One day in the spring of 1838, 13 year old Joseph Hunter left the family croft (one of seven crofts on the site) at Northhouse of Weisdale in Mainland Shetland, and walked to Lerwick. There he almost certainly lied about his age, got on a boat, and pitched up, like many Shetlanders in the nineteenth century, in the north east of England, where he signed up to an apprenticeship in the coastal trade. Five years later he married and raised a family. I am one of his descendants.
After Joseph departed from Weisdale the numerous members of the extended family he left behind were among the 318 people estimated to have been removed from their crofts in the valley in the early 1850s, by David Dakers Black, Brechin Town Clerk and a man with numerous business interests. He seems to have bought much land in Weisdale when the Ogilvy family of Quarff in Shetland (the previous owners) encountered serious financial difficulties when their bank failed. They had been squeezing their tenants for years before then. Shortly after his eviction, Joseph’s father (another Joseph) was caught stealing from a shop on Yell, where he was now working on the roads and he spent 60 days in Lerwick prison as a consequence. He died nine years later on board a Greenland whaling ship.
I console myself with the thought that however hard the lives of my ancestors (who suffered grinding poverty and hardship that I can scarcely imagine from the comfort of my 21st century life) they lived in a beautiful landscape, from Weisdale Voe, up through the fertile lower valley, to the wild and untouched upper reaches of the dale.
Plus ca change
Fast forward to the early 21st century, and the residents of Weisdale face another challenge imposed on them by outsiders with numerous business interests. Viking Energy, the developer of Viking Wind Farm, was (as its website states) a business partnership between Viking Energy Shetland LLP (itself owned 90% by Shetland Charitable Trust and 10% by Viking Wind Limited) and SSE Viking Limited. I am informed that Shetland Charitable Trust decided in 2019 to invest no more money in Viking Wind Farm and it is SSE who are now putting up the money, and SSE who may have much to gain although there are risks involved. Those risks were presumably the reason for the Charitable Trust discontinuing their investment. SSE are hoping to make a successful bid in the next Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction to lessen the risks involved in their investment.
I don’t know how much money SSE anticipates making from the Viking Wind Farm development (which covers a not insignificant area of the central Shetland Mainland) but I think it’s safe to assume that it will be substantial. Given the devastation currently being caused to Shetland’s wilderness, peat and wildlife, to say nothing of the blight on the lives of local residents, one might assume that when they signed the Busta House Agreement in 2007 (the terms of which have never been disclosed, due to the confidentiality associated with a commercial agreement), Shetland’s representatives (councillors from the Shetland Islands Council) would drive a hard bargain.
It was certainly up to them to do so, since SSE doesn’t seem much interested in the needs and views of the local people whose lives have been adversely affected by the wind farm development at Kergord. The SSE plc annual report for 2020 has a large section headed “Working for and with our stakeholders”. Stakeholders seem to include rather a lot of people – shareholders and debt providers; employees; energy customers; suppliers, contractors, and partners; Government and regulators; and NGOS, communities and civil society.
That last one must cover it, I thought. Here’s what they say about it:
“How we engaged in 2019/20
SSE held a number of community consultation events throughout the year to gather feedback on projects and business plans, and progressed partnerships with NGOs which deliver additional social and environmental benefits for the communities in which it operates.”
Oh, that’s all right, then.
Later on, they say:
“SSE believes it is crucial that necessary investment in decarbonisation is secured and in doing so also seeks to ensure that…communities in the areas in which energy assets are located or planned are regarded as key stakeholders with comprehensive engagement on all key issues…”.
It’s a moot point whether the people affected by the wind farm development feel that they “are regarded as key stakeholders with comprehensive engagement on all key issues”.
SSE plc says it also:
“…seeks to be an active contributor to the communities of which it is a part, and has an ongoing commitment to sharing value directly where it has been created, consistent with its strategic goal of creating value for shareholders and society…”.
So, how much is it sharing with the people of Shetland? On 9th December 2020 the Renewable Energy Foundation posted its assessment of Viking Wind Farm here:
It is well worth a read in its own right, but this section is relevant to the question of whether or not financial gains are being shared fairly with the people adversely affected by the development:
“The publicity material for Viking Energy claims large economic benefits for the Shetland Islands. Tracking down the real payments is more difficult. There is a commitment to pay £2.2 million in community benefit per year. Viking Energy suggests that it will have 35 employees in Shetland, amounting to about £1 million per year in take-home pay. Beyond that almost everything will be imported or arise outside Shetland.
On the most generous estimate the likely economic benefit in Shetland will be less than £5 million per year. That may sound generous, but cool reason suggests otherwise since that sum amounts to only £220/Shetlander per year.
The major beneficiary of the scheme seems likely to be SSE’s transmission business – SSEN Transmission (formerly SHET). Irrespective of the economics of the Viking wind farm itself, SSEN’s regulatory asset base – i.e. the permitted assets for which Ofgem, the regulator, allows the company to charge consumers – will increase by nearly 20% directly as a result of this project. Perhaps even more important, its investments in other transmission assets such as the subsea cable from Caithness to Moray and transmission lines down from the North of Scotland will be underwritten by adding additional power generation for transmission.”
