Wind Farms and Wild Lands

By Alistair Livingston

Proposed changes in Scottish planning policy will severely restrict the development of wind energy. Wind farms will be excluded from areas defined as ‘wild land’ and areas closer than 2.5 km from settlements. Anti-wind farm groups (who are supported by climate change deniers) are hailing this as a major victory against the ‘industrialisation of the countryside’. Ironically between 1600 and 1830 several charcoal fuelled, iron furnaces operated in the west Highland ‘wild land’ area. After 1830, coal fuelled iron furnaces in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire replaced them, contributing to climate change. When set against the ambiguous heritage of Scotland’s industrial past, wind farms appear positively benign.

Land ownership of ‘wild land’ in relation to wind farms is a significant factor but is not discussed here since the proposed planning policy will apply regardless of who owns the land.

Wind turbines as part of a green future as envisaged Clifford Harper in 1974.

To the degree that nonhuman nature is romanticized as “wilderness,” and seen as more authentically “natural” than the works of humans, the natural world is frozen into a circumscribed domain in which human innovation, foresight, and creativity have no place and offer no possibilities. [Murray Bookchin, ‘What is Social Ecology?’]

Scottish Natural Heritage Policy Statement on Wild Land. [2002]
While the term ‘wilderness’ is often used to describe the wilder parts of the globe, it is best avoided in Scotland because it implies a more pristine setting than we can ever experience in our countryside, where most wild land shows some effects from past human use. Much of this land is still used for an economic purpose, and local populations depend on it in various ways for their livelihood – both directly and indirectly. Also, the scale of our wilder landscapes is very modest as compared to the extensive, barren lands of, say, the Arctic wastes or the great deserts of the world, for which the term wilderness is best reserved. The term ‘wild land’ is also best reserved for those now limited core areas of mountain and moorland and remote coast, which mostly lie beyond contemporary human artefacts such as roads or other development.

Back in 2002 the SNH Policy Statement attracted little attention, but subsequent developments involving the mapping of wild land have provoked fierce debate. [See these recent posts by Fraser McDonald and Alan McCombes on Bella Caledonia and the responses to them]. What has created the controversy is the proposal to exclude wind farms from wild lands, using SNH’s Mapping of Scotland’s Wildness and Wild Lands-
On 30th April 2013 the Scottish Government published its Main Issues Report on the National Planning Framework 3 and revised Scottish Planning Policy.

Question 2 of the NPF MIR is inviting views on the use of the our [ SNH’s] mapping work to identify areas which need to be protected. In addition SPP question 17 is seeking views on the proposed approach to spatial frameworks, including the principle of affording significant protection to core wild land (as included in our map) from wind farm development unless any adverse effects can be substantially mitigated. So that Scottish Government can best reflect on the merits of the policy approach and consider the next steps, they are also happy to receive comments on the map itself who will forward any such comments to ourselves for our information.

Earlier this year, the John Muir Trust commissioned an opinion poll on protection for wild land.

A new poll released by the John Muir Trust on 26 June 2013 reveals overwhelming support for the proposal that “the 20 per cent of Scotland’s landscape identified as ‘core wild land’ – rugged, remote and free from modern visible human structures – should be given be special protection from inappropriate development including wind farms.” On a five-point scale ranging from ‘strongly support’ to ‘strongly oppose’, 40 per cent said they would ‘strongly support’ protection for Scotland’s wild land, while a further 35 per cent ‘tend to support’ the proposal. Only 2 per cent ‘strongly oppose’ protection, while just 4 per cent ‘tend to oppose’ it. Of the remainder, 14 per cent ‘neither support nor oppose’ the proposals, with five per cent undecided. Support for wild land to be free from wind farms and other inappropriate development is almost evenly spread across Scotland’s political parties and social classes. There is also decisive backing for wild land protection across all age groups.

But as Scottish Renewables have noticed, as well as keeping wind farms away from wild land, the proposed planning policy will also keep them at least 2.5 km away from ‘towns and villages’

Creation of 2.5km community separation distance: Currently, Scottish Planning Policy uses a recommended separation distance of 2km as a positive policy tool for planning authorities when defining areas of search for onshore wind development. The current draft SPP proposes to change this positive approach by increasing the distance from 2km to 2.5km, and making a fundamental change from using this distance to help inform areas of search to setting a clear separation distance between wind farms and villages, towns and cities, with this area being defined as an area requiring ‘significant protection.’

