Image credit: Chris Townsend
To those of us living our lives in the lowlands, in towns and cities, there is something otherworldly about the Cairngorms. As a mountain range, it may not be the Alps, it may not be the Himalayas, but there is nonetheless something far beyond our normal scale of reference in Scotland’s towering plateau. It has wildlife unique in Britain – alpine flowers such as saxifrages and breeding alpine birds such as snow buntings – but on an even more immediate level, it has an impact upon us, as a landscape, which cannot be repeated anywhere else in the British Isles.
This was borne in upon me twice last year, when I viewed the Cairngorms once from each side – from the Spey Valley on the west, in April, and from the Dee Valley on the east, in November. From the Spey and the A9 road that runs along it, you can in places take in the whole western side of the plateau and its 4,000ft summits, and it has a sheer lateral extent which takes your breath away.
From the Dee side, I had another experience. Driving up the small road beyond Braemar which leads to Linn o’ Dee, on a sunny autumn morning, I came round a bend and suddenly, above nearby peaks which were higher than most mountains in England, the Cairngorm massif revealed itself, much higher still, and brilliantly covered in fresh snow. It seemed to be touching the sky.
From the tops of the Cairngorms, of course, the views are even more remarkable, a great immensity of unsullied wilderness, experienced and treasured by many thousands of people; and, since 2003, this has been protected by the Cairngorms National Park, which is the biggest in Britain. It is the greatest and most majestic area of unspoilt solitude in the land.
So how can it possibly be that a German-owned energy company wants to build a giant windfarm only 400 metres from the park boundary, which will destroy the westward panorama from the Cairngorm tops? At Allt Duine, in the Monadhliath mountains to the west of the Spey, RWE npower, one of the Big Six energy companies, proposes to erect 31 wind turbines, each 410ft high – nearly two-and-a-half times the height of Nelson’s Column in London. The visual impact will be colossal.
They will be visible from more than 63,000 acres of the National Park, and from no fewer than 12 Munros (Scottish peaks over 3,000ft high) and nine Corbetts (peaks above 2,500ft). The proposal has outraged conservationists and is opposed by the major Scottish environmental organisations, although – remarkable as it may seem – it was initially backed by officials at the Highland Council. However, 19 of the local authority’s elected representatives made a special trip to the Cairngorm tops to see for themselves the view that would be affected – and promptly defied their officials, and threw the scheme out.
The result was a public enquiry, the report of which went to the Scottish Government last July. The decision on whether or not to let the Allt Duine windfarm go ahead now rests with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney. It is expected soon.
Mr Swinney is a prominent figure in Scotland; after Alex Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, he is probably the best-known Scottish National Pary politician. But whatever else he does in his career, there is no doubt that he will be remembered for his decision on Allt Duine.
To let it go ahead will make a nonsense of the whole idea of the Cairngorms National Park. In this, the scheme strongly resembles an English windfarm proposal, at Whinash Fell near Kendal in Cumbria, that was put forward in 2003. Whinash was of a similar scale – 27 turbines, each 375 ft high – but, most importantly, the site was immediately adjacent to the boundary of another national park, the Lake District, and its visual intrusion in the park would have been immense.
A decade ago, official enthusiasm for windfarms was greater than it is now – indeed, it was at its height – and Whinash, while fiercely opposed by landscape conservationists, was backed by some environmentalists, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who felt the imperative of fighting climate change to be overwhelming.
But the Labour Government, enthusiastic though it also was for windpower, eventually rejected the scheme in 2006. Ministers took the view – which I wholly share – that while renewable energy is vital, our cherished landscapes are vital too, and that the proposed Whinash windfarm was simply in the wrong place.
So is Allt Duine. To let this scheme go ahead will be a desecration of Scotland’s wild lands (which is an issue on which the Scottish Government has now begun to construct a formal policy). It is funny to think that it all now depends on the stroke of a ministerial pen. Mr Swinney’s responsibility is a very heavy one.