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Issue 19 - Future of Scotland is blowing in the wind

Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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Future of Scotland is blowing in the wind

Back in 1975, when I was editor of a Scottish business journal, I interviewed Stephen Salter of the department of mechanical engineering at Edinburgh University.

Back in 1975, when I was editor of a Scottish business journal, I interviewed Stephen Salter of the department of mechanical engineering at Edinburgh University.

Professor Salter had recently developed a floating ‘duck’ which converted wave movement into electricity.

The man was a genius and I have always been amazed and disappointed that he failed to attract the recognition he deserved. However, like all great scientists, he persevered, and now, 30 years on, his invention is undergoing trials off Orkney. If successful, and our politicians have the vision to endorse it, a network of wave farms will eventually be installed the length of Scotland’s tidal coastline.

Twenty alone are capable of powering the whole of the city of Edinburgh.

If there is one subject that is going to dominate life in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for the next decade and beyond, it is renewable energy. Yes, I know it is a world problem, and hopefully high on the agenda for the G8 Summit taking place at Gleneagles Hotel in July, but in the north of Scotland, the debate has already kicked off. If you do not believe me, have a glance at the internet.

There are currently over 1,200 sites dedicated to energy saving in the Western Isles alone.

Renewable energy comes in several forms, the best known being solar, sadly not the most efficient option in the Scottish climate. What I do find surprising, however, is that while nobody seems prepared to endorse a future for nuclear energy or fossil fuels, so many voices are being raised against the harnessing of wind and water.

While I fully understand the objections of country dwellers in the more populous, scenic areas of Scotland, I am baffled by the reaction to wind farms being located in regions where hardly anyone ever goes. And I find it hard to accept the argument that they will ruin the scenery. I personally find the slim turbines on Soutra on the road to Lauder rather beautiful to look at.

I have also had my ear bent about the dangers to birds in flight and the potential disruption to wildlife, but, from my experience, creatures of the wild are instinctively cleverer than that. On the island of Lewis in October I asked my taxi driver, a Lewisman born and bred, what he thought about wind farms, and with the great logic of the Gael, he replied, “So long as they do not interfere with the little creatures in the ground, I cannot see what all the fuss is about.”

Little creatures in the ground apart, nowhere is better placed to take advantage of the elements than Scotland’s west coast with its horizontal wind, and let’s not forget that the Scots have always been at the forefront of energy conservation.

On Islay, excess heat from the Bowmore distillery warms the local swimming pool. The Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, a former boathouse on the edge of Rannoch Moor, already has a wind turbine and a dry toilet system that requires no flushing. The Findhorn Foundation on the Moray coast is similarly equipped. In the ground below our feet, the earth retains an average temperature of between 11 and 12°C.

In a recent opinion poll, the majority of those living close to existing wind farm sites said they were a good thing, while others see future developments of them as little more than an opportunity for developers to make a quick buck and destroy the landscape.

Emotions on both sides are running high. Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive has set an “aspirational” target to achieve 40 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Consent has been given for more than 400 megawatts of on-shore wind development, and there are 200 wind farm applications under consideration. Like it or not, the future is blowing in the wind.

The ancient inhabitants of the tigh dubh or black house, so vividly described by Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell on their Hebridean tour of 1773, had the right idea.

They built their crofts of earth and slate, and thatched their roofs with turf and grass. Each house had a central chimney and, in the dark chill of those bleak winter nights, entire families huddled indoors with their animals to keep warm around a blazing central peat fire.

Now I am not suggesting that we should all go and live with our family pets in a black house, but our ancestors were, I suspect, infinitely more practical when it came to saving energy than we are. They had to be in order to survive. Unfortunately, peat too is a fossil fuel.