A blot on Millais' landscape

This Millais painting has gone on show here for the first time in a century - but the beauty spot it depicts is about to be covered by wind turbines. Ciar Byrne reports

John Everett Millais's painting The Fringe of the Moor has been described as the artist's "brightest and most soaring late landscape". A welcoming scene depicting a path leading through a fence and past grazing cattle in the foreground, a cottage with smoking chimneys a little way off, and purple moorland in the distance, the landscape has not been seen in the UK since 1898. It is currently on loan from the Johannesburg Art Gallery to Tate Britain, as part of its current Millais exhibition.

So there is a particular irony to the fact that, as the work is at last on show here, the view it depicts in Perthshire is threatened by a proposed wind-farm development. Local campaigners, including Millais's great-great-great-granddaughter, argue that the visual impact on a scene that has remained virtually unchanged since it was captured by the artist, would be immense.

Millais painted The Fringe of the Moor in 1874, when he was renting St Mary's Tower in nearby Birnam. Every day, as he recalled in a humorous letter to his daughter Mary, he would hike several miles to his painting spot, alongside Kennacoil House, with a view looking west up Strath Braan towards Amulree and the Glen Quaich Hills. The view today is almost identical, with one of the trees featured in the painting still standing.

It is on the peat moor of the painting's title that the engineering giant Amec is now proposing to build 14 wind turbines, each standing 107m high, together with "borrow pits" - quarries to source stone for the construction of roads and the turbine foundations - as well as 18km of roads and a concrete batching plant.

Amec has been working on plans for a wind farm in the area known as Logiealmond with Mansfield Estates, which owns the site, since 2002. As a result of discussions with Perth and Kinross Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB, an original proposal for 40 turbines was reduced to 14. The planned turbines would stand for 20 years, after which they would be decommissioned and any future use of the site for wind energy generation would be subject to new planning permission.

In its application to Perth and Kinross Council, Amec refers to "growing concern about the rise in levels of greenhouse gases and the changes they cause to the global climate". It points out that Scottish ministers have committed to 18 per cent of electricity generated in Scotland coming from renewable sources by 2010, rising to 40 per cent by 2020. The Logiealmond wind farm would have a capacity of 28 megawatts, which would provide enough electricity for around 15,600 households, saving 63,000 tonnes of CO2 a year during its lifespan.

A spokesman for the company says: "Amec has taken extensive time and care in the preparation of this application ensuring the landscape and environmental implications have been thoroughly assessed to ensure a scheme sympathetic to the surrounding area." But local campaigners disagree, arguing that the development would have "major visual impacts", and could cause water pollution, make roads dangerous and threaten bird species living there, including golden eagles, hen harriers, merlin and red kites.

One of those campaigners is Fiona Cameron, whose great-grandfather was the little boy featured in Millais's painting Bubbles. Willie James, then four, was Millais's own grandson. She lives and works in the area her ancestor painted, with her husband and their three young daughters.

"Millais would be turning in his grave," says Cameron. "When I first moved here, my heart jumped, it's so stunning. Once the turbines are up, the beauty will be drastically compromised. I just feel very sad. I would feel like we've let him down and ourselves down in the name of greed. All for the sake of 14 turbines, which aren't going to solve the energy crisis. All it amounts to is greed. We're not being Nimbys about this development; we seriously doubt its efficiency."

In the last 26 years of his life, Millais painted 21 large landscapes in Scotland. A lover of outdoor pursuits, he went to Perthshire between August and January for the shooting and fishing, and treated painting as a similarly energetic sport. His wife Effie was born in Perth, adding to his affection for the area.

Dr Alison Smith, the curator of the Millais show, says that his landscapes showed him to be "the heir to Constable and Turner. They show what an innovator he was in his landscapes. He was paving the way for Van Gogh, a great admirer of Millais."

But not everyone was a fan of Millais's landscapes. His one-time mentor John Ruskin, Effie's husband before Millais fell in love with her then married her amid great scandal, was particularly critical of The Fringe of the Moor. In his Academy Notes of 1875, the year the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, Ruskin wrote: "Why should one paint the fringe of the moor, rather than the breadth of it, merely for the privilege of carrying an ugly wooden fence all across the foreground? I must leave modern sentimentalists and naturalists to explain."

The painting was owned by Thomas Henry Ismay, founder of the White Star Line shipping company. It was then purchased by Sir Julius Charles Wernher, a governor of De Beers, who gave it to Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Jill Wilson, chair of the Amulree and Strathbraan Windfarm Action Group (ASWAG) said that the tiny rural community had been threatened by three wind- farm proposals in the last four years. "We are battle-weary. We have fought for four years to protect the landscape of Highland Perthshire with no help or support from any conservation body," she says. "It is a sad indictment that local communities have become the last line of defence in protecting the landscape and wildlife they hold dear."

She adds: "We're in no way against renewable energy. Quite the opposite. But we don't have to trash Scotland's greatest natural asset - the reason most visitors come - to be green."

Millais, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888), to 13 January

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