At first I thought it a mirage. One Sunday back in 2006, I was cycling the low-lying farm roads of the carse of Stirling, a familiar enough ride, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that something was wrong about the view to the north. So I got off my bike and looked harder. There seemed to be gigantic white trees – far, far bigger than the ubiquitous plantation conifers - rising starkly from the hill country between Doune and Callander. My sense of perspective felt suddenly and weirdly out of joint. It took a few seconds, maybe even minutes, to realise that these were the first turbines of the Braes of Doune wind farm. I’d read the papers, I knew the wind farm was coming, but that first glimpse of what it would mean for the land induced a kind of bewilderment bordering on shock. I cycled home feeling I had encountered, albeit at a distance, something strange and astonishing.
When the building work had been completed a year or so later, I pedalled (and pushed and dragged) my bike up to the wind farm. Up close the sheer size of the turbines made them look even more alien. Worse still, so much of the lush, grassy moor had been torn apart for foundations and access roads, the land seemed as pitted and cratered as a bombed city. Mind you, the sheep didn’t mind and by all accounts the local Red Kite population hadn’t been seriously affected by living next door to a wind farm.
But even if the local wildlife didn’t seem unduly put out, had the Braes of Doune wind farm done irreparable damage of a different kind? John Digney of the Scottish Wild Land Group certainly felt so when, in the pages of The Herald, he described the site as ‘an eyesore’, also remarking that ‘It is not a pretty sight to find an industrialised development in one of the most stunning parts of the country.’ The marring of a beautiful and ‘wild’ landscape was, it seemed, too high a price to pay for a modest increase in the production of ‘green’ energy. Put simply, wilderness and industry don’t mix, and as far as The Braes of Doune were concerned a wind farm did not belong.
Braes of Doune; photograph, Alexander Maris 2008
But maybe things aren’t quite that simple; maybe wilderness and, especially, beauty aren’t simply properties of the land itself, but products of how we see the land. In this respect I can’t help but turn to Sorley MacLean’s great, late poem ‘Screapadal’, even if I can only appreciate it in translation. In the poem MacLean laments how the Highland Clearances have emptied the land of people but finds cause for solace in how the beauty of the land remains unsullied:
The sound is blue in the sun
and the skies naked
and the white bands of Creag Mheircil
glittering to the south
above the woods of birch and hazel
rowan and alder
and above the green braes
where the young bracken
and the young grass are a carpet.
This evocation of wild land seems to conjure up exactly the kind ‘sacred’ landscape anti-wind farm protestors have in mind. And indeed, later in the poem MacLean does protest the incursion of modernity, but it is not the massive affront of a wind farm that ignites his ire. The threat is all but invisible:
A seal would lift its head
and a basking-shark its sail
but today in the sea-sound
a submarine lifts its turret
and its black sleek back
threatening the thing that would make
dross of wood, of meadows and rocks,
that would leave Screapadal without beauty
just as it was left without people.
But MacLean’s poem doesn’t just amount to a premonition of potential destruction; as far as he is concerned, the landscape is already corrupted. The ‘black turrets’ of the submarine may leave no enduring trace, but they mock ‘the flagstones of Maol Rubha/and the Giant’s cave in Rona.’ In other words, the presence of the submarine doesn’t just threaten the future; it disfigures MacLean’s relationship to Raasay, and our relation to the planet, here and now.
It doesn’t take a dramatic leap of the imagination to apply this insight to the Braes of Doune wind farm. Just across the hills from the farm is a wonderful tract of ‘empty’ moorland, familiar to anyone who’s ever driven the Braco to Comrie road. It’s a place of cool, peaty burns and dome-shaped hills threaded by deer and sheep tracks. Compared to the cratered devastation of the Braes of Doune, it looks and feels beautiful and pristine. The trouble is that until a few years ago the army used this stretch of moor as a firing range for various kinds of heavy duty weaponry. Does this matter? As a lot of nature lovers, as well as MOD spin doctors, will happily explain, wildlife thrives on army training grounds – no pesticides, no hunting, few if any tourists trampling the nests of rare birds. But is the trade off between preserving wilderness and testing weapons of appalling destruction any more acceptable than trading the loss of wilderness for green energy?
Braes of Doune; photograph, Alexander Maris 2008
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, but I do reckon it’s important that we think about how our aesthetic, economic and ethical lives intersect. It seems that the people who built the Braes of Doune Wind Farm may think so too. Some sort of reconciliation between industry and aesthetics has been attempted by placing a ring of stones around each turbine. To be honest, the effect feels rather paltry and contrived, like a parody of Callanish. All the same, maybe the idea of a wind farm as some sort of sacred site isn’t altogether facile, especially if we’re to develop a sensitive, modern regard for the land. As ecologists like to remind us, everything connects to everything else. At the beginning of the 21st century it feels like an act of reckless disavowal to separate how we see the land from how we use the land. In the end maybe it’s better, from the planet’s point of view, to catch the wind than reap the whirlwind.
In the meantime I still look across to the Braes of Doune wind farm and feel again something of that mix of shock and entrancement I first felt back in 2006. But I feel other things as well. From a distance at least, the sight of all those turbines spinning in the clear autumn light can look…well…beautiful. And they’re starting to look familiar too, as if, against all the odds, they belong.
– Chris Powici
(This piece is based on an article Chris wrote for Resurgence in 2008)
Alec Finlay and Alistair Peebles' visit to Braes of Doune