It is not the sort of natural feature you would build a holiday around, let alone open a tea shop nearby to cater to coach parties. But in their curious way, the giant sand dome and sand sheet of Foveran Links used to be one of the wonders of the world – until they were absorbed, and stabilised, in Donald Trump's new Aberdeenshire golf course, which opens for business this week – "The greatest golf course," Trump likes to trumpet, "in the world."
Was Foveran Links the greatest giant sand dome in the world? Jonny Hughes, director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is in no doubt that it was certainly pretty special, and unique in the UK, though there is something similar in Denmark. It was constantly in motion, moving several metres a year. "It was a great shifting system, changing all the time," he explains. "As the sand moves, it exposes the water table; the dry sand blows away until you get the wet sand, which is where the water table is. Then the plants colonise the bare, wet sand. That colonisation can happen over a period of months or years – then these communities get buried again as the wind direction changes. It's a continual succession of new communities, and this gives rise to a unique assemblage of plants."
Foveran Links was an SSSI, a "Site of Special Scientific Interest", of which there are more than 1,400 in Scotland and 4,000 in England. The idea of designating a place as an SSSI, says Scottish Natural Heritage, is "to protect the best of our natural heritage by making sure that decision-makers, managers of land and their advisers, as well as the planning authorities and other public bodies, are aware of them when considering changes in land-use or other activities which might affect them".
So SSSIs can be sacrificed. But there needs to be a compelling reason, a question of major national economic interest. Does the Trump International Golf Links – TIGL – pass the test? Hughes feels it doesn't. "It's not like an airport or a major motorway or something else of national importance that needs to be built," he points out. "It's just another Scottish golf course, a vanity project from an American billionaire."
There's no doubt that Trump attracts his fair share of venom. Eugene Robinson, asking in The Washington Post last month why Mitt Romney seemed so relaxed about Trump's endorsement of his presidential campaign, went as far as to dub the property tycoon "a puffed-up buffoon whose antic self-promotion, once mildly amusing, has become rabid and toxic".
But Aberdeen and Alex Salmond, the local MP as well as the leader of the Scottish National Party, saw in TIGL and its backer something different: "The second coming of oil," as one commentator put it. The black gold rush has changed this raw, wind-blasted coast and given it an appetite for more of the same. And when Mr Trump, half-Scottish through his Lewis-born mother, flew into town in his private Boeing, they liked k what he had to sell: on the stretch of coast that is home to Foveran Links he promised not only "the world's greatest golf course" – with two 18-hole courses – but, in addition, a six-storey, five-star hotel, 500 houses and 1,000 time-share holiday homes. The scheme, he claimed, would create 6,000 jobs, and the whole package represented an investment of £1bn. And what about the giant sand dome? His project, he said back in 2007, was saving the dunes. "It's a piece of land which is disappearing," he remarked. "It's blowing all over the place."
In 2010, Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University sealed Trump's local celebrity by giving him an honorary degree, "in recognition", according to chancellor Sir Ian Wood, "of your visionary, world-class golf investment which, in spite of a vocal minority, is widely welcomed by the people of the north-east of Scotland". A lot had happened in three years: Aberdeenshire Council's decision by one vote to reject Trump's application had provoked a storm of hostile comment in the Aberdeen press, and a week later the Scottish government "called in" the application, announcing that it was to be the subject of a public inquiry.
During the inquiry hearings, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland commissioned a golf-course architect to design alternatives to the Trump proposal, sited on the same Menie Estate but leaving Foveran Links untouched. But Trump rejected the compromise: his plan would make the Foveran Links "better than it was", he insisted. Then he tossed in an ultimatum: if he wasn't allowed to have his way, he'd pull out altogether. "I am at a point in my career," he said, "that if it's not going to be the best, I would not want to build it."
And Trump got his way: the inquiry concluded that the economic benefits of the project outweighed the damaging environmental effects. TIGL had lift-off.
