While travelling to Shetland recently, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) News was read on-line. One report told that Lord Howe Island residents had just rejected all wind-turbine development on their land, on aesthetic grounds, pure appearance alone.^
When driving north to Unst, the familiar turbines high above Tingwall brought the news item to mind. Later, on the approach to Gutcher, the set of five, stark wind structures standing tall over North Yell was seen for the first time. Looking back at this array of elevated spinning blades from Belmont, one soon becomes aware of the aesthetic intrigues stimulated by these prominent machines.
Belmont House, Unst
Aerial view of Belmont House
It has taken many years and much careful and committed effort for Belmont House to be renovated. All materials, indeed nearly every single stone, each precise detail, and the exact hue of the finishes were meticulously researched, recorded, reviewed, and authenticated so that this beautiful building could be respected, and responsibly restored to its original grandeur: made authentic again. While this effort has achieved its intent, the authenticity of the landscape, the original context of the old house beyond its garden walls, has been significantly altered by a development that apparently remains oblivious to its domineering impact. Belmont House now stands on its formal axis gazing out over Bluemull Sound, looking across to the hills of Yell on which the set of five turbines stand, protruding cyclically into the scope of the sky that forms part of the broad prospect of the historic house, its distant address.
The wind turbines at North Yell with new access road.
Wind turbines always come with a service access footprint.
The Biblical poet's 'lift up mine eyes unto the hills,' comes to mind as one ponders the 'help' that Belmont House might gain from this hilltop development. It becomes obvious that there is something askew in the search for things 'green' and sustainable, with the maintenance of a strategy that appears so careless with the aesthetic qualities of landscape in these treeless islands, of the experience of place, and the subtleties of the heritage of the region. Shetland needs to decide whether it finds such significant impacts on its stark beauty, described by MacDiarmid as 'the infinite beauties of the bare land,' to be of any relevance to its identity that it promotes without any apparent irony or embarrassment as 'Pride of Place.'
Ferry crossing Bluemull Sound (Belmont House in centre)
Weeks later, on the ferry crossing from Gutcher to Belmont, while admiring the vista of graduated, grey, misted hills, and the startling, diving flight of gannets in the late, hazed brilliance of the setting sun, the distracting dominance of the towers alerted the eyes and demanded attention. Their hedge-hogging of the sky, pricking the spirit of place with the perpetual, awkward, asymmetric agitation of their geometric rigour, made them the centre of attention; a distraction; an unwanted attraction.
Yell hills and sky without turbines
The five turbines, North Yell
View of North Yell from ferry (with wind turbines kept just of of frame left)
Shetland promotes its naked beauty, its 'green,' natural, island credentials, and its splendid landscape, perhaps best illustrated in those J.D. Ratter photographs of old, all with a certain nostalgic pomp and panache.# Shetland really has to decide if it wants the first characteristic, rationalised in the production of 'green' wind power, or the latter, the Ratter wonder, the love and care of bare, native place, as presently there appears to be a collision of intents, a raw clash of ambitions.
Hugh MacDiarmid wrote about his time on Whalsay with its 'rare interludes back in Edinburgh or Glasgow or Manchester,' as 'these comings into relationship again with minds keen, alert, attuned to beauty.' He added that he had no intention of being unfair to Shetland, since 'If there are no such people in Shetland, there are exceedingly few in Scotland or England either - not more than one per 100,000.' (Quoted by Michael Grieve in MacDiarmid in Shetland, edited by Graham and Smith, Shetland Library, Lerwick, 1992 -Foreword.)
Sadly, given Shetland's population, and using these MacDiarmid figures, the odds of Shetland acting on aesthetic grounds alone as Lord Howe Island has done, does not appear to augur well, in spite of the hyped promotional programmes that suggest otherwise. The maintenance of Shetland's unique beauty remains a challenge that is obvious to the visitor who brings great expectations, all generated by the mystique of the tourist blurb that slyly ignores the aesthetic implications of the generation of 'green' power with wind, and its disturbing impact on the experience of place* and its past, a circumstance that creates such a bold and unsettling, irrational conflict revealed so clearly on Unst, at historic Belmont.
What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world's geology
But what happens to the world's geology
Is not irrelevant to us.
We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,
Not the stones to us.
Hugh MacDiarmid On a Raised Beach+
Oscar Wilde comes to mind: ‘Each man kills the things he loves . . . ’
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, northern Unst
^"This would affect the spectacular and scenic landscapes for which the world heritage island group is recognised," the spokesman said in a statement.
The strong influence of Shetland's landscape, heritage and culture, can be seen in the creative output of Shetland's craft makers.
Statement made in the introduction of the Shetland Craft Trail & Makers 2016/2017 booklet.
Adam Nicolson, in Sea Room An Island Life, describes the experience of his Shiant Islands as: 'the loved contours of the place.'
MacDiarmid is certainly one of the major figures of all Scottish literature, and I think probably our greatest poet since Burns.
George Mackay Brown