Imagine life without the Interconnector

Back on familiar ground with today’s blog – wind farms. It’s a guest blog, though, and I am very pleased indeed to be able to share this piece with you, from none other than Alastair McIntosh, a man widely regarded as one of the most influential land campaigners ever.

I have family connections to Alastair, who comes from the Isle of Lewis, but more than that he has become a valued friend over the past couple of years through our dialogues on Twitter.

He has offered me support many times and given some great advice, which has always been compassionate and enlightening. He has also been a fantastic sounding board when it comes to the issue of renewables development in the islands, which is how this piece came about.

Alastair wrote a letter to this week’s Stornoway Gazette in response to my coverage of the recent meeting in Tolsta, where the community were discussing the controversial development being put forward by California-based company Forsa Energy.

Basically, for those who are totally in the dark about this scheme, I’d say it’s even worse than the highly-controversial one being proposed by EDF for Stornoway.

In Tolsta, there is a proposal for 14 turbines which were given planning permission even though they come within a 2km ‘buffer zone’ of houses and also encroach on a catchment area for drinking water – the general public is unlikely to be aware of this but there are a number of potential hazards to water supply from the installation of turbine schemes.

Forsa Energy have offered the community around £350,000 a year in ‘community benefit’ if their Druim Leathann wind farm goes ahead. That is exactly the same amount as the community gets at the moment from just one turbine (pictured) – the one which belongs to the community through Tolsta Community Development Ltd.


Unsurprisingly, tempers flared at the meeting as people questioned why they should have to tolerate such a massive imposition for what is, really, a very small compensation. 

The main argument in response was the usual one – that Lewis has to put up with these big corporate-owned development so that we can get the interconnector, and get some spare capacity on the new cable to allow some community schemes to go ahead in the future.

The reason Alastair is on the blog today is that he read my article with interest and follows the whole debate about the interconnector and large-scale development with interest too.

I asked him if he would like to take the floor on the blog to discuss the issue in more detail and was delighted when he accepted. Over to Alastair…

In a lead article of 21st June about the proposed wind farm at North Tolsta, the Stornoway Gazette quoted Murdo Maciver as saying that wind turbines on a massive scale are “needed in order to secure the interconnector.” 

In one way he’s right. The island’s capacity to absorb more renewable energy is currently full.

At first sight, the only way to increase financial benefit to the island’s communities is to yield control to multinational corporations. 

I don’t doubt that many who pursue this line of logic, and especially the Stornoway Trust, have the greater good of the community at heart. However, the technology of renewable energy is fast changing. New options are opening for local initiative at local scales.

The interconnector, requiring turbines on a scale that would be ruinous to large areas of the island’s beauty, might have been yesterday’s solution. It might have been a 20th century solution. But consider what is offered by tomorrow’s world. 

For example, in Norway, the proven success of the world’s first electric vehicle ferry has led to a further 53 orders for the shipbuilder, Fjellstrand.


Meanwhile, the Norwegian airport authority expects that all of their short haul flights will be electric by 2040. Indeed, their first commercial route, operated with a 19-seater electric plane, is scheduled to start in 2025. We’re not talking never never land. We’re talking only seven years’ time.

This is all made possible by fast-developing battery technology. What’s more, the noise nuisance from such planes and ships is cut by half. Their greenhouse gas emissions is cut by 95 per cent. 

Imagine an island future built without the interconnector.

Where local power is generated for local use from the providence of wind, rain and sun. Where the power produced runs not just lights, the TV, an electric fire and kettle, but heat pumps, ferries, buses, cars and planes. Where pump storage using sea or mountain lochs – or large-scale battery storage that is already a reality in the UK – can even out the fluctuations in supply, and fossil fuels used only for the backup.

Where planning consent is granted only to community land trusts. 

After all, there is a world of psychological difference between a vast wind farm built to export profits to a landlord or to venture capitalists, and a community scale of endeavour based around Iain Crichton Smith’s principle of “real people in a real place”. 

These emergent 21st century alternatives to an interconnector are fast becoming reality.

They would allow the island’s renewable energy – indeed, not just Lewis, but all the other islands as well – to be kept at a scale proportional to the landscape’s wider value for the uplift of the soul of residents, and to sustain the tourist industry.

They would remove the pressure to do terrible damage to the wild lands around Eishken that borders on the South Lewis, Harris and North Uist National Scenic Area. They would maintain Stornoway as “lovely Stornoway” while still bringing wealth in to the island to maintain the indigenous population.


