being outside, and she says that in the past few years the house has developed cracks in the wall, despite never having experienced structural issues in the past, and damp that she cannot find the source of.
‘This house was built in 1898 and until six years ago there were never any plaster cracks, yet now there are quite a few,’ she says.
‘I can’t find a cause for it, or the damp at one end of the house. I can only imagine that it’s caused by the wind turbines – if you imagine hitting a wall with a battering ram often enough it will cause cracks.’
The whole situation has made her miserable.
‘I don’t have a life any more,’ she says. ‘I give the odd flute lesson but I can’t have pupils here because of the turbines, so I have to go to them. I play chamber music with friends and they have to host. It’s little things like that. I can’t even live properly in my own house.’
For its part, ScottishPower has installed noise and vibration recording equipment at her home to monitor the issue, but Pat is refusing to allow workers to remove it until she is given the data. She claims they are withholding the information because they fear an academic, Dr Mariana Alves-Pereira, who studies low frequency noise and infrasound and its effects on health and who Pat has commissioned to analyse the figures from her property, will skew the findings in her favour.
‘Dr Mariana Alves-Pereira is a reputable professor specialising in acoustics from wind turbines, with peer reviewed material that can be checked out,’ she says.
‘According to ScottishPower, she would risk her reputation to falsify the results. They don’t want people to prove that low frequency is causing all the problems it does.’
A spokesman for ScottishPower Renewables said that Pat’s case is part of an ‘ongoing process’.
The company said in a statement: ‘We installed monitoring equipment in Ms Spence’s home over a year ago in response to a complaint made regarding noise.
‘A specialist consultant is currently analysing the data on our behalf, in accordance with a protocol agreed with South Ayrshire Council.
‘This assessment and accompanying data, which covers external noise monitoring, will be shared with both South Ayrshire Council and Ms Spence in the near future.
‘There is no established criteria for assessing the internal data, though our initial analysis has not raised any concerns. However, we will be contacting Ms Spence to discuss whether it is possible to jointly review the data.’
Meanwhile, her case has been taken up by the Independent Noise Working Group, which challenges claims made by the wind turbine industry, and Susan Crosthwaite, UK representative for the European Platform Against Windfarms and who lives near Pat.
Dr Crosthwaite cites the case of Kay Siddell and her husband John, who in 2014 abandoned their home in Old Dailly, 15 miles from Barrhill, after a 53-turbine wind farm was built near their home, which Siddell claimed caused similar symptoms to Pat’s.
‘Kay Siddell had sound measuring equipment but nothing was ever done about it. In the end she had to leave,’ says Dr Crosthwaite. ‘Pat has the right to live in a home where she feels safe and happy and where she can sleep, not this continuous noise pollution which is like a torture chamber to her.’
Pat is also critical of some of her neighbours, particularly in the nearby village of Barrhill.
‘We have people in the village who are so greedy to get the pittance that the wind farm company pay,’ she says. ‘It’s basically bribery but they say it’s compensation or goodwill payments. Some people don’t seem to be aware that the countryside is being wrecked.’
Although Pat would like to take legal action, she cannot afford it.
Instead, her hope now is that ScottishPower might buy her out.
‘It’s the only thing that can happen. They’re not going to stop 184 turbines for a few people.’
She says she couldn’t imagine putting the house on the market, or that it would sell, surrounded as it is now by wind farms.
‘Could I persuade someone else to come and live in these conditions? Could I stand there and say “this is the ideal place”? I just don’t think I could do it. To have any chance of selling it I would have to tell lies and I don’t do that.’
During the summer she had a brief respite thanks to the low winds and hot weather, but she is dreading the impending winter. ‘It’s always worst in the autumn,’ she says. ‘How much longer do I have to live with it?’
Whatever happens, Pat is devastated that the home that was once her sanctuary has become so difficult to live in.
We walk out into the back garden and look over the gate across the fields, where the turbines thump relentlessly in the breeze.
‘This was my perfect place,’ she says. ‘During the summer when there was nothing wind turbine-wise, you could just imagine it the way it used to be.
‘And I thought “Yes, I know why I didn’t ever want to leave this place”.’
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