Given that there is currently no statutory definition of a town or village and there exists a negative policy position towards onshore wind in some local authorities, we believe that the newly proposed community separation distance of 2.5km as an area of significant protection will provide an opportunity to prescribe against development of a large proportion of Scotland’s available land area. Map 1 [ below] highlights the negative impact that such a policy could have on potential development opportunities (areas rendered in purple) in Scotland. These opportunities are reduced further when combined with the proposed increased protection for ‘core areas of wild land’ (outlined in red).

This onerous restriction would substantially restrict wind farm development, including that taken forward by communities. For example, had the much-celebrated Neilston community wind farm project been put forward under these proposed policies, it would have been at significantly greater risk of refusal, as the turbines are closer than 2.5km from some homes. The Scottish Government’s own target of having 500MW of community owned wind farm projects by 2020 could therefore be jeopardised by this policy.


Scottish Renewables map showing impact of proposed planning policies on wind energy locations.

The map above, produced by Scottish Renewables, shows the problem. Unless challenged, the Southern Uplands will become one of the few parts of Scotland where wind farms are possible. The four anti-wind farm groups active in Dumfries and Galloway and the six active sin the Scottish Borders will not be amused, but Sir Bernard Ingham will be laughing.

Ingham is best known for his role as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, but since 1992 he has been an active member of ‘Supporters of Nuclear Energy’ and the anti-wind farm group Country Guardian. The idea of using wind energy as an alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power can be traced back to the ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ technology movement which began in the early 1970s. By the 1990s, wind energy was moving into the mainstream and for supporters of nuclear power, started to look like a threat. More recently, the urgent need to tackle climate change has been used to justify building new nuclear power stations while wind energy has advanced as the cheaper and safer option. However, the growth of wind energy has led to an expansion of opposition. The Country Guardian website now lists 285 anti-wind farm groups in the UK, with 63 in Scotland.

These groups do not confine their opposition to wind farms to areas of ‘wild land’, they oppose the construction of wind farms (and even individual wind turbines) anywhere in the countryside. As one of the local Dumfries and Galloway anti-wind farm groups put it such developments threaten ‘to industrialise many parts of a historic and outstandingly beautiful landscape that lies at the heart of Scottish heritage.’

In ‘Deconstructing the Countryside’ I quoted from a book called ‘Constructing the Countryside’ edited by Terry Marsden (London, 1993) which describes four different types of countryside. (pp.187-191). The first type of countryside described was the ‘Preserved Countryside’ which then covered most of the English lowlands and accessible uplands and where ‘anti-developmental and preservationist interests expressed by mainly middle-class residents’ predominated.

Inspired by Bernard Ingham’s Country Guardians (with- see below- some help from James Dellingpole of the Telegraph) the anti-wind farm brigade have achieved what Margaret Thatcher could not – turning Scotland into an extension of the Home Counties, with even the wildest of its cleared landscapes soon to be as carefully preserved as the tamest of English village greens. Radical Independence? Nope, it’s Scotland’s Bourgeois Revolution….

Oh really?

Well these gems come from a Wigtownshire anti-wind farm group who seem to get most of their information on the evils of wind energy news from climate change denier James Dellingpole of the Daily Telegraph –


Britain has just won the world’s biggest energy jackpot, potentially worth a staggering £1trillion. It has emerged that the United Kingdom not only holds the biggest shale basin in the world, but could have the biggest shale gas reserves in the world. A British Geological Survey estimates there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet – or tcf – of shale gas trapped in a shale basin in the north of England alone. In fact, the BGS’s upper estimate is a staggering 2,281 tcf – almost the total estimated American shale reserve of 2,500 tcf. Incredibly, this estimate does not include the huge shale reserves in the South of England or the Central Basin in Scotland. With this news, surely the time has come to call a halt to any more ridiculous Turbine Sites while a proper assessment is made of future energy production. Shale gas has revolutionised America’s energy system, slashing bills by two-thirds and boosting industry. In the UK it could reduce energy bills enough for manufacturers to win back the jobs which have been lost to China and India who use brown coal to cut production costs — to build things — like wind turbines! Shale is about to make Turbines obsolete. Time to tell that to the our “leaders” as forcefully as you can before more of our heritage is wiped out by politicians with no vision.

