Golf tycoons want to raid Scotland. It is our duty to defend its beauty

Sand dunes at the proposed golf site near Embo in Sutherland, Scotland.

Sand dunes at the proposed golf site near Embo in Sutherland, Scotland. Photograph: Alamy

If there were an international beauty pageant for countries, Scotland would win it most years. In January it was voted the most beautiful country on the planet by the travel website Rough Guides.

This follows similar awards by global travel specialists in three of the previous five years, as well as ancillary awards for “best island” (Lewis and Harris) and quality of living (Orkney, Edinburgh). Other countries have spectacular mountains and gorgeous lakes, but nature seems to have chosen Scotland as the location for her best work.

Each year, however, the Scottish government is faced with the challenge of balancing its duty to preserve and nurture Scotland’s natural beauty with ensuring as many of its citizens as possible are provided with the basic requirements for a decent standard of living: homes, jobs, food and health. Scotland may be the world’s most popular museum of natural history – some of its mountains were formed amid the birth pangs of the world itself – but more than five million people live in this museum and the country needs more to help sustain an economy creaking under pressure from an ageing population.

Occasionally, we may be required to hold our noses and concede that beauty can also be found in designs for living. Many of our green spaces have formed a happy synergy with golf tourism, one of the principal drivers of our vital tourist industry. You’ll struggle to find a location where you can’t see mountains or sea, and few are the places where a golf course isn’t close at hand either. We haven’t merely exploited opportunities for golf tourism, we have wrung them dry. Yet, in a place such as Gleneagles in Perthshire, the relationship between commerce and nature brings a glorious communion. However, it’s a fragile relationship and one that requires constant vigilance to ensure that the temptation of easy, corporate money and the untested promises of jobs and investment do not override our moral duty to protect Scotland’s beauty and to pass it intact to future generations.

A public inquiry is underway into the proposed development of a luxury golf course on one of our most fragile and beautiful stretches of coast. The planned 18-hole course at Coul Links near Dornoch in Sutherland is being proposed by the US developers Todd Warnock and the golf course tycoon Mike Keiser, who claim that it will create about 200 jobs and provide £60m of investment into the area over 10 years. The plans were originally passed by Highland council, despite objections from its own planners and just about every environmental and heritage group in Scotland and across the UK. This inquiry was triggered after the Scottish government opted to call in the proposals due to “issues of national importance” related to “natural heritage issues”.

You don’t have to be closely acquainted with these issues to understand why there is so much distress at the prospect of another stretch of this wild and vital north-east coastline being sacrificed to the whims of a US billionaire and the exclusive use of golfers with the means to pay top dollar for the privilege. Further along this coastline, Donald Trump’s luxury course at Menie was waved through in the face of objections about damage to the globally unique dune system. Almost seven years later, the promises of jobs and investment parroted by Trump and some well-connected local supporters have yet to materialise.

A remarkable nexus of environmental protections has made Coul one of Scotland’s most fortified locations against marauding corporate interests. It possesses one of the last undefiled dune systems in the country and has a unique triple-lock of designations comprising SSSI status (site of special scientific interest), special protection area (SPA) and is a Ramsar site of international importance. Scottish Natural Heritage lists the loss of 40.5 acres of direct habitat in its objection. Much of this would be excavated and have its natural vegetation stripped to be replaced by artificially manicured greens of negligible conservation value.

A crude manipulation of the land will be required to squeeze a golf course on to this specific site, like trying to fit Oliver Hardy into a Versace. To ensure a high viewpoint for sea and loch, a large area of unique dune heath would need to be quarried out. A remarkable and unique biodiversity would be threatened, including rare lichens, orchids and invertebrates. A rare dune habitat comprising 95 junipers would be moved, along with species such as rock-rose, the food plant of the scarce northern brown argus butterfly.

A couple of very vocal local groups and individuals are supportive of the development and curiously have swallowed the optimistic economic projections of the billionaire developers. Their social media responses suggest that, as locals, their views must carry more weight. Such an attitude betrays a fundamental arrogance. This beautiful coastline has evolved over millions of years. Just because you’ve lived there for a micro-fraction of that time doesn’t give you the right to have it turned into a corporate vanity project in exchange for some woolly future economic windfall of uncertain provenance.

The Scottish government must exercise its sacred duty of protection of our natural heritage and kick this environmentally ruinous proposal out. If it fails to do so, it will open up Scotland’s beauty to the predations of other international corporate raiders. As one objector put it: “The developers claim only a small part of this site will be altered. But that’s like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa and saying only a small area has been affected.”

 Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist

 

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