The treeless Shetland landscape offers unique picturesque vistas of sculptured landmasses defined by sky and water. The fragmentation of the various pieces of terra firma that make the Shetland Islands provides an unusual, interlaced illusion on a grand scale, with rolling hills layering into gradations of distance, interspersed with voes and lochs. It is a symphony of land, sea and sky that has the appearance and wonder of a large, partially immersed Henry Moore sculpture. It is the light that unites these elements, not only with the graded haze of multiple horizons, but also with the shadows of clouds moving over land; the skies gleaming with glimpses of sunlight; and the waters a-blaze with astonishing brilliances that form this firmament. Its beauty turns every tourist into a photographer who tries to capture the primordial light that illuminates this incredible postcard wonder, especially at sunsets that are irresistible to anyone holding a camera even though the marvel has been seen and photographed so many times before that it has become a cliché: but it never is, such is its power.
Indeed, Shetland has a history of photographers who have travelled the islands to capture its spectacular landscape, its amazing wild life, its ordinary, everyday events as well as its special occasions. Rattar comes to mind as a skilled practitioner of the art, and a prolific one too. His stunning black and white images illustrate the land and its life with a raw, crisp, honest beauty that sets the standard for today’s travellers seeking to record the special qualities of this place. It is in his images that we can see the landscape and its light and life, pure and simple, uncluttered, in its native innocence.
Today, every photographer has experienced the struggle to cut the power pole and its lines out of the frame, and to conceal the fretted array of fencing posts, all in an effort to regain the Rattar romance – the original sense of place; that vibrant, organic feeling for land, light and life. Alas, only too frequently does one make these cunningly careful moves to discover at a later time, the unexpected feint sweep of a power line across the captured image, or a stray pole or post protruding unexpectedly from the hills. Everyone knows the disappointment that this interference causes. There is a loss of innocence, of original sense of place with this rude interference of base, basic technology. These occasions become the disappointment of all photographers, especially the tourists who have travelled across the world to experience what is truly unique about the Shetland Islands. Locals can easily revisit the place and try again with a different scheming, but tourists live with their failures forever: if only . . . Tourists do not travel to distant places in order to experience the clutter of nearly every city and town in the world; and ‘photoshopping’ does not solve the emotional need for recorded truth.
So it was with some sad astonishment that the pockmarking of the map was viewed in The Shetland Times. An array of red dots joined with a maze of lines stretched across the drawing of central Mainland on contours that defined the hills. This was described as the proposal for the wind farm that filled the girth of the land around Weisdale, a place with its own wonder and special history and mystery that opens to the surprising western edge of southern Mainland. This was the place that everyone admires for its most grand vistas that stretch for kilometres into an amazement of hazed beauty along folds in between hills. This was to be the place for the turbines to be mounted on the perimeter of crests. Power poles and fences fretted in silhouettes against the sky will be as nothing when compared to the turbines – their scale, noise, feel and general imposition. These will only be able to be photoshopped out, such is their scale. No reframing will disguise these monsters or their impacts.
While the general effect on health of these huge pieces of equipment remains a debate - but not for those who have them nearby and have not been blinded by the dollars - this impact is compounded by the impact on place and feeling, the healthy interaction of subtle matters that include our involvement with land and its scope. Our love of place lies at the core of mental health, of coming to terms with our world. In Shetland this is highlighted more than ever – treelessness critically opens the purity of the landmass to the bright rawness of the sky and the reflective certainty of water. The bold towers of wind turbines grasp the highest land profiles for their own benefit irrespective of place and circumstance. They carry an inherent insult in their being that cares little for those who love this land and live this love. Theirs is not only a point pockmark. Towers demand servicing that requires a network of roads crisscrossing the hills.
Roger Scruton has noted that beauty is a moral matter. In this sense wind farms intrude into matters ethical. Their values can be debated as their functional and economic efficiencies, but it is their impact on feeling and place – feeling for place – that holds the greatest threat, the one most difficult to articulate or evaluate. The matter is clearly seen in the photographers’ nightmare of poles, posts and other paraphernalia. These will be as nothing compared with the visual impact of the turbines. One only has to see the turbines on the hills beside Lake George outside Canberra in Australia to understand the impact of turbine towers irrespective of their number.
View of wind farm from Federal Highway over Lake George
If Shetland is serious about encouraging tourism and caring for its much-loved places, then it needs to be fully aware of what turbines do. The situation is a little like developing mines in a place where landscape is so important and so limited; where place is critical. Mining the winds seems to be the best analogy, for this technology has the same brutal impact on land. Just look at the mine at Clibberswick on Unst. Sadly raw beauty is turned into a mighty mess just too easily. It is fragile, like feelings, and needs care and attention for survival.
