Listening on another level

A few days ago, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a Climate Emergency, during her speech to the SNP conference. She pledged that Scotland would “lead by example” as our obligations to the next generation are “the most important we carry”.

That led Angus Brendan MacNeil to press again for Ofgem to revise the size of interconnector it would back to the Outer Hebrides, from 450MW to 600MW. At the extra cost of just 4p per year to taxpayers, that’s eminently sensible, and in the face of a Climate Emergency, there is an urgency.

There is a complex picture, though, in our islands, and for all that I back independence and back renewables, I am struggling with the position of the SNP on this. For years now, Angus Brendan has repeatedly failed to give any support to the communities fighting the multinationals when it comes to taking ownership of our renewable energy potential. 

Just think about the principle of this. Think about the noise they make about Westminster taking our oil – yet the SNP appear to be giving big business a clear run at today’s most valuable resource.

I’m not saying there isn’t a Climate Emergency. What I’m saying is, let’s get a grip of the problems of ownership and scale and direction of development.

Let’s get an Action Plan. Let’s get our brightest minds around the table and and let’s figure out what the rules and boundaries are going to be. It’s all very well to commit ourselves to a carbon neutrality by 2050 – but what else will we commit ourselves to?

Will we dare to declare that any development in Scotland must be at least 50 per cent publicly owned? Let’s learn from Shetland’s Viking project – which secured them their interconnector.

Will we commit all local planning authorities to enforcing a 2km buffer zone between wind farms and houses, to stop people getting sick? It shouldn’t be possible to opt out of safeguards like this.

Will we commit ourselves to working with organisations like the John Muir Trust and recognising the need to protect wild land identified as nationally important? If we did, there would be four hydro projects going ahead in Glen Etive instead of the seven which Highland Council approved.


Elected representatives should be custodians of the land but I have seen little sign of anyone acting like a custodian at Highland Council or Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Mention jobs, or the economy, and they roll over. They don’t do investigate and they don’t ask questions.

As for Angus Brendan, he knew that Ofgem were going to be favouring a 450MW cable for nearly a year and was unable to effect any change, so he can save his breath now.

I like my politicians with a bit more influence.

The challenging picture on managing renewables development is something that was explored in detail last week, at a small gathering in Lewis.

At Tiumpanhead Community Centre in Point, near to a site for whale watching, a group of visitors from the West Papua Province of Indonesia, met with representatives from the community wind sector, led by Point and Sandwick Trust, to discuss their common ground.

The visit was part of a study tour being led by Alastair McIntosh, a long-time activist and writer, from the Centre for Human Ecology, with the aim of exploring the theme of ‘Healthy Community, Healthy Land: rediscovering the art of community self-governance’. 

The Papuans have had their history of trauma, having suffered an oft brutal colonisation, but this particular group have become very successful in community enterprise and shared the story of their own eco-tourism co-operative – the Raja Ampat Homestay Association – which was designed to make the most of their own resources and to prevent big business moving in and exploiting them.

The Homestay Association offer holidays in the most beautiful waterside huts. It’s idyllic stuff – so it was hard for us to comprehend the critics who had sneered in the beginning: “Who’d want to come and stay in those huts…?”


The Papuans were also very interested to hear about the experience of Point and Sandwick Trust and to get the historical context particularly around events including the Iolaire and the land riots.

There were many comments about the connections between the two communities of Lewis and West Papua – each community saw itself mirrored in the other – and there was a lot of discussion (through translators) about historic, cultural and economic issues.

If there had been a subheading to the study tour’s theme, it should have been the West Highland Free Press’s motto, ‘An Tir, An Cànan, ’S na Daoine’ – The Land, The Language and The People.

The Papuans related to the comments about missed generations of Gaelic speakers – those who, like monoglot me, have fluent Gaelic-speaking parents and children in Gaelic Medium Education – and to a community’s fight for the rights to its land and resources, and questions about leadership.

One of the speakers in the morning was Donald John MacSween, general manager of community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust. He was a big hit with the Papuans, with none of his humour or tone getting lost in translation. (The two translators with the group, Adrian Wells and Maria Latumahina, did an incredible job – as well as being very gifted linguistically they were also very tuned in to what people were saying beyond the verbal.)

Showing something of the spirit that got Beinn Ghrideag built, Donald John told them: “It’s very important to keep on dreaming and not to listen to somebody who says ‘no’”.

