One morning earlier this year, my friend Dot and I drove north out of the city. We were taking her dog for a walk. Our destination wasn’t far—a beach near Balmedie, eight or so miles from the northeast Scottish city of Aberdeen, a stretch of sand dunes and sparse grass between fields and sea. It was bright and gusty and, although the day before midsummer, chilly.
We drove on past Balmedie and turned onto a path where a sign indicated that the area was protected by a security firm. Ignoring the sign, we drove slowly between high, blowing arrases of grasses and cow parsley, past an empty mansion house, past empty lawns and ponds and landscaped gardens. Another sign stuck incongruously into a flowerbed bore two words, ‘Trump International.’ The whole place was empty. Only a Land Rover parked beside what once must have been a farm building indicated human presence. On the rustic wall hung a plaque bearing a grandiose coat of arms. I got out of the car to read the motto but there wasn’t one. Instead there was one word: Trump.
Leaving the silent buildings behind, we walked, Dot and dog and I, down the path, heading east toward the sea and dunes. No one appeared to ask us what we wanted. In spite of warnings about security surveillance, we could walk there because in Scotland, the law gives us all the right to walk—responsibly—where we will.
The area we visited that day was once the Menie Estate, where people went to shoot pheasant and partridge and ducks. They stayed in the now-empty mansion house, played golf in what the now-defunct website describes as ‘one of the many top quality links and parkland courses in the area.’ If they were interested in looking at birds as as well as shooting them, perhaps they brought binoculars and walked up the coast toward the estuary of the river Ythan. Whether they were aware that where they were walking was the Foveran Sands ‘S.S.S.I.’— ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’—I don’t know; nor whether they knew that they were looking at a unique system of mobile dunes which, over four millennia, have moved and shifted in the wind, where marram and sedge, fescue and crowberry grow. They may have walked as far as Forvie to gaze with fascinated horror at the remains of the buried village, the church spire the only part visible since nine relentless days in August in 1413 when the ferocity of the winds covered the village, inch by inch, in sand.
If they walked as far as the river estuary, they’d have found birds, for the Ythan Estuary, another S.S.S.I. (‘A wetland of international importance’) is home to shelduck and terns—Sandwich and Arctic, Little and Common—to the largest mainland colony of eider ducks in Britain, to redshank, greenshank, merganser, to scaup and scoter, whooper and mute swans. In the proper season, they’d have passed nesting sites of willow warbler, skylark, chaffinch and lapwing among the dunes, scattered in the heath and scrub.
On their way, they’d have seen few houses because until recently, had anyone applied for planning permission to build a house on this stretch of coast, it would have been refused. Refused because the site is—or more correctly, was—protected.
But people don’t come to the Menie Estate any more, not to shoot or to walk or to play golf, because the estate was sold and the person who bought it was Donald Trump and even as we walked that morning, the fate of the entire area was being decided in the conference centre a few miles away, where a public inquiry was being held into whether or not the Trump Organisation would be granted planning permission to develop the Menie Estate into a ‘world class’ golf resort.
As soon as Donald Trump’s acquisition and plans were made public early in 2006, the controversy began. On one side the supporters range from Trump’s natural allies—millionaire builders, wealthier members of Chambers of Commerce—to those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they may have something to gain from the development: local tradesmen, for instance, and the owners of the roadside bar who promptly put up signs welcoming Trump, perhaps in the hope that visitors to his proposed gated development will, at some unspecified time in the future, break out and seek asylum over a pint.
On the other side are conservationists, ecologists, and concerned organisations—Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Rambler’s Association—as well as those who just want the area preserved, those concerned about increased air traffic and possible expansion of the airport, those with no great liking for golf or for the chemicals required to maintain golf courses, those who don’t appreciate arrogance or are simply sceptical about promises made by rich men.
