The Angry Corrie 54: Jul-Aug 2002

Turbine or not turbine...

For all its discussion of Scotland's smaller hills, TAC hasn't often devoted space to the issue likely to dominate our low-and mid-level landscapes for years to come: energy production and the development of windfarms. Thus far, Scotland has only a few relatively small farms: that on Windy Standard is probably the biggest and most visually intrusive, while others include those near Muirkirk and Taynuilt. The plans are getting bigger though, with recent proposals to cover much of Lewis and a large tract of land near Doune on the southern edge of the Highlands. As well as taking over substantial areas of hillsides, the new-generation turbines would also be much taller than those currently in operation. They're a bigger deal, in every way.

While few dispute the need for wind-energy production, the question of where to site the farms is complex and is not going to please everyone. Hillgoers often seem temperamentally in favour of "renewable" energy sources (as opposed to the coal-fired and nuclear alternatives), but there is then the dilemma of which bits of landscape to use. Every hill or moor, no matter how low or unlovely, is somebody's favourite. Should higher - or rockier - hills have more protection?

As a way into discussing all this, here are some thoughts (and a picture) from one of TAC's cartoonists, Chris Tyler. He lives close to a proposed windfarm, so has a personal stake in that which might soon be towering over his back yard.

THERE HAS BEEN much talk recently about the proposed windfarm at Edinbane, on Skye. This will be situated across quite a large slice of hill, from Airigh Neill (Landranger 23, grid ref 360491), south over Beinn a'Chearcaill and the 295m Marilyn of Cruachan-Glen Vic Askill, to Glen Vic Askill (23/347447). Twenty-eight turbines are planned, each 100m high to the tip of the blade.

It has to be said that, scenery-wise, this particular bit of bog is not Skye's greatest example. Despite having lived just to the north for the past 20 years, I must confess that I've never actually been to the top of any of these hills. The last mile or so from any direction is (so I am informed by local potter and MRT member Stuart) a nightmare of peat hags. I've planted trees quite close in three directions but never felt the need to reach the top of Skye's Cruachan. Apparently the view is good but not really worth the effort. Apart from its Marilyn status, the hill's main claim to fame, as far as I'm aware, is a mention in a Christmas quiz a few years ago (TAC17, p7). However, situated in the empty middle bit of Skye, and on a hill, the windfarm will be visible from most of the north of the island, as well as from far out to sea (although not from my house: there's a wee hill in the way).

The announcement of the plans produced the expected fuss. Interestingly, it is mostly locals who are in favour and "incomers" who are against. Cynics would point out that the crofters are bound to be in favour, as they stand to gain financially: 50% of the income will go to them (the other 50% goes to the landlord, Ruaraidh Hilleary). There have been some quite alarmist statements from the "antis" - that the windfarm will "destroy the Isle of Skye ... tourists won't come any more ... the noise will drive us all mad ... the sun reflecting off the blades will cause epileptic fits...". An action group has been formed, Skye Windmill Action Group (SWAG), and letters have been written to the local paper, the West Highland Free Press. This, as it happens, is firmly in favour of the windfarm - but then the paper was originally founded by a certain Brian Wilson who happens to be the energy minister currently pushing alternative energy.

There have been a couple of public meetings organised by SWAG, with a lot of bad-tempered argument and name-calling. The term "white settler" has been bandied about. (When the Free Press reported this, complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission. The woman concerned also complained about the paper's editorial stance and their advertising a job for a Gaelic fieldworker only in Gaelic. All three complaints were thrown out.)

The company hoping to build the windfarm, AMEC, held a public meeting at which they showed "visualisations" of the view from various directions, surveys of birdlife and so on. One interesting chart showed noise levels in decibels; at Edinbane the level was 30db. I asked their representative what 30db was equivalent to and she said "a quiet bedroom". (By the way, I recently watched Mark Thomas's TV programme in which he exposed AMEC's dirty dealings with the Turkish government regarding the building of the Yusufeli dam, which will displace 100,000 or so Kurds...)

So, what do I think of the plans? Well, quite honestly, I would welcome a windfarm. They have a strange beauty, and I think a windfarm would become a tourist attraction in itself. Far from spoiling forever the scenery of Skye, it can only enhance it. Skye will still be a beautiful place, but visibly doing its bit against global warming. It will of course then be possible to drive to the top of the hill and get a good view of the 14-turbine windfarm proposed for neighbouring Ben Aketil by MacLeod Estates.

And as for the folk who came here to live on an unspoilt island... They need to remember that they can only live somewhere like Skye with all mod cons due to the pylons connecting the island with polluting power stations on the mainland. (The small hydro plant at the Storr lochs will only supply about half of Portree.) It will be good to see the people of Skye accepting their social responsibility and contributing 49MW of clean power to the national grid.

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