Wildernistas, McWilderneish and windfarms

Windfarms are going up everywhere on the British hills, or so it seems. Certainly its increasingly hard to avoid the twirl of turbines, and this creeping ubiquity (or insidious industrialisation as some would have it) is provoking a wide variety of emotions, from enthusiasm to annoyance. David Gray and Nick Spedding offer some thoughts

You can’t argue with its proponents’ basic intentions, but wind technology is inappropriate for Britain’s last wild places — a plain moral fact about a crucial spiritual resource that governments and ‘green’ zealots must heed before the land is entirely lost.”

— Jim Perrin, Guardian Country Diary, 10/3/07

IN TAC70, we unleashed the Wildernista on an unsuspecting world. Now we return to consider their beliefs in more detail, particularly their views on the development of Lucifer’s own turbines: the windfarm. In discussing windfarms, we make no great claims to originality (the pro and anti arguments have been well rehearsed in previous TACs and elsewhere), but the issue refuses to go away.

Wildernistas, to recap, enjoy a quasi-spiritual relationship with nature, and often assume a moral superiority over those who do not fully appreciate our wild places. The landscape that they hold so dear, however, is a romantic idyll. In designating certain places as “wild”, the wildernistas must confront various man-made artefacts and decide which are authentic and acceptable parts of the landscape, and which are not.

Take the humble cairn, for example. In the wildernista aesthetic, a man-made pile of stones arranged to assist navigation and aid progress should be kicked down immediately. But a pile of stones spread neatly across a dug-out hillside to assist navigation and aid progress (a traditional stalkers’ path) is not only acceptable, but celebrated as a feat of engineering.

Personal memorials on the hill are bad and should be removed. But there is no lobby to demolish the Great Gable summit war memorial or what remains of the Ben Nevis observatory, so the more large-scale and enduring man-made paraphernalia are evidently fine.

Another example of this aesthetic selectivity is power generation. Nothing puts the wind up a wildernista like a windfarm. Before we proceed, let’s be clear. We are not arguing for windfarms everywhere. We have no wish to comment on the potential for wind energy to fight global warming (we’re not engineers or economists). We recognise that windfarm construction disrupts the environment (as do many other things that escape the wrath of the wildernista — hillwalkers’ boots, for instance). But we object to the way in which the anti-windfarm claims are presented by the likes of Jim Perrin in our opening quote. “Plain moral fact”? Sure, some morals are more widely held, or are more enduring, than others, but “Windfarms Are Evil” has yet to be carved on tablets of stone.

The key issue is this: at what point do windmills become a bad thing? The John Muir Trust, for instance, is happy to support the three turbines that power Mackie’s ice-cream factory in the pastoral heartland of Aberdeenshire (and frankly we would support the siting of a fast breeder reactor on the top of Bennachie if it secured supplies of the sublime Honeycomb Harvest), but it objects to “industrial” windfarms in the highlands and islands. There must be a “line in the peat” as the landscape becomes more “wild” (which is not necessarily to say more scenic, or somehow better), or as the turbines become larger and more numerous. But just what and where is this threshold? The issue is far more complex than implied by the fundamentalist rhetoric of the wildernistas.

A further complication, as Paul Gardner noted in TAC57 (p13), is that “people’s impressions of windfarms are subjective and equally valid”. There are many who rather like them, who find beauty in the juxtaposition of the “natural” and the engineered, and who are happy to see a substantial windfarm add character to an otherwise dull stretch of hillside. The tipping point for the windfarm aesthete lies further along the development continuum than that for the JMT or the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Mitigation of climate change, support for grassroots development, exploitation by multi-national corporations: these add further complications that carry the debate far beyond Perrin’s plain moral facts.

Despite this, some take a zero-tolerance approach. For more radical wildernistas, the Highlands are untainted and pre-industrial and all intrusive development, most especially windfarms, must be opposed. Which brings us to the “The Wilderness World of Cameron McNeish”. Mr McWilderneish has treated the development of windfarms as something of a cause célèbre; he regards them as “a big problem”, and is increasingly turning TGO into an anti-windfarm protest magazine. In one of his anti-windfarm posts on the Outdoors Magic website — in January 2007 in opposition to a proposed development on the north side of the Loch Arkaig road — he thundered: “If this isn’t mass industrialisation of a tract of wild land then I don’t know what is.”

Well, what about the dozens of hydroelectric schemes located across the Highlands, for starters? Each had a huge environmental and social impact in its day — and an enduring visual one. Yet we rarely hear complaints about intrusion or calls for them to be decommissioned. When challenged on this, McNeish countered that “hydro power has, in various places, affected the look of the lochs”, but a hydro scheme wouldn’t be visible from a mountain top 30 miles away.

So erecting windmills on an otherwise dull hill is tantamount to heresy, but extending Loch Monar by a natural-looking three miles (obliterating 60 dwelling places, some of the best arable land in the Highlands and an important wildfowl breeding marsh), or raising Loch Quoich by 100 feet, is merely a bit of aesthetic tinkering. Ironically, not only are these products of “mass industrialisation” now part of the “fabric” of our wild places, but by making Lurg Mhor and Ben Aden less accessible and consequently a great deal “wilder”, the Monar and Quoich schemes have undoubtedly enhanced the attractiveness of these mountains in the eyes of many wildernistas.

Our main problem with the fundamentalist view on windfarms is that the Highlands are already industrialised. The Loch Arkaig development is opposed because of its visibility from the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe national scenic areas. There is indeed much to delight the eye in this corner of Lochaber: the savage magnificence of the Fort William aluminium smelter and the Corpach paper mill (a legacy of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and its explicit attempt to industrialise the area for the benefit of those who actually live there). Further east, many opposed the development of the Cairn Gorm funicular, which would impact on the splendour of the rusting ski-lifts. Similarly, wildernistas oppose the proposed Dirrie More power line, which would detract from the haunting solitude of the A835 and the towering precipice of the Glascarnoch dam.

The reality of the Highlands is that spectacular scenery sits side-by-side with spectacular ugliness. Large-scale development within our mountain areas is nothing new. Perhaps the wildernistas just don’t see it? Their landscape, as we said at the start, is a romantic idyll and much appears to be airbrushed out subconsciously and selectively.

In conclusion, a question: how many years might it take before windfarms, like their hydroelectric predecessors, are regarded as part of the “authentic fabric” of our wild places?