Their website also provides a plug for Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson’s book ‘So Much Wind -the Myth of Green Energy’

On the subject of SNH and ‘wild land’ they gleefully report-

The Wind industry, attacked the protections being proposed in response to the growing public outcry about the spread of turbines across the countryside. Ministers are considering special safeguards that would make it more difficult to build on wild land, which is defined as being rugged, remote and free from modern visible human structures. They are also examining increasing the recommended distance between wind farms and the nearest town or village from 2km (1.2 miles) to 2.5km (1.6 miles) and giving greater protection to people whose homes are affected. But Scottish Renewables, claimed the proposed reforms would jeopardise £2 billion of investment in Salmond’s plan to generate the equivalent of all Scotland’s electricity from green sources by 2020. Instead of accepting that things have already gone too far, they demand that there should be no protection for wild land, with each wind farm application judged on a case-by-case basis. They, of course, make no mention of the many millions of pounds the wind industry would lose in subsidies should common sense prevail, especially with massive amounts of shale gas on the horizon. The intervention marks a straining in relations between wind farm companies and the First Minister, who is responsible for the rapid increase in onshore turbines in the face of growing (vote-losing) fury from rural communities. The whinge from Scottish Renewables companies comes in their submission to a Scottish Government consultation on proposed revisions to key national planning guidelines. They’re upset that the area designated “wild land”, and therefore eligible for special protection, had been increased from 13 per cent to 20 per cent of Scotland’s land mass. Instead, they say wild land should be removed entirely from a special category of areas classified as having “potential constraints” for wind farm development. The submission warned that councils hostile towards wind farms would exploit the 2.5km restriction because of the lack of a statutory definition of “town or village”. Source: Daily Telegraph

So- yes, really.

What began 20 years ago as a bit of astroturfing (fake grassroots) designed to neutralise a threat to nuclear power has over the past 10 years become an even more useful tool for climate change deniers. By tapping in to the ‘village green preservation society’ and ‘wilderness conservation’ memes, the forces of denial have managed to recruit a cohort of retired baby-boomers who are more worried about the immediate impact of wind-farms on their quality of life than the impact of climate change on the lives of future generations.

Does it matter? It does for anyone with an interest in the potential of ‘radical independence’. Here we have a conservative vision of a Scotland frozen in the recent past which is in the process of becoming fixed in the planning system, becoming absorbed into the machineries of government and the administration of power. Here we have the potential for radical change through renewable energy fading away in order to shield the tourist gaze from anything other than an empty landscape.

Before the solitary spectator [as idealised by the John Muir Trust] lies the appearance of ‘nature’, but behind the spectator lies ‘the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails and which presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities.” [K. Marx Capital Vol. 1, Part 1]. The production of these commodities required an industrial as well as an economic revolution.

Some of the first signs of an industrial revolution in Scotland can be traced back to 1607 when Sir George Hay (later Lord High Chancellor of Scotland and Earl of Kinnoull), began to produce iron near (1) Letterewe on Loch Maree in Ross-shire. In the eighteenth century, furnaces were built at (2) Bonawe on Taynuilt, in 1730, (3) Invergarry in the same year, (4) Abernethy, in Strathspey, also in 1730, (5) Furnace in 1750 and (6) Goatfield, Loch Fyne, in 1754- [mapped below] all of which had been attracted by a cheap and abundant supply of charcoal from a still wooded Highlands.


Post Ice-Age Scottish woodlands map



17th/18th century Highland iron furnaces locations map- based on SNH ‘perceived naturalness’ map.  (1) Letterewe on Loch Maree in Ross-shire.  (2) Bonawe on Taynuilt (3) Invergarry (4) Abernethy in Strathspey (5) Furnace (6) Goatfield, Loch Fyne.


Remains of Bonawe iron furnace 1730 (or 1750) – 1874.

The amount of wood needed to sustain these Highland iron works was quite significant. Lorn furnace at Bonawe produced 700 tonnes of iron by the end of the 18th century and it has been estimated that at least 8,000-10,000 hectares of oakwood per annum were needed to supply the furnace with fuel. Wood was sourced from a remarkably wide area of the west coast and Islands; some woods were more than 60 kilometres away.


Charcoal supply map.

The demand for charcoal from these iron works contributed to the loss of tree cover in the Highland ‘wild lands’. However, the Highlands lacked sources of iron ore. In 1828, James Neilson discovered that the use of superheated air in blast furnaces improved their efficiency and allowed the use of raw coal (rather than charcoal or coke) in the production of iron. There is an important point to note here. Although capitalist in economic terms, the Highland (‘wild land’) iron industry was constrained by ecological factors- the need to maintain sources of timber for charcoal.

If a cycle of new planting/ coppicing had been established, a sustainable iron industry could have developed which would also have sustained employment. But such an industry would not have been able to support the rapid industrialisation ( ship building for example) of Scotland. In theory, timber from the Baltic or north America could have been imported as a fuel source, but coal was handier and cheaper. Even if the risk of climate change had been understood back then, the profit motive would have overridden any concerns about the future. Writing in 1866 on ‘The Coal Question‘ [I.e. will the UK run out of coal] Stanley Jevons argued that the UK had a duty to maximise the exploitation of coal rather than conserve it.