There is little public debate about the need for economic development, even though the drilling of oil keeps Aberdeen’s economy buoyant and unemployment low. Vast petroleum reserves were found in the North Sea in the 1970s, fortuitously allowing oil-related enterprises to replace the region’s formerly thriving industries – fishing, paper-making, and granite-quarrying – which by then were in decline. It may be the nature of the oil game or the irremediable Presbyterian gloom of Scots, but for as long as the industry has been in existence, so has the fear that the oil is about to run out – one of the principal reasons cited for supporting Trump’s proposal. (It isn’t: Industry experts suggest that there are thirty years’ worth left in previously uneconomical fields now made viable by new technology.)
Even among development-friendly supporters, there are two worrying aspects to Trump’s scheme. One is its hyperbolic scale. According to Trump’s website the plans include:
2 world class golf courses, luxurious clubhouse, 450 room, 5-star hotel with associated conference facilities, full-service spa, tennis courts and recreational facilities, a state of the art golf academy, maintenance facility with turf grass research centre, 36 luxury 4 and 8 bedroom golf lodges, 950 holiday homes with sea-views. Future plans include residential units…
(The website doesn’t mention that the hotel alone will be the biggest structure in Aberdeenshire.)
The other matter of concern is whether, given the nature of our climate, anyone will come.
As we walked on June 20, the wind blew lightly through the dunes. A lapwing called. We could see far because on that day there was no sea mist (called in Scots ‘the haar’), which in summer often blankets the coast in cold, damp fog while a few miles inland the day is bright and warm. There aren’t, though, many warm days. Whole summers can pass without three consecutive days of heat. Here, on the first day of school holidays, the airport is jammed with Vitamin D-deprived people who have planned all year for this moment of escape south, to the warmth and sun of Dubai, Spain, Turkey, Florida.
Here, we do bleakness thoroughly. We specialise in grey and wind and dark, sleety winter afternoons. That’s just the way it is at a latitude of 57 degrees north (Moscow is at 55 degrees, Riga 56, Oslo 59). If anything binds us in unlikely partnership with West Palm Beach, Florida, Canouan Island, and Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, it isn’t our degree of latitude, it’s appearing on the same list on Trump’s website under the resorts of ‘Trump International.’ (The latitudes of these other three resort sites, coincidentally, add up to Aberdeen’s 57.) This is the north. There are few pavement cafés, no passeggiate, none of the practised ease of warmer climates. How many people will want to come to stay in one of Trump’s 950 holiday homes? Having come once, will they want to come again? How do you play golf in swirling mist? (Helpfully, Mr. Trump suggests that global warming will take care of the haar—a comforting thought for the low-lying areas of the planet, to say nothing of Florida, Rio Grande, and Canouan Island.)
According to Mr. Trump’s website, one reason for choosing Scotland is his Scottish ‘roots’—respect for his late mother’s Hebridean birth has impelled him to bestow this upon us, his gift of the promise of gold. Trump mère was, in fact, born on the island of Lewis in the far west of Scotland, a place culturally and linguistically utterly different from here, one where Gaelic is spoken and tradition in the form of the Free Church of Scotland—Presbyterian, strictly observing, and arch-Sabbatarian—rules. There, the Sabbath day is kept very holy indeed—transport is limited to and from the island, and everything closes, including public toilets, children’s play parks, petrol stations. On a Sunday in Lewis, you go to church. For those sufficiently impertinent to ask why Trump didn’t try to build in Lewis, where there are plenty of tempting areas of coast, the answer might be that even he has sufficient humility to avoid confronting the forces of the Almighty. He did, however, pay a filial visit to Lewis this summer on his way to the public inquiry, the stopover at his late mother’s birthplace lasting a few seconds short of two minutes.
