Tiree is known for its surfing beaches and its sunlight but it is the abundance of another natural resource around this tiny Hebridean isle – the wind – that has triggered such a major battle between residents and developers that it could derail at least part of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy plans.
ScottishPower Renewables wants to build an offshore windfarm just off the southwest coast of Tiree. The energy company insists that the Argyll Array, as it is known, is vital if Scotland is to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets.
However, plans for the Argyll Array have prompted a furious backlash from Tiree residents for two simple reasons: it is going to be really, really big and extremely close to shore, so close and so big, in fact, that campaigners believe it will overshadow everything on one whole side of the island.
If given the go-ahead, this proposal could see the erection of 180 turbines, each one 600-ft tall – the size of the Gherkin building in London. The turbines might end up being smaller that that, but if they are smaller then there will have to be many more them, perhaps as many as 500 of them.
The development would start just three miles from the Tiree coast and cover an area of almost 140 square miles. Given that Tiree is just 40 square miles in size, it is easy to why many residents are so concerned about the effect that this project will have on their community.
Members of the action group which has been created to fight the plans, No Tiree Array, insist they are not against windfarms. Indeed, they say they would welcome proposals to site the wind turbines 22 miles from shore.
They just don’t want them so close that they affect every view, every beach, the surfing, the wind-surfing and the fishing on one side of the island.
At the moment, the Argyll Array is part of the Scottish Government’s draft plan for offshore developments which ministers want to get through parliament before Holyrood rises for the election campaign at the end of March.
The minister pushing it through is Jim Mather, the energy minister, but also the SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, the area affected by the proposed development.
No Tiree Array have already lodged a formal complaint with Mr Mather, complaining about the way the consultation over the draft plan was carried out and raising questions about his dual role: the MSP for area and the minister responsible for the draft plan.
This is a big, big issue for Tiree and, indeed, for Argyll and the Hebrides but it neatly encapsulates some of the dilemmas posed by the push for renewables.
If half our energy is to come from renewable sources by 2020, then the windfarms have to go somewhere. Also, some have to be very, very big indeed, with massive turbines generating significant amounts of energy.
The area around Tiree is windy. It is known for its wind and there are not nearly as many people there to be affected by a windfarm as there are say, in the Central Belt.
But Tiree is also beautiful, mostly unspoilt and an archetype of the sort of Hebrides which visitors want to see. It is also home to 800 residents and another 3,000 semi-permanent visitors who come every summer.
ScottishPower Renewables insists that the water is too deep to site turbines 22 miles offshore. The turbines have to be in close to make the operation work but many residents feel their community, their culture, their whole way of life will be destroyed if the project is given the go-ahead.
Dr Alison Kennedy, spokeswoman for No Tiree Array, said she believed this was a classic case of a small community being trampled over by big companies, by government and, ultimately, by a huge windfarm.
She told the Times she had not spoken to a single islander who supported the plans.
Dr Kennedy said: “The seascape from the south of Tiree is going to become one giant fleet of enormous turbines. Tiree is a beautiful little island with some of the best beaches in the world but the whole atmosphere, the whole shape of the island is going to change. It is going to be industrialised.
“These proposals are way out of proportion for the island itself and they are going to change the whole way of life for this tiny island with 800 souls. The community will be destroyed, tourism will be destroyed. I cannot understand why Alex Salmond wants to destroy the Western Isles, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.”
The campaigners claim they were not allowed to raise objections to the Argyll Array itself during the consultation process, just the general draft plan for the whole of Scotland.
But they believe that they should be able to object at this stage because, if they do not succeed in stopping the Argyll Array now, they are likely to lose the argument in principle and will not be able to defeat it at a later stage.
“The consultation process has been a complete farce,” Dr Kennedy said.
And she added: “I know we need energy and windfarms but I cannot see the logic of this. You have to place windfarms where you don’t destroy communities and this monstrous development will destroy this tiny island community.”
However, a spokesman for the Scottish Government defended the administration’s approach to offshore wind energy. “Scotland has massive renewable energy resources and is at the forefront of advances in offshore wind energy generation. The Scottish Government welcomes developments in the sector and with as much as a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind energy potential Scotland is well placed to become the continent’s green energy powerhouse. “
And Simon McMillan for ScottishPower Renewables, which is planning to develop the Argyll Array, said the water was too deep for the turbines to be sited at least 35km from the shore. He said they had to be within 22km of the shore to stay within Scottish waters and he stressed that the company had given an assurance they wouldn’t come within 5km of land.
He said: “This is a very important project. This is a key part in meeting our carbon-reduction targets and, as an offshore development, this is an excellent location.”
And Mr McMillan added: “We have a very good track record of working with communities and we will keep the community constantly in touch with the project as it develops.”
Members of the No Tiree Array group have vowed to keep fighting the development. They have also produced some startling, professionally designed images showing how close the turbines will be to shore and how, they believe, they will dominate the island. They are determined to win, believing the fate of their island is at stake if they lose.