We might be interested in how we plan our houses, our settlements, our towns; but how we plan and care for our landscape is just as critical if we are to develop and maintain a place and its wonder. Planning means knowing and controlling for a prescribed outcome. Beauty needs thought and attention just as any functional necessity. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by dreams of dollars, for tourism is all about dreams and dollars too - dollars based on a desire to see a place of one’s dreams, a place so special and different as Shetland. One can travel to other places to see wind turbines. Why turn Shetland into a place just like any other? When we all know the impact of poles and posts on the landscape, why leap into the hope of towers?
The astonishing stupidity in endorsing this wind farm is that Shetland is a place that promotes its unique, natural beauty as a tourist destination. It is difficult enough to get to Shetland now, what with the high costs of travel on what is an uncompetitive route. People will think twice about visiting a place that is determined to fill its beautiful horizons with silhouettes of towers. Why would anyone wreck its core attraction with any turbines, even silent ones if they exist, let alone a number in excess of one hundred, when it is trying hard to promote its special country as an attractive destination? Would Northern Island allow the erection of wind turbines on top of the cliffs around the Giant’s Causeway? Considering the almost excessive care and detail that has been given to the beautiful visitors’ centre at this location, one can see that turbines, no matter how advantageous the position might be for efficient energy production, would never be approved here - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/giants-causeway-gateway.html
Shetland has to put a value onto its tourism if it is to truly see the losses that turbines will bring. Folk will not visit a stark, iconic landscape that has had its wonder littered with a scattering of raging, reverberating towers. It is this brashness that they are escaping. It is simply unbelievable that anyone could give a second thought to approving any wind farm on Shetland, even with the sums of cash and jobs that calculations might promise. There will be more losses than gains here. The immeasurable qualities of this world have more power for tourists than any surplus of cheap energy might have for Shetland.
Will Shetland's promotional logo have to be changed?
One remains gobsmacked at the possibility that the heart of the Mainland might become a display of spiked hills. It does not augur well for the health of the landscape, let alone the health of local residents and visitors, for we do gain strength from our land, the spirit of place.
Loung Ung talks about his land and its abuses:
Land-mine mutilation is the second most painful injury, burns being the first. Psychologically, physically, it’s very destructive to human beings. Socially, culturally, economically, and religiously, it’s disrupted the whole society. We’re Buddhist people so our deities tend to be based in the rivers and the earth. Now that the land is mined, where do you go to find spiritual sanctuary?
Surviving the Peace: An Interview with Loung Ung in
In the Shadow of Angkor Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Frank Stewart; Sharon May Editors Silkworm Books 2004 University of Hawai’i Press p.54
Thomas Lynch writes of his return to Ireland as:
a return to the traditions of exile and contemplative life within a community made global by technology - men and women for whom the quiet and the distant and the darkness allow for visions they might otherwise have never had, who are nonetheless ‘connected’ to the wider world of faith by broadband and modem and common quest.
Booking Passage We Irish & Americans Thomas Lynch Johnathon Cape London 2005 page 143-144
What visions might remain when ‘the quiet and the distant and the darkness’ are permeated with towers?
We might get an understanding of the brutality of the impacts from our own culture with texts inspired by the Pslams:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my power,
My electricity cometh from the turbines, twixt heaven and earth.
(after Psalm 121)
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; and the wind turbines -
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
What is man doing?
(after Psalm 8:3-4)Now that the sky is mined, where will we gain our strength?
For a recent study and debate on wind farms see:
http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/ (Turbine torture)
One is left pondering why Shetland spends so much time, effort and money on trying to attract tourists when it seems to do so much to dissuade them. Some years ago the ship, Norrona, that provided a direct link between the Sheltand Islands and Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, stopped calling into Lerwick on its weekly run. This was the route the Vikings took. It appeared that no one in Shetland could care less. Nothing was done to make sure that this service was kept available for locals and visitors. It was merely dismissed, leaving the Shetland Islands isolated from its neighbours.
Now we have the wind farm to be constructed on the beautiful landscape of central Shetland, ironically named Viking. If Shetland is really interested in encouraging tourism, then it might have done more to ensure that its connections to the Viking world were more than a label for a project that will scar the landscape for years to come, making it more like the rest of the developed world – a place avoided by those who seek out nature’s quiet beauty and wonder.