IT’S a shame Donald Trump has been allowed to hijack the wind power debate in this country to such a disproportionate extent, hitting the headlines with his every pronouncement on the subject.
“The Donald” certainly knows how to bend the media to his will with a quotable quote, but behind his melodramatic claims that the widespread erection of wind turbines is an act of “madness” that will “completely end tourism in Scotland”, there’s a finely nuanced argument going on – an argument that cuts right to the heart of what we value as a society.
Chris Townsend, the outdoors writer, long-distance walker and passionate conservationist is sitting at a window seat in the Mountain Café in Aviemore, valiantly trying to eat an egg muffin while fielding this city hack’s questions. As the spokesman for the Save the Monadhliath Mountains campaign, which aims to prevent the construction of 31 wind turbines on the moorland around Allt Duine, just 400m north of the Cairngorms National Park boundary, you might expect Townsend to be anti-windpower full-stop, but he isn’t – far from it. He recognises the importance of making the switch to renewable energy and accepts windfarms will have to be built on an industrial scale somewhere in order to meet demand – he just doesn’t see why they have to be built on wild land.
“Save the Monadhliath Mountains is not an anti-windfarm campaign,” he says, “it is, if you like, a pro-the Monadhliath Mountains campaign. It just so happens to be a windfarm that’s proposed there, but any other major construction would also be opposed.”
An initial application to build a windfarm at Allt Duine by German energy firm RWE npower was rejected by the Highland Council earlier this year, in spite of the fact that it could provide electricity for an estimated 52,000 homes. However, an appeal by the developers has triggered a public enquiry, and the decision on Allt Duine’s future will now ultimately be made by the energy minister Fergus Ewing.
Lining up in opposition to the scheme are the John Muir Trust, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, not to mention influential media figures like Townsend and Adventure Show presenter Cameron McNeish. None of the groups mentioned is anti-windpower per se – they simply believe, like Townsend, that the Monadhliaths should be protected from development.
One major concern – and one of the reasons the original application was rejected – is that although the turbines would be sited outside the national park boundary they would be highly visible from within it.
“The proposed site is right up against the boundary of the park,” says Townsend. “It won’t be ‘oh look, you can see a windfarm in the distance’. All along the northern Cairngorms it’ll be right in your face. It will be the dominant thing in the landscape when you look in that direction. I also think there’s concern about the precedent it would set. If you can put a wind farm there then developers are likely to start proposing others elsewhere on the boundary of the park, and perhaps on the boundary of Loch Lomond [and the Trossachs] National Park as well.”
Later, Townsend takes me to see the Allt Duine site. We park in a layby on the A9, walk through a farmyard and then climb steadily through old-growth forest until we reach a vast expanse of gently rolling moorland. The Monadhliaths may not have the dramatic peaks and precipitous cliffs of the Cairngorms, but they are just as beautiful in their way. And whereas the Cairngorms are usually busy with walkers, climbers and skiers, the Monadhliaths feel deserted – we meet just one other person in three-and-a- half hours.
“What we’re talking about here is the destruction of a subtly beautiful, quiet landscape,” says Townsend.
“But it’s not just about aesthetics, I think it’s far deeper than that. It’s about the sense of being part of nature, the sense of solitude you can get here, the feeling of being in a wild, unspoiled area.
“It’s not just about what it looks like – it’s also about what it feels like.”