He said: “We built our turbines and now they make something like a million pounds a year for our community. We operate them, we own them. It was never about money for us. It was about ‘how do we do things to change things for ourselves?’” 


Rhoda Mackenzie, Point and Sandwick board member and spokeswoman with the Four Townships, who are currently locked in a legal battle with EDF and Lewis Wind Power for the rights to develop on their common grazings, then spoke of the inspiration they took from Point and Sandwick Trust.

“We knew this was the model that this island needed to help itself. That’s where we found ourselves fighting officialdom and being told ‘you can’t do it’. People are still scared to speak out against officialdom but the communities are empowered because of the success of the Point and Sandwick project and we have to keep fighting because there’s so much at stake.”

After all the presentations, the Papuans gave their views from the floor and one of them, Angelina Demaya, said, through a translator: “The information that she’s got is just ‘never give up!’ 

“We have faced very similar struggles to the one you have talked about and that is why never giving up is such an inspiration, so we can achieve our dreams.”

Points made during the Papuans’ group process work later on included comments about the “energy, spirit and commitment to work for the community”, evident at the gathering.

They included: “There’s something about the quality of those people at Point and Sandwick Trust. They believed in their own dream. They are driven by their vision, their care of place and one another. This is what keeps people together.”

And: “Our children lose the language at school. Our place names are also all in local language. How will our children be able to talk about the places without the language?”

For organiser Alastair McIntosh, it was an incredibly rich day of sharing. 


Alastair added: “I think, in Point and Sandwick, we have seen a community that is rooted deep in a poetic cultural tradition, that has survived historical trauma and has come through with a confidence and competence in how to take control of their own affairs for the benefit of the whole community.

“This has profoundly inspired our guests from West Papua, whose history has many similarities, who have faced a similar rapid transition into modernity, and who, through their visits to this island, have been more deeply awakened to how we can live – not just any old life, but in accordance with the spiritual traditions of both communities… promised life abundantly.”

Translator Adrian later said the visit had been “very, very powerful” for the Papuans.

“They see themselves reflected in the work of the community land trusts here. There is a very great deal that’s similar in terms of its rights in defending community land, in creating economic opportunities for their young people, in revitalising language and culture and identity.

“There’s been a lot of quite open honest discussion about what it takes to hold community together.

“What’s been great is that it’s been a real two-way conversation between folk here and them.”

Alastair, Adrian and the others were exploring many aspects of spirituality as part of the week. They also explored the inspiration from the natural world – common across the globe and through the ages. Part of the Papuan and Native American Indian cultures, for example, but also Biblical.

Some of the Papuan visitors were Muslims, others Christian, but they also had a historic context where the early missionaries had “made them burn their spirit houses where they showed respect to the other life forms of creation” to “make it easier for them to be colonised”.

Alastair said the group had “appreciated the way in which people on the island understand that God’s Providence is manifested in the works of creation… in spiritual qualities symbolised in plants, fish and animals, such as the Prophet Isaiah spoke of, when he said, ‘they shall mount up with wings as eagles…’ on struggles to bring justice to the world.

“We have discussed such texts as we have visited community groups here and it has spoken very deeply to helping them to understand how their indigenous spiritual beliefs do not have to be at odds with Islam or Christianity but a part of the fulness of expression of God’s creation.

“We have studied passages like Chapter 12 of the Book of Job, where God is saying, ‘ask the birds, the animals, the fishes and the Earth itself – and they shall tell you that the ways of corruption, injustice and violence are not good ways because God holds all these things in his hands’.”

One of the other speakers on Friday, Alasdair Nicholson, had shared the idea that there was “no good or bad development; only appropriate or inappropriate development”. 

‘Appropriateness’ is key. We shouldn’t need to put offshore-sized turbines onshore on the Lewis plains. We shouldn’t need to dry up all the Etive rivers. We shouldn’t need to destroy our wild places to save the planet.

When Nicola Sturgeon talks of our obligations to the next generation, she is echoing that famous Native American Indian proverb. 

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

Time to channel that greater spirit.

• Eagle photographed by Chris Murray and used with kind permission.

• I have written extensively about the problematic development of renewables in the Outer Hebrides over the past few years. Please visit the ‘renewables’ category on my blog for the full back story.


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