Wind turbines, Arnish, Isle of Lewis.


Following the announcement that the Eishken Windfarm has been approved by the Comhairle I’ve been disheartened to read a number of complaints and objections to the development on assorted online blogs and news sites. I’m generally uncomfortable wading into island issues, all guns-a-blazing, but have changed my mind in this instance. I hesitate as islanders have enough non-residents pontificating on what they should and shouldn’t be doing and until such time as I return home I want to hold my peace (at which point, however, I fully intend to take up writing to the Heb News site on a full-time basis putting JM to shame and black-affronting my relations with my forthright views on campervans, petrol prices and beer prices in the Crit).

So here goes…

The Isle of Lewis is windy. The hair-dos (or don’ts) of generations of blones and cailleachs attest to this fact as does the dearth of Hebridean landscape gardeners. Exploitation of this natural resource offers the island a huge and perhaps final hope of salvaging itself socially and economically. As we inevitably rush headlong towards a post peak oil world we will need to generate power not only for ourselves but for the rest of the country. The island has been blessed with green gold at a time when it is most necessary and the creation of on-shore windfarms is now a fundamental goal in securing the island’s future as a viable, living, breathing society. One where people stay, live, study, marry, raise kids, earn good wages in skilled jobs and make lives for themselves. One where communities are retained and generations of family remain.

The writing appears to be well and truly on the wall if things do not change and change fundamentally.

  • Resident population of the Outer Hebrides at the 2001 census was 26,500, representing a decline of 10% (3,100) since 1991 – the highest recorded in any local authority area in Scotland.
  • Over the century, 1901 – 2001, the population of the Western Isles declined by 43%, down from 46,000 in 1901.
  • Western Isles population is projected by General Registry Office of Scotland to fall to 24,892 by 2031. This is a projected decline of 5.55% or 1,485 people. The equivalent figure for Scotland over the same period is an increase of 1%.
  • Projections suggest an increased proportion of the population will be elderly. Between 2006 and 2031, the Outer Hebrides is projected to see the largest declines across key population segments:
  1. those aged 0 – 15 years – down by 25.5%
  2. those of working age (16 – 64) – down by 11.5%
  3. those of pensionable age – increase of 24.3%
  • By 2024 those aged 65 and over are projected to comprise 33% of the total Western Isles population. The figure for 2002 was 22%.
  • The 2007 GROS figures for “Vital Events” shows that there were 263 live births in the Outer Hebrides. This is a birth rate of 10 per 1,000 inhabitants. Over the same period there were 367 deaths – a death rate of 13.9 per 1,000. This is the highest death rate for any Scottish local authority. GROS predicts that annual births will fall from 250 in 2006 / 07 to 154 in 2031 – a decline of almost 50%. This is the greatest projected decline of any local authority area in Scotland over the outlined period.

But the future is there for the taking. Or so you’d think.

Firstly the islands have the most extensive coverage of environmental designations of any region of Scotland making any further exploitation of these natural resources difficult. Secondly, as with windfarm developments the world over, resistance is met by everyday people, some with concerns about harm to wildlife, other claiming ecological impact during construction and loss to natural beauty and scenery. Many, however are guilty of that affliction often described as NIMBYism. Like windfarms the planet over, despite the multitude of reasons trotted out by opponents in their objections, the matter boils down to an infringment of one’s rural idyll and more specifically a Spoiling Of The View. It was as true for Ted Kennedy in Nantucket as it is for Calum Kennedy in South Lochs.

It’s obvious the island’s are incredibly beautiful places. The lack of any serious mountains and hills to the north and east of Lewis open up great vistas to the Harris hills and indeed a swathe of the island from Uig to South Lochs and south toward Tarbert is a National Scenic Area. Birdlife, from Eagles to Divers and Dunlins thrive on the moors often having breeding grounds and direct flightlines to the sea for food. The land itself is special, the aforementioned peatlands being hugely important as well as the precious machair and resulting ecosystems. Noone disputes that.

Furthermore many people from retirees to tourists come to the islands for a sense of escape, finding themselves a rare bastion of wilderness in an increasingly modernised country. Many never leave. It’s the land that time forgot according to a BBC 4 documentary this week. There in the back of beyond, the hussle and bustle of traffic and the masses are replaced by peace and quiet and the chance to live the good life. Get yourself a wee croft, raise some chickens and ducks, do some birdwatching, explore the poet and painter within. Wonderful stuff I’m sure you’ll agree. Wonderful if you can afford a house and have enough money eke out a living.

Opponents of the windfarms claim that these developments will irrevocably damage the landscape and by doing so kill tourism. I cry shenanigans. Where they see monstrosities, I and many others see things of beauty, graceful, peaceful symbols of hope, creating clean energy as natural and befitting the landscape as great trees. From my window in Glasgow I can see real monstrocities, ugly tower blocks full of people in poverty. But past these, far on the hills to the south I can see the Whitelees Wind Project, 140 turbines spinning against the sky. It’s a sight to behold even from afar. Here a state of the art visitor center is set to attract thousands of tourists and welcome tour buses full of children on school trips, educating them on global warming and green energy. Far from damaging the land and being inaccessible the project has 82Km of walking and cycle paths throughout its site as well as a shop, cafe and exhibition space. There is no reason why any Lewis project could not do likewise, opening up the moors for nature enthusiasts and creating new business.

Those claiming that we should wait for wavepower should realise that projects such as the nPower scheme at Siader are decades away from commercial viability, are still testing unproven technology and design and even when introduced will contribute a fraction of the power that wind turbines can. It can, and likely will, happen but can only play a part in the bigger scheme of things. Smaller, well designed and located wind farms at Eishkin, Pairc, Stornoway and Galson would feed a new interconnector and generate income for communities as it does so. They would also aid smaller developments in villages reducing their own power costs. Wave and tidal power would eventually begin to contribute to the grid and new technologies from Hydrogen to Biomass could be pioneered on the island at UHI and specialised parts could be manufactured at Arnish. Financial revenue, eco-tourism, skilled jobs, research and development, manufacturing and recognition on the world stage as an example of a successful post-carbon society. What an opportunity.

At the very worst the island will have these behemoths on their landscape for their life-cycle of 25 years. They may be replaced by new designs or removed completely through a standard environmentally friendly decommissioning process. Wind turbines and other equipment are removed/recycled and foundations broken down to a depth of around 1m. The site is then restored to its original condition and in accordance with any other requirements of the planning consent. A single generation may lose their vision of an unspoiled landscape but with this small sacrifice there will at least be generations to follow who can return the land to the way it was, letting the heathers and mosses reclaim the concrete as it does the great expanses of gneiss. During this time technology driven by need and international demand will have moved on rapidly but the island will have the infrastructure, the cable connections to grids, the knowledge, the manufacturing skills, the reputation and the people to lead the way into a positive and prosperous future.

I would be the first to object if I thought the drive towards a renewable energy economy on the island was A Bad Thing. We are not talking huge industrial schemes like the original LWP plan here. The current schemes are far more sensitive and respect the many and varied environmental and planning conditions. The original Lewis Wind Power Scheme was of a scale that crossed that particular line and I fully appreciated the furore it caused but sometimes, driving along the desolate Barvas road at a respectable 90mph I wonder whether it would actually have turned out to be A Good Thing after all.

If the choice is between interrupting one’s view of the Harris hills from the kitchen window for a couple of decades or an island empty but for campervans and retirees then I know where my decision lies and I would encourage those who worry about their own house values or post-work dreams to think a little harder about the bigger picture.