Published: 10/10/2012 11:00 - Updated: 09/10/2012 17:06

Nowhere is safe from marching white monsters

Caithness is renowned for its big skies like this one over Loch Calder, but for how much longer will that be the case?
Caithness is renowned for its big skies like this one over Loch Calder, but for how much longer will that be the case?

AUTUMN approaches, though summer never truly arrived. This morning the first group of whooper swans came powering southward, having flown overnight from Greenland or Iceland, coming in low over Stemster hill and heading for a well-earned break on Loch Stemster or Watten.

Soon the huge flocks of geese will be coming through. With wind turbines popping up like mushrooms I can’t believe there won’t be many casualties.

From my house I can see, 10 miles away, the turbines being erected on the Baillie Farm site, amazingly prominent even from this distance. That one should never have been allowed, pity those who live nearby.

The tide of turbines seems unstoppable, planning departments are being swamped, energy bills continue to rise but few can resist the lucrative subsidies if they have a bit of land.

The latest application is for a one-megawatt turbine near the top of Olrig Hill which would be one of the most widely visible man-made objects in the entire county.

It’s still possible to escape Alex Salmond’s follies but it won’t be long before nowhere in Caithness is out of sight, or indeed out of hearing, of one or more wind farms. I hope the Dunbeath development is rejected, it should never be allowed on deep peat moorland under Scaraben and Morven. I hope.

Meanwhile that lovely road to Braemore remains under threat, as does the only true mountain landscape in Caithness.

While it was still unspoilt I recently had a gentle walk from the top of the road, over the wet moor and down to the Berriedale water where it flows through the gorge under a shaky suspension footbridge.

The red deer rut had begun and stags roared to each other from skyline locations across the valley. The wind was cold, the sky bright, the heather already dying, real autumn though only mid-September.

Those who want wind farms see only the pound signs and have no understanding of the value of a wild Highland landscape like this one or how 20 or 30 giant turbines will turn it into yet another industrial site.

Places in this world which have not visibly been trampled and subdued by man are increasingly rare. Already, up on the Scaraben ridge, the Sudoku grid of the Boulfruich intrudes jarringly into the eastward view.

Absolutely nowhere in Caithness is safe from the marching white monsters.

LOCH Calder remains unspoilt, fortunately the council had the sense to repeatedly refuse permission for three huge windmills on the hill top to the east. But the forests to the west are for sale… an obvious temptation for yet another site.

And the Broubster wind farm has come back, a proposal for 20 or 30 huge turbines at the top end of Broubster Forest which, with Limekiln and Baillie Farm, would mean the western fringe of the county becomes nothing but a mass of giant whirling concrete blades.

Already Baillie Farm is surprisingly prominent from the loch with only three towers up so far and the blades not even attached.

Yet they still call Caithness the land of big skies. In a few years’ time this will be sheer nostalgia.

Recently I took the boat out for a gentle paddle round Loch Calder, it’s been too windy for much real sea kayaking. It’s always a nice circuit, you can usually tailor the trip to how energetic you feel as one shore is often more sheltered.

This time I let the wind and waves carry me down the eastern side past the woods of the Shieling and came back along the more sheltered western shore.

There’s still a nice remote feel to this side of the loch, you can land easily in a spot which is miles of rough walking from the nearest road and look across to the low hills to the east, giving thanks that as yet no 400-foot concrete structures sit on top and that the big sky is largely unsullied.

Early October now, still a few fine clumps of heather but the moors mostly taking on the dead colours of winter. An exploration of the reedy shallows at the south-west corner of the loch is always worthwhile, often there are many ducks, geese and swans on the water here.

Later, driving back from Wick in the evening, the frost warning light came on for the first time – definitely a sign of winter – and a near-full moon illuminated patches of drifting mist over sodden fields of oats and barley. Farmers will be praying for some good drying winds.

HOPEFULLY someone will come with me later this year for a kayak trip down the Thurso at Dirlot. It’s quite a fast, rocky stretch and not something I’d attempt on my own. But the Dirlot gorge is always worth a visit on foot, the scenery here is quite different from most of River Thurso’s meandering through green fields and gentle moorland.

You can’t escape the Causewaymire wind farm though, soon to be extended and added to at Halsary. As you cycle, or walk, out along the road to Loch More you see the moors and hills ahead, the river below. Maybe you hear the grouse or the golden plover, the distant roaring of stags in rut.

Perhaps an angler is casting for salmon. The scents are of peat and heather and bog myrtle. The true big Caithness sky. Turn round... and your view is dominated by a mass of wretched turning turbines. You can try and cut them out, look at the river, the flowers, listen to the bees… but the whole landscape has been devalued, all the way from Loch More to Westerdale.

And that’s just the beginning. Some 40 giant turbines are proposed in the forests to the north of this road — or rather, over the top of and in place of the forests, they will be 10 times the height of the trees which will be just a little green fuzz in comparison.

Dirlot itself, well, those turbines are still there in the background but at least the roar of the river, funnelling through the gorge, dominates. There is a rocky outcrop, quite a scramble, which once housed a small castle overlooking the river.

A footbridge across the gorge provides a very fine viewpoint of this scenery of rock and autumn rowan and rushing brown and white water. I look at the river and the appeal of kayaking downstream rather fades. You have to get your angle just right or be swept onto that very prominent rock... There’s a lot to be said for enjoying rivers safely from the bank.

So what will Caithness be like in a few years’ time? I can guarantee that one day the doctrinaire pro-wind farm position of the Scottish Government will simply collapse in the face of economics. Scotland simply can’t survive with the most expensive and unreliable electricity in Europe when everyone else uses cheap nuclear, fracking-gas and even coal.

The subsidies will be withdrawn and not one more windmill will go up.

Half of those already existing will prove too expensive to run. A few parts of the county will still be spared, where the landowner simply did not want windmills and managed to resist the financial temptations.

A few other places will have been refused permission, largely as tokens. Some landowners will simply have never got round to it. But, on the whole, these things will be everywhere. Small, medium, large, giant.

The county will be an industrialised mess. No view will escape, the "big sky" will have gone for good. And so will many birds, small birds and golden plovers and lapwings and snipe killed by the farm turbines while geese, buzzards and swans are knocked out of the sky by the big wind farms.

Stone tracks and substations and power lines will be everywhere.

Ordinary people who don’t have land will be paying crippling energy bills to keep already-agreed subsidies flowing. Scotland will be bankrupting itself to import electricity on the calm, cold, winter days.

Why could we not have simply kept Caithness, and indeed the rest of the north of Scotland, as a world-class tourist destination instead of killing the goose which laid the golden eggs?

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