FOR centuries it has been a place of sanctuary far from the bustle of the world at large, where those in search of peace and tranquillity can seek refuge for years at a time.
But a community of Buddhists who preside over an isolated island retreat off the west coast of Scotland have warned that the future of their refuge is under threat because of plans for an “ugly” and “harmful” biomass plant.
The group of Tibetan Buddhists who cherish the “quiet, pristine atmosphere” of Holy Isle in the Firth of Clyde believe their way of life will be shattered by “damaging” plans for the industrial scale plant on nearby Arran. The noise pollution and smoke will, they say, ruin the small island’s silent, meditative retreats.
Now, they have enlisted the help of thousands of supporters to urge the local authority in Ayrshire, which meets to discuss the application next month, to reject the plans.
The Northern Energy Developments scheme plans to open a wood-fired combined heat and power plant, using 40,000 tonnes of wood per year from Arran’s forests, at the Heights, an area of felled woodland between the towns of Lamlash and Whiting Bay in the south of the island.
But the plan is encountering widespread opposition on the island itself. A campaign group, No to Arran Biomass, claims that the plant is not suitable for the area and the Buddhist community on Holy Isle, in Lamlash Bay, has now joined the protest. On Holy Isle, opposition to the facility is being led by Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, who escaped persecution by fleeing Tibet as a teenager, and later made his way to Samye Ling, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Europe, on the banks of the River Esk in Dumfriesshire.
The abbot of Samye Ling and founder of the Holy Isle project, he believes the plant would dissuade thousands of people from visiting the island every year.
“If it was going to benefit the people of Arran I wouldn’t like to object, but I think everybody will lose,” he said. “Holy Isle brings many thousands of people from around the world and has a lot of economic good for Scotland and Arran. When you see such an ugly idea with lots of noise and a very high intensity of smoke, it will harm tourism.
“We feel Holy Isle is beautiful, environmentally and ecologically sound, and we care about nature and the wild animals. It has been so successful, but we are talking about a plant which won’t benefit anyone. It’s just going to ruin the potential of Arran and Holy Isle. A lot of people who come to Holy Isle are very concerned about the environment along with their physical and mental wellbeing. When they see we aren’t able to provide that, it will harm us very badly.”
The island was sold to the Buddhists in 1992 by Kay Morris, a devout Catholic who claimed to have been visited in a dream by the Virgin Mary, who instructed her to give them ownership of Holy Isle. Those who have stayed there include Marie Helvin, the model and former wife of photographer David Bailey.
It has been a place of spiritual significance long before the arrival of Lama Yeshe and his followers.
The island, which is around two miles long by half a mile wide, was used by Norse and Viking fleets in search of a temporary haven, and is home to the cave of a sixth-century monk, St Molaise, as well as the remains of a 13th-century Christian monastery.
In a bid to preserve the tranquility of Holy Isle, Lama Yeshe has sent out a sample letter of objection to the project, which he has urged his followers to send to planning officials at North Ayrshire Council. In it, his “friends of Holy Isle” are asked to register their concern that the plant would be “detrimental to the pure natural environment of the Holy Isle” and damage its “natural atmosphere”.
For its part, Northern Energy Developments has sought to reassure locals about the initiative, which it says will be screened by surrounding woodland and which will provide four direct and 14 indirect jobs. Managing director Fergus Tickell has written to islanders to say that “levels of particulates emitted by the project” would be “far below” permitted levels and that all deliveries and chipping would be restricted to weekday working hours. While the plant will operate around the clock, the noise would be “limited”.
Tickell, who said he had not been in contact with Lama Yeshe, explained: “The project is located in an area to minimise the environmental impact, and will make use of what is very, very low grade forestry material.”
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