Another avowed reason for Trump’s interest is that Scotland is the home of golf. This is true, but golf has come a long way from the rough street game played with sticks in eastern Scotland in the 15th century. (Apparently it was already enough of a nuisance to have been banned—along with football—by that busy legislator King James the Second; in March 1457, a law was passed:‘the fute-bal and golfe be utterly cryed down, and not to be used.‘) In spite of this, golf (as football) persisted, becoming, as it still is, everyman’s sport, a working-class sport, private golf courses developing alongside civic courses open to everyone. Aberdeen and surroundings have 52 golf courses but times are hard for golf, as they are hard for most things now in Scotland, as everywhere else. One course in the west is trying to fend off closure. To this end, its annual subscriptions are to be almost doubled to £7,000 and joining fees raised to £65,000. (Trump International golf resorts cost considerably more. Membership, the website says coyly, is by invitation only.)
That morning, throwing a stick into the shallows for the dog to chase, we were obliged to contemplate the fact that things change. Laws bend and prove malleable. Nothing is fixed. The land on which the S.S.S.I. is situated is on the Menie Estate and the rules have changed and, it seems, all is now different and all will become even more different, because now this land belongs to Donald Trump.
On November 21, 2006, the relevant area committee of Aberdeenshire Council granted outline planning permission to the Trump scheme, referring it on to the Infrastructure Services Committee, in whose power it was to finalise the consent. They didn’t. On November 29, after a tied vote, committee chairman Martin Ford used his casting vote to turn the application down. Within days, amid a furor among supporters and the outrage of the local press (who support Trump to the extent of vilifying and insulting opponents), Aberdeenshire Council promptly removed Ford (by all accounts a man of unimpeachable integrity) from his position, while another councillor who had voted with him was attacked by a stranger on her doorstep. (Trump claims that 93 percent of the local populace supports him; this is quite incorrect. So is his assertion of ‘riots’ in the wake of the decision. The last riot here was in 1832 in Aberdeen’s anatomy school, related not to matters of golf but to those of body-snatching.) Trump responded to the refusal by suggesting, as he had done many times before, that if he didn’t get his way, he’d take the scheme to Northern Ireland.
Two days later, on December 1, Scotland’s First Minister, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond (in whose constituency the Menie Estate lies) ‘called in’ the application, so that it might be decided by the Scottish Government—the first planning application to be treated this way after being turned down by a local council. That this happened on the day after he held a meeting with Donald Trump in a hotel in Aberdeen suggests rather less political surefootedness than Scotland had come to expect from its first nationalist leader, one whose pre-election manifesto promised ‘a greener Scotland.’
Always a very different country from England, one with its own church, legal and education systems, culture and languages, Scotland was, until the beginning of the 17th century, independent from England. In 1603, the monarchy of Scotland joined with that of England, although both countries maintained their own parliaments. In 1707, the Act of Union, which happened at a time of extreme financial distress in Scotland, joined the two parliaments. Scotland was ruled from London for the next three hundred years.
This arrangement was always a source of some resentment, and the desire for separate Scottish political power increased greatly after 1979, when Ms. Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power. Few Scots voted for her—in 1992, only 25 percent. Scotland became progressively more discontented as successive Thatcher governments, with absolute disregard for the feelings of Scots (or indeed anyone) privatised whatever could be privatised, attacked Britain’s industrial base, attempted to dismantle the National Health Service, displayed willful indifference to social need, and adamantly opposed Scottish devolution. At one tenth of England’s population, she could afford to ignore Scotland’s feelings.
Two moves of Thatcher’s ensured the eventual success of devolution. In 1988, she alienated virtually everyone in Scotland she hadn’t previously alienated by her policies and attitudes, with a speech delivered to the annual meeting of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly—a gathering of representatives of a church as democratic and as socially concerned as any in the world. It didn’t occur to her that to address them on the subject of the benefits of capitalism was misguided, and moreover that to quote St. Paul, ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat,’ in a country whose industry she had assiduously destroyed was purest folly.
