As VisitScotland’s “Year of Natural Scotland” advertising campaign draws to a close, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how central the unspoiled nature of our landscape has been to these lavishly funded efforts to attract more tourists.
Stars of the various TV and web adverts released during the last 12 months include the Isle of Rum, the Kyles of Bute, the Stacks of Duncansby, the mountains of Torridon, the rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway and the white sand beaches of Arisaig. “Scotland might surprise you,” intones the narrator at the beginning of one ad. “We have no shortage of natural beauty.”
The bespoke Year of Natural Scotland website, meanwhile, invites readers to “Come and celebrate Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty throughout 2013.”
“Discover the fascinating variety of landscapes across Scotland,” it says, “including mountains and hills, forests and glens, hundreds of islands, and thousands of miles of stunning coastline.”
Funny thing is, in all the panoramic shots of breathtaking scenery in these ads, not a single wind turbine is visible. They don’t mention them anywhere in the promotional blurb, either. This is because VisitScotland know fine well that tourists coming to this country, particularly from more aggressively urbanised parts of the UK, are often looking for wild, rugged landscapes devoid of man-made structures. People who like windmills tend to go to Holland.
According to a 2009 study by Scottish Natural Heritage, 28 per cent of Scotland is still “unaffected visually by any form of built development”. That figure represents a huge asset – not just to the tourism business, but to the mental and spiritual wellbeing of the nation. But it will become increasingly difficult for locals and tourists alike to “uncover an unrivalled picturesque landscape” – to use the parlance of the Scottish Government’s official tourism agency – if that same government continues to allow the construction of wind farms in scenic areas in pursuit of its (very laudable) target of 100 per cent electricity from renewables by 2020.
Some proposed developments – like the Allt Duine wind farm in the Monadhliath Mountains – have already garnered plenty of column inches as hastily-assembled alliances of conservation charities, mountaineering groups and wildlife-lovers try to stop them, but these people can’t be everywhere at once, and for every monster development that hits the headlines there are many more that nobody’s talking about. In the far north-west, for example, the Sallachy and Glencassley wind farms, just outside the Assynt Coigach National Scenic Area, have been given a “no objection” approval by the Highland Council and now await rubber stamping in Edinburgh. In Sutherland’s beautiful Flow Country, meanwhile, energy company SSE looks likely to get the go-ahead for its Strathy South wind farm development. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the big energy companies, it’s a numbers game. According to the John Muir Trust, the Scottish Government has approved 78 of 88 major energy developments since 2007 (including non-wind schemes like the SSE’s Coire Glas hydro development, waved through the other week without so much as a public enquiry). There are a further 58 major energy applications waiting for a decision. If you want to build a wind farm in Scotland, in other words, don’t put in one application – put in several. Odds are you’ll get at least one accepted.
Tourism is worth £11billion a year to the Scottish economy, and provides work for 200,000 people. Never mind all the arguments about how good for the soul it is to go yomping in the hills – plastering some of our most beautiful places with turbines is bad for business. If this were The Apprentice, it’s the kind of thing that would have Lord Sugar apoplectic with rage. “You lot have completely failed to understand the point of this task, and that is smellin’ what’s sellin’.”
Our wild land is what’s currently sellin’ Scotland to the world; degrade it much more, and the folks at VisitScotland will have to come up with a very different marketing strategy.