On Eigg, where I was closely involved with the 1990s land buyout, 90 per cent of the electricity comes from renewable sources. Their “national grid” is run entirely by their own crofters. What goes around comes around locally. Here is a Hebridean community that has enacted a 21st century future that has pulled the community together, not split it apart. 

I understand why people might think that the interconnector is their only salvation. It was the same on Harris, in the 1990s, with the superquarry proposal. But look at Harris now. Thanks largely to the new-found confidence and opportunities of land reform, a matrix of employment opportunities have sprung up that do not depend on trickle down handouts from corporate and landed power. 

Lastly, imagine jumping on a plane to Norway to bring the likes of the Fjellstrand electric shipbuilders over to Arnish. We don’t have to be some corporation’s latter day colony.

We can take back control, and do so to give life. 

Alastair McIntosh has been described by BBC TV as “one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners.” A pioneer of modern land reform in Scotland, he helped bring the Isle of Eigg into community ownership.

On the Isle of Harris he negotiated withdrawal of the world’s biggest cement company (Lafarge) from a devastating “superquarry” plan, then agreed to serve (unpaid) on that company’s Sustainability Stakeholders Panel for 10 years.  Alastair guest lectures at military staff colleges, most notably the UK Defence Academy, on nonviolence. His books include Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum), Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition (Birlinn), Rekindling Community (Green Books) and Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (Green Books). His most recent major work is Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn 2016, Cascade (USA) 2018). He is a fellow of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and a visiting professor at the College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow. His website is and Twitter @alastairmci.


Comments 6

  1. Brilliant! This makes perfect sense. If these large scale wind farm arrays with huge turbines go ahead the impact on communities, landscape, wildlife and tourism will be significant. The interconnector is indispensable for Forsa and EDF’s proposed large-scale wind farms, but where really is the benefit for communities on Lewis and Harris? As Alastair McIntosh says: look to the future and the technological innovation which will make small-scale community-owned renewable energy a viable reality.

  2. There is a further solution. In order to satisfy community demand for turbines on the islands, an alternative inter connector solution may be available using an upgrade of the present inter connector from Skye. This would serve all the islands of the Outer Hebrides. It would cost far less and negate the need for EDF and Forsa. I have, on a number of occasions, asked that the Comhairle investigate this but to date I have had no report prepared which addresses my question. The notion that the Outer Hebrides should be the nation’ s powerhouse is fanciful and indeed could have very negative consequences. Any development of the islands should benefit the islands first not the government of France nor American financiers.

    1. Agreed….the visual and ecological devastation that will be the result of implementing the large scale proposals by external companies is too much of a trade off for what these islands are. It’s clear that local, relatively small scale installations, work for the benefit of the communities, in terms of financial return and investment. In my view all turbine placements should directly benefit the communities in which they’re placed……no trade off to Mammon.

      1. It would be exaggerating to say that wind turbines cause ecological destruction. There is an increase in local mortality for some species (and a quick recovery time when the turbines are removed) but if care is taken with location & construction they are pretty low-impact.

        Also, the impacts which they do have must be judged in the proper context ie climate change and a looming global mass extinction. We could lose perhaps 1/4 of the Earth’s species (depending on the emissions scenario). The recovery time in this case is quite staggering: many millions of years. That’s more than the natural lifetime of our own species. No-one who comes after us would ever know a world as rich as the one we know today. That is real ecological destruction.

        Of course it’s not just that future David Attenborough series will be shorter by several episodes: ecosystem disruption on this scale also includes the land we use to grow food. Global agriculture stands to take a big hit.

        In some places farming practices developed over generations simply won’t work any more. Food prices will rise everywhere, and stay high. The poorest parts of the world will endure brutal famines and associated increases in armed conflict and mass migration.

        It’s too late to stop climate change but we can reduce the severity of the impacts if we act urgently and decisively. We’re in a race against time to save what we can.

        It will take real financial muscle to invest in research & large-scale deployments. The money is where it is and it won’t be invested if there are no profits to be made. We can’t afford to wait for a perfect world to tackle climate change. We have to do the best we can with the one we’ve got.

  3. I think there is a further influence to this turbine array being built and that is the local personal financial beneficiaries over and above the Community. It is the grazings committee who seem to be lobbying for this to go ahead and it is their members who will it seems, if it goes ahead get an annual cash payout.
    I can’t think of any other reason why this project will be put through since the village community probably does not ‘need’ the money or the huge overly close development.
    It would also be nice if the whole development process was transparent and not a surprise to many locals who have not been consulted.
    It’s such a pity as the people involved are extremely nice but it seems like this project is upsetting the tranquillity of the community in more ways than one.

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