Now it is set to open. But only a fraction of the vision outlined on the TIGL website has been realised: neither the "iconic hotel" nor the "array of luxury holiday homes" nor the "residential village"; only a very ordinary golf house stands as proof, along with the course itself, of Trump's commitment. "The Scottish government was blinded by the bling," says Hughes, who is unhappy with how the application was called in after Aberdeenshire had turned it down.
Trump's love affair with this coast seems to have soured since Salmond's decision to allow a wind farm to be built out to sea, within sight of the putting greens. Which raises the question of how much longer he might stick around. And the course itself – might the restless sands of Foveran Links have the last word? "It's not a semi-fixed dune," says Hughes, "it's a highly mobile system. Golf began on the more stable dune systems on this coast – but nobody ever attempted to play golf on a giant sand sheet before. We'll have to see..."
Munro has lived at Leyton Cottage on the Menie Estate for nearly three decades. Having refused an offer from Trump International to buy her home, she has seen the landscape outside her door change dramatically over the past few years.
"Bringing up my two little boys here, they had everything you could want growing up," she recalls. "It was two minutes to the beach, and it was the busiest house in the summer, full of kids, happy children all the time. And now that's come to a halt."
Munro's home is situated in the middle of the Trump development; the ground in front of it has been raised and levelled and a huge pile of sand – set to be a car park – now blocks the view from her kitchen window.
"They sit up there in their 4x4s on that bank of sand facing my house and look right in at me," she says. "It really cheeses me off. I used to know these dunes like the back of my hand; now I don't know where I'm going. It's changed so much. It's heartbreaking."
Forbes and his family have lived on the Menie Estate for generations. His uncle, father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all fishermen.
"My uncle, who was a salmon-fisher, bought this place in 1956," he explains. "I left school and came to work for him, until eventually my father and I bought a salmon station and we worked that together.
"When I first came to live here, there was no green at all, only sand. I've watched it change and grow for the past 40 years. This place means peace and quiet; it's paradise. Where else would you find anywhere like it? There's nowhere."
That all changed, of course, with the advent of the construction work. "The wildlife is just outside my door, or at least it was till the diggers came," he recalls.
One of the golf course's most outspoken critics, Forbes has been at the forefront of the planning battle against the development, and in return has been branded a "loser" and a "village idiot" in a statement issued by the billionaire himself.
In 2011, Forbes' access route through the dunes to the sea was closed by Trump. Which means that he no longer fishes for salmon.
"Now that the access is blocked, well, I can't fight him," Forbes says. "He'll win; he has too many lawyers."
So why does Forbes remain on this land rather than sell up? "I think if I'd been younger, I'd have taken [Trump's] offer [to sell up]," he explains, "I'd have sold. But I've been here for 40-odd years now, and I want to stay.
"It's a wild place. It's my home."
Milne bought his home on the Menie Estate in 1992; a former coastguard station, it sits 30m up and 300m back from the high-tide mark. From the roof-top lookout tower you can see the spectacular 40-mile coastline of Aberdeen Bay.
"It's the serenity," he says, explaining the attraction of the place. "You can hear the waves, the birds, the sea. It's pretty close to being an untouched landscape – or at least it was. That is what I fell in love with 20 years ago when I saw it."
With the arrival of the golf course, things have changed. "Trump described my home as an eyesore: he didn't want his golfers to see it," he says, adding, "They came and planted Sitka spruce and Scots pine, which blocked our view – but half of them are blown down or dying now. Fully grown trees planted at the top of a hill need a lot of water. We're 100ft up and 700ft back from the high-water mark and we regularly get salt spray on the windows. All the wind that comes off the sea here is heavily laden with sand and salt. Those trees are brown on the seaward side. They're dying; the salt in the air is no good for them.
"The dunes were a very strange and beautiful place," he reflects. "It was an evocative site, and isolating – there were spots where you could see nothing else. We used to walk down through the dunes every weekend, then up the beach to Newburgh. It was a perfect place to live.
"People say it's only a patch of sand, but it's not. It was a unique and valuable wilderness, valuable to Scotland, to the UK and to those of us who live here. This development is a tragedy."