The following year her government introduced the infamous ‘poll tax’ in Scotland—a year before the tax reached England. Instead of a property value-related tax, it levied a flat-rate local tax on everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, and was regarded as an iniquity. Civil disobedience followed in both England and Scotland. In time, and at least in part as a consequence, Thatcher was drummed out by her own party, to be replaced by the ineffectual John Major. Scotland chafed, waiting for the 1997 general election.
When it happened, the sense was one of weary relief as the election results became clear. The Conservatives lost every seat in Scotland. (The joy at the end of Tory rule heightened the eventual sense of disappointment with the Blair and Brown governments, which came in time to seem not quite different enough from what had gone before.)
In 1998, a year after Blair’s election, the devolution referendum was held and won. In 1999 the first parliament in Scotland since 1707 sat in Edinburgh. (As if to emphasize our new, confident sense of nationhood, there ensued years of debate, argument, consternation, and outrage over the design, cost, scale, and appearance of the newly commissioned parliament building at the foot of the Royal Mile, a building now regarded as one of outstanding beauty and architectural merit.)
A Labour administration was elected in Scotland until, with the increasing unpopularity of the Blair government, in 2007, the election for the Scottish parliament was won by the S.N.P. Alex Salmond became First Minister—power in a devolved Scotland being regarded as a way-station on the road to eventual total independence.
For those of us who cast a wary eye on the history of Europe of the last 100 years or so, our doubts about the general wisdom of electing nationalist parties, even ones describing themselves, as the S.N.P does, as ‘left-leaning’ were mollified only slightly by their positive legislative programme.
Then came the Trump proposal, the ‘calling in.’ Before the decision, which was to be made in Edinburgh, a public inquiry had to be held. It began on June 10 in Aberdeen. Experts for both sides, in town planning, in geomorphology, in land rights and ornithology, put forward their evidence. On one point at least, there was some agreement: the area is environmentally sensitive, the difference in view lying in whether or not a particular expert thought it worth sacrificing to build a golf course. The dunes would be ‘stabilised’, involving, one witness said, the moving of ‘biblical’ amounts of sand. Alternative plans put forward by the R.S.P.B., which would have preserved the protected area, were dismissed without consideration. They would, the course designer said, prevent the course from being ‘world class’. Giving evidence, Mr. Trump himself seemed bewildered by the very idea that ‘right to roam’ legislation in Scotland means that he will not be allowed to keep the public off large areas of his land.
Walking that day, we looked down on the farm of the beleaguered man who, on refusing to bow to Trump’s pressure and financial inducements to sell his land to make way for the golf course, found himself belittled, mocked, and accused of venality. We looked back to where vast, ugly accommodation blocks will be built to house four hundred staff. We looked around at the places where one day there will be fences and wires and gates to keep the rich in and everyone else out, and at the S.S.S.I. whose fragility in the face of wealth means that no site anywhere else in Scotland is safe.
The inquiry continued until the beginning of July. On November 3, Scotland’s Finance Minister, John Swinney announced that he had given approval.
Whatever happens now, whether Trump builds or doesn’t, whether he decides to go to Northern Ireland—an alternative plan that still seems to be under consideration—the affair has damaged Scotland and left many people wondering if the relevant Scottish authorities have the equipment—moral, neural or testicular —to deal with organisations like Trump’s in the future. It has damaged the Scottish government and planning processes, and rendered utterly hollow S.N.P. election pledges.
In Scotland, it’s something of a cliché to quote Robert Burns but he, like Shakespeare, has the enviable knack of saying just the thing you wanted to say yourself. In 1791, he wrote in furious terms about the Act of Union—fterms based, it has to be admitted, on the entirely romanticised, incorrect view that Scotland’s joining with England was a result of treachery and financial misdemeanours rather than the inevitable consequence of the dire impoverishment brought on by an ill-considered Scottish colonial venture. However, the words fit. In famous lines, Burns wrote,
We are bought and sold for English gold, Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.
It may be American gold this time, but across the centuries, we feel the man’s pain.