The alternatives before us are simple. Our empire and race already comprise one-fifth of the world‘s population; and by our plantation of new States, by our guardianship of the seas, by our penetrating commerce, by our just laws and firm constitution, and above all by the dissemination of our new arts, we stimulate the progress of mankind in a degree not to be measured. If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.

Coal and iron existed in (temporary) abundance in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. In 1830 the first of Lanarkshire’s ‘hot blast’ furnaces began operation near Coatbridge. This led to a period of rapid population growth.

The increase of population that took place in this hitherto rural district in consequence of the works which thus sprung up simultaneously, is unprecedented in any part of Europe. In a district not more than twelve miles in diameter, an increase of population amounting to not less than twenty-six thousand had taken place, within the ten years before 1841. This was by the census of 1841, and nearly all that increase had taken place during the six years preceding that date. The population of Old Monkland parish increased from ten to twenty thousand, New Monkland the same, and Bothwell from five thousand to eleven thousand.


Gartsherrie (Coatbridge) Iron Furnace circa 1850.

As this 1869 description of the area shows, the environment in which the workers drawn from the ‘wild lands’ of the Highlands, from famine struck Ireland and the Lowland Clearances of southern Scotland was appalling.

Though Coatbridge is a most interesting seat of industry, it is anything but beautiful. Dense clouds of smoke roll over it incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything, and in a few hours the visitor finds his complexion considerably deteriorated by the flakes of soot which fill the air, and settle on his face. To appreciate Coatbridge, it must be visited at night, when it presents a most extraordinary and when seen for the first time startling spectacle.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress. For half-a-mile round each group of furnaces, the country is as well illumined as during full moon, and the good folks of Coatbridge have their streets lighted without tax or trouble.

There is something grand in even a distant view of the furnaces but the effect is much enhanced when they are approached to within a hundred yards or so. The flames then have a positively fascinating effect. No production of the pyrotechnist can match their wild gyrations. Their form is ever changing, and the variety of their movements is endless. Now they shoot far upward, and breaking short off, expire among the smoke; again spreading outward, they curl over the lips of the furnace, and dart through the doorways, as if determined to annihilate the bounds within which they are confined; then they sink low into the crater, and come forth with renewed strength in the shape of great tongues of fire, which sway backward and forward, as if seeking with a fierce eagerness something to devour.


Edward Bayliss (1874 -1950) painting of industrial ,landscape with iron furnaces.

What the flames were really devouring were the lives and expectations of the hundreds of thousands of children, women and men who through their labour created the wealth of Victorian Scotland. In England and Wales the same process was occurring. Led by Victoria herself, the beneficiaries of this labour were able to escape the ‘coat of black dust’ by buying up vast tracts of ‘wild’ (cleared) land in the Highlands where they could hunt, shoot and fish in a romantic fantasy of primitive communion with ‘wild nature’.

From our 21st century perspective we can see the contradictions between such Victorian fantasies and the reality of capitalist driven industrialisation. What seems harder to grasp is that although the immediate legacy of the industrial revolution has passed, the smoke from the furnaces and factories carried with it the carbon dioxide which began the process of climate change. Now even the most remote of wildernesses- for example the ‘Arctic wastes’ mentioned by SNH in 2002- are subject to climate change, with the summer melting of Artic Sea ice occurring more rapidly than predicted.

Against the reality of human driven climate change, SNH and the John Muir Trust’s conception of Scotland’s ‘wild lands’ as ‘lying beyond contemporary human artefacts’ is a dangerous and deeply deceptive delusion. Rather than keeping wind farms far from wild lands, there should be wind farms on every area of wild land as a powerful sign that there is no refuge anywhere from climate change.


3 thoughts on “Wind Farms and Wild Lands

  1. Well done! Another well researched and thought-provoking article. Hope it provokes a debate about what is wilderness, what’s it for, where we get our energy from, and who is selling us what!

  2. Thank you! I was beginning to despair that Scotland was devoid of eco-social ‘truth’ tellers. It would be wonderful if Bella C published this in response to the conservative Alan McCombes article.

  3. Interesting and well written. Yes as Janet says “provokes debate” though I don’t subscribe to the final conclusion.
    BTW your “charcoal supply map” (presumably yours given no attribution) is incorrect. That is Mull not Skye.

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