Building the pylons is – like taking a razor blade to a Rembrandt
- Helen McDade fears the new pylons will be much bigger than the current ones
18 Mar 2010
Any sane person who had caught the weather forecast would have stayed indoors.
But in the Cairngorms when temperatures plummet, beards of ice coat the rocks and heavy snow falls are imminent, climbers reach for their crampons and ice axes, unfazed by reports of impassable roads and power failures.
Duncan Bryden, however, a self-employed rural development consultant who is on the board of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, had decided that, given the conditions, he would work from home for the day.
As is often the case in the north of the country, reaching him at his house on an estate near Tomatin required following instructions that would test the navigational skills of Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
On the map, it appeared to be just off the A9, less than 20 miles south of Inverness, and so it eventually proved to be, though without Mr Bryden’s 4X4, walking the final few hundred yards through feet-deep drifts would have been the only way to meet him.
Tomatin is outside of the National Park, which was established in September 2003, and will not be directly affected by the Beauly-Denny power line.
As is presently proposed, said Mr Bryden, 76 pylons up to 65 metres high will replace the existing 128 pylons up to 25 metres high running down the far western part of the park. Furthermore, within its central area, a total of 128 kilometres of existing transmission line will be removed and 28 kilometres of new line installed running close to the park’s western boundary.
But this has done little to mollify Mr Bryden and his colleagues. Writing in January in the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, immediately after Enterprise Minister Jim Mather approved the Beauly-Denny line, David Green, convener of the park authority, said: “When the decision came, after a long time waiting, it was almost surreal – a huge decision by any stretch of the imagination impacting on a large stretch of the Scottish landscape, yet delivered with a relatively brief statement from the Scottish Government, only accessible via TV on a bleak Wednesday afternoon.”
Why the Government chose to ignore the advice of one of its agencies is a mystery to Mr Bryden. Describing on an Ordnance Survey map the proposed line of the pylons, which snakes its way southwards from Laggan towards Dalwhinnie before crossing the valley of the River Truim and over on to the east side of the A9, trespassing as it does into the park, he said: “Basically it [the pylon line] follows the existing route but what it doesn’t do is criss-cross the A9.”
The principle objections of the park authority, he added, was that it had not been demonstrated by Scottish & Southern Energy, which must implement the proposals, that there was no alternative.
Nor, it would appear, were the stated aims of the park – which Mr Bryden recited mantra-like – taken into consideration. “That is the conservation of natural and cultural heritage of the area. Sustainable use of local resources. The raising, understanding and awareness of the special qualities of the park. And the socio-economic interests of the communities within the park. So it [the Beauly-Denny proposal] was thought to conflict with all of these in various ways. But it also compromised the integrity of the park.”
Part of the problem for an organisation such as the park authority and for other groups, including the Ramblers’ Association, Wild Land Group, the National Trust for Scotland, and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, which are opposed to the new power line, is imagining what exactly it will look like and measuring what its impact, environmentally and economically, will be.
Cameron McNeish, the respected writer and inveterate stravaiger, has said that it is akin to “taking a razor blade to a Rembrandt”, a point of view that Helen McDade, head of policy at the John Muir Trust, readily shares.
The trust, named after the Dunbar-born conservationist who is credited as the founding-father of the American environmentalist movement, has 10,000 members who, said Ms McDade, are almost unanimously opposed to the Beauly-Denny line.
There are four main objections, she said, as the wind whipped up and the sky darkened. First, it will impinge on land, some of which is owned by the trust, that is wild. Second, the line will have a much greater impact than the current 132 kV line, because some of the pylons will be twice as high as the present ones.
Third, the possibility of “undergrounding” cables was not properly explored. And, fourthly, it is feared it will set a precedent for the encroachment on other wild land.
As she strode towards a row of pylons on the brow of a bleak hill, Ms McDade likened the controversy to that at Hetch-Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in California in the 1920s. After seven increasingly bitter years, the nascent environmental movement, inspired by John Muir, lost the battle to prevent the building of a dam in order to provide water to San Francisco.
For campaigners such as Ms McDade, Beauly-Denny is yet another replay of David versus Goliath, under-resourced and often voluntary organisations pitted against the deep-pocketed lobbying clout of big business. Muir, she said, summed it most succinctly: “It’s not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.”