Earth, wind and ire as the battle for Lewis intensifies

'THE moor is what I like best, The peat-fibre moving under my feet to the skyline, The heaving, billowing fruitful bog, Lying there till eternity."

Gaelic poets such as Derick Thomson have long sung the praises of A' Mhointeach on the Isle of Lewis, one of the world's last great peatlands, which stretches across the centre of the island. A unique environment, huge swathes of which are of such scientific significance that they are protected by both European and UK law.

This is a rural landscape, and its inhabitants work the land, but there are no farms on Lewis. Instead this almost pristine wilderness is held in common for crofters to graze their sheep and cattle, and cut peat for their open fires, while each crofter has a thin strip of land by their home to grow vegetables. It's a system of agriculture that dates back to medieval times, and may seem like an idyllic life to many. But it is a way of life which is dying, and most islanders now get their milk from the supermarket in Stornoway, rather than their own cows.

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The traditional industries of fishing and Harris Tweed are no longer the economic powerhouses they once were, and in recent years the Western Isles has seen a steady exodus of young people to the mainland. The number of islanders fell by 10 per cent between 1991 and 2001 to 26,500 and just 122 babies are predicted to be born on the islands in 2023. There is fear this decline may be terminal.

For the powers that be in Stornoway, the answer lies on the moor and the almost constant wind above it. Lewis, many local councillors suggest, should exploit its natural assets in a bid to become Europe's "alternative energy capital".

Wind turbines could turn the Atlantic gales into electricity, and may, they suggest, be the island's salvation. Hundreds of turbines, almost 450 feet high, and with rotor blades more than 300ft in diameter, offer a cleaner, greener alternative to fossil fuels, and a lucrative new industry for the island.

To some this sounds ideal: Good for islanders, good for the industrialised mainland, good for the fight against global warming. But the Lewis Wind Power scheme has split opinion on the island.

"It's fundamental to the economy and the future of the island," says Angus Nicholson, the SNP chairman of Western Isles Council's environmental services committee, which is backing the plan.

But to traditional crofters, it would destroy the heart and soul of the island. "They don't want to see the land spoiled," says Catriona Campbell, chairman of Mointeach gun Mhuileann - Moorland without Turbines (MWT) - the crofters' group opposing the scheme. "It's just intrinsically connected with us as people."

Lewis is stuck between a rock and a hard place, but whatever the future holds, the islanders will not have to wait long to find out. Plans for the first major scheme, proposed by British Energy and Amec working under the name Lewis Wind Power, have already been passed by Western Isles Council and are currently being considered by the Scottish Executive because of the protected status of much of the moor.

The proposed wind farm would be built across the peatbog which lies on the north-west of Lewis. It includes 234 turbines, each requiring a concrete base of four million cubic metres. It would bring 100 miles of new roads and five large quarries - euphemistically called "borrow pits" by the developers.

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The crofters fear the scheme would destroy vast swathes of the moor in the Lewis Peatland Special Protection Area, which is protected under UK, European and international law, and also damage a Special Area of Conservation. Their resistance to the wind farm is backed by an array of conservation and environmental groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the John Muir Trust.

Whatever your stance, it is hard to dismiss this as a simple case of not-in-my-backyard. Peatbogs are fragile. They contain less solids than a glass of milk, and can behave in unusual and unpredictable ways. Crofters point to attempts to build a wind farm in Ireland, which resulted in devastating peatslides that flowed for miles, washing away trees, bridges and roads. Tens of thousands of fish were killed when thick sludge polluted rivers. Would this happen on Lewis?

Even the developers admit the wind farms will have some adverse effect on the environment, conceding that hundreds of rare birds would be killed in collisions with the huge rotor blades. It is estimated in the developers' environmental assessment that two golden eagles a year would die this way, along with 50 merlins and up to 250 red-throated divers. Some 350 pairs of golden plovers would also be displaced, with experts fearing they would be unable to breed due to habitat loss. Some 314 pairs of dunlin, representing 4 per cent of the UK and Irish population, would suffer the same fate.

But crofters have more objections than this. From the church in her village of Bragar, on the west coast, Catriona Campbell, the chairwoman of MWT, says that some 133 turbines would be visible and would stretch across the crofters' traditional grazings. "It cuts our land in two," says Campbell, who has 25 sheep on her croft and also works as a Gaelic teacher. "Basically, we'll have to walk through the turbines to get to the other side of the grazing. A jumbo jet fits easily into the circumference of the blades. Think of 230 jumbo jets hovering above Lewis."

Campbell says people are objecting on "all sorts of grounds". "Visual grounds certainly, but also on emotional grounds if you like, the tie to the land. We have looked after it, grazed it and walked on it for so long. There's Bronze Age houses out there."

The wind power scheme itself could bring in between 9.21 million and 14.21 million in rent, compensation and other payments to landlords, crofters and development funds every year. However, Campbell dismisses the compensation scheme as "legal bribes". "They could offer me 100,000 and it wouldn't make a difference," she says. "Money can't pay for some things. Some things are more important."

Her words are echoed by Finlay MacLeod, a writer, broadcaster and former teacher, who believes a massive "wind factory" would desecrate Lewis: "People who write about the moor - poets - always speak about it as an entity. If we are saving the planet, why are we talking about destroying such a precious part of it?"

The Lewis Wind Power scheme is not the only one which may come to the island. Viewed from the ancient Callanish standing stones, a stretch of the horizon has the form of a woman lying on her back. She is known as Cailleach na Mointich, the Old Woman of the Moor. Even she is under threat from turbines proposed as part of a separate scheme at Eisgein, an area given official protection by Scottish Natural Heritage because of its landscape. If its 53 turbines are approved the skyline would be broken by the giant rotor blades.

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Yet another planning application for around 125 turbines is also expected to be submitted on the Pairc estate by Scottish and Southern Energy. While many crofters are resistant, there is a substantial and influential minority of islanders who are in favour of the Lewis Wind Power application. Kevin Murray, 33, a native of Lewis who worked in England, New Zealand and the US before returning to the island, is now employed as development manager for Lewis Wind Power. Murray is the son of a crofter and keeps 25 sheep on his own croft at his home village of Back.

"[Crofting] is a way of life. That's why I came home. I've got an emotional tie as well. But we don't have crofting to the same extent. Once upon a time everyone in the village would have had sheep or cattle. Now Robert Wiseman provides our milk."

Murray recognises the island is facing "a tough choice", which he believes is hard for many people on the island to grasp, "especially the older generation".

"If you had lots of choices, maybe a wind farm wouldn't be your choice. But there aren't lots of choices. We are talking about possibly creating jobs for 300 people. To me, it's a no-brainer. There's nothing more natural than the wind blowing over us and capturing that. Can we still live here without economic development? I'm not sure. Probably not."

But while the Lewis Wind Farm proposal has its fans, few have registered their support with the officials who will decide whether it will go ahead. The council and the Scottish Executive have received a total of 6,131 objections to the Lewis Wind Power Scheme and just 22 messages of support; 17 of which came from the Western Isles, two less than the number of councillors who approved the planning application. The Eisgein scheme has attracted 3,386 objections and 16 favourable representations.

Politically unpopular as the Lewis Wind Power project is with some, for Angus Nicholson the decision on the Lewis Wind Power scheme is make or break: "It's very close to it, I would say. We have said, is this what we want for the future, for our children and grandchildren, and the answer is yes.

"We're all very conscious there's a significant level of opposition to these proposals and we will have to deal with that at the next election. But there's nothing else on the horizon that will bring this level of jobs to fill the schools and the primary schools. We need that."

The council's grand plan to turn the island into the "alternative energy capital of Europe" - based on high winds that can provide almost twice the power of those on the mainland - hinges on getting an "inter-connector" to the mainland. This is a cable capable of transferring the vast amount of power produced to the urban centres of the UK. The Government is obliged to fund the building of an interconnector, but only if there is a large enough power station producing energy. So the more wind turbines, the more likely the essential interconnector. For the council, the Lewis Wind Power scheme, which would be one of the biggest in Europe, could also enable the islands to become a major player in the future renewable energy sectors of tidal and wave energy.

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For Catriona Campbell, such dreams are reminiscent of the failed attempt to build a super quarry at Lingerbay on Harris. She laughs when someone suggests an element of megalomania within the council. "That's so right: 'We don't want an ordinary quarry, it has to be the biggest quarry ever. We don't want an ordinary wind farm, it has to be the biggest.'"

The battle lines are drawn, and a decision is in the pipeline, but even the councillors will be mindful that directives from the highest level have not always been heeded on Lewis. Recently, an effigy of a wind turbine was burned in a public show of defiance. And this is the place where Lord Leverhulme, once a major landowner, tried and failed to set up modern farms on this island where common land is the tradition. Crofters ended up in court, for smashing his farms.

"There's a big parallel with what Lord Leverhulme tried to do," recalls Campbell. "Fish factories were his thing - put people off the land, have big farms but have the people live in the towns so they could work in factories.

"He was supported by the elite, the great and the good, but the crofters resisted. And they won at the end of the day." These islands have a tradition, where everything else fails, of direct action," adds Finlay MacLeod. "I wouldn't be too surprised, if there was direct action again."