Robbing Peat To Pay…
I first visited Weisdale in 2018, before work had begun on the wind farm development. As a lover of the great outdoors and of wild unspoilt places I was delighted by what I saw. Nothing could prepare me for the shock of what I encountered in upper Weisdale three years later. The picture forming the backdrop to this article heading was taken by me from the main road running from Lerwick to Brae, and shows just one small part of the works, in the form of an access road in to the top of the dale and the main development. Elsewhere there are quarries (euphemistically called “borrow pits”) and other new roads slashed across the peat, all clearly visible to the public travelling on existing roads. The main works are shielded (for now) from public view, so the devastation readily in sight is only a small part of the whole. Once more than one hundred 155m turbines are installed on hills that are generally around only 250-300 metres high (around 70 of them within two kilometres of locals’ housing), however, they will be all too visible.
Near where the picture was taken, a peat slide is highly visible from the main road. It was nothing to do with the works associated with the wind turbine development, but it does highlight the vulnerability of the peat in this area, and the risk of ongoing damage to the peat as a result of those works. So vulnerable is this land, that on a single day (19th September 2003) at least 20 significant peat slides and 15 smaller ones were triggered on Shetland as a result of extreme rainfall. The largest covered an area of 7.3 hectares. As a 2008 article by Dykes and Warburton, investigating the slides, says:
The morphological features included large areas (up to 0.5 ha) of intact peat that moved without breaking up, linear compression and thrust features and unusual occurrences of mineral debris. These features suggest peat of high tensile strength throughout its depth and the generation of high and sometimes artesian water pressures at the base of the peat during the event. However, the variations between peat slides highlight some of the difficulties of trying to assess the susceptibility of blanket peat to failure without full knowledge of the local peat geotechnical properties and structural features within the peat mass.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, then, to learn that a further peat slide has occurred at Scalla Field, a little over two months ago, since work commenced on the wind farm development. This is in an area planned to accommodate eight turbines. The slip occurred during a period of dry weather, so rain cannot be blamed for the occurrence.
Against that background, it is worth noting that Shetland Amenity Trust has established a Peatland Restoration Project. As their website says:
“Over half of the area of Shetland is covered in peat which has been accumulating at a rate of about 1mm a year for at least 3000 years.
Once damaged, however, peatland cannot deliver the same range of benefits and peatland that has been drained and is drying out or eroding, will actually be releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fortunately there are some fairly simple management measures that can be undertaken to restore peatlands, with funding available for projects such as the Amenity Trust’s, through the Peatland Action Fund administered by Scottish Natural Heritage.”
Appropriately Scottish Natural Heritage opposed the Viking Wind Farm, as did the John Muir Trust and the RSPB, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Bird Club, and initially SEPA (though SEPA eventually withdrew its objection, subject to conditions), as well as many local residents. And yet, and yet….Shetland Amenity Trust, as its website makes clear, is partially funded by Shetland Charitable Trust. Yes, that’s right. Shetland Charitable Trust, the 90% owner of Viking Energy Shetland LLP, which funds the organisation which recognises the value and vulnerability of Shetland’s peat (which opposed the wind farm development), was a business partner in the wind farm development that is actively damaging it.
Habitat Management Plan
Viking Energy’s website acknowledges that environmental damage will be caused by the development of the wind farm, but offers up its HMP (an unfortunate acronym, shared with Her Majesty’s Prisons) in mitigation.
First, the sensitive issue of peat. The website deals with this rather blandly, and in short order, though in fairness it offers a link to the detailed report produced on their behalf by BMT Cordah Limited. The reduction in the number of turbines from 150 to 103 is offered up as a significant reduction of the impact it will have on the peat, not least as there will no longer be turbines on areas of pristine peat bog in the Voe and Collafirth areas. That’s jolly decent of them, isn’t it? And then they claim that two thirds of the peat that will be disturbed is in any event degraded and exposed, so it’s emitting CO2 already. And anyway, they’ll try to re-use it. The detailed submission from BMT Cordah Limited suggests a CO2 pay-back in less than a year, which to my inexpert eye seems remarkably optimistic. Of course, their job is to put the best spin possible on the situation, but some of the wording in the report seemed less than convincing to me:
“Certain elements of the infrastructure such as turbine bases and access roads will likely be left in situ; it is expected that the site will re-establish equilibrium provided drains are blocked on decommissioning where necessary. Attempting to remove turbine foundations would likely cause more damage to the surrounding peat environments.”
This doesn’t sound like a terribly firm or long-standing commitment:
“The HMP proposes an initial pilot area for habitat measures, to be implemented over a period of approximately five years, with successful measures then rolled out across the whole study area where possible”.
A table summarising “Peatland vegetation and carbon flux rate” is offered up with the following qualification:
“It should be noted that the values assigned to the table reflect the carbon flux rates of peatlands in England, and that the situation in Shetland is different, not least due to the difference in ambient meteorological conditions. For the purposes of the study, therefore, it was assumed that non-pristine peat has no carbon fixing potential i.e. a carbon flux rate of zero, whilst only undamaged blanket bog and hagged and gullied bog have carbon fixing potential…”.
Forgive me for being unconvinced.
Next, birds, and this is a very sensitive subject too, given the vital importance of the Shetland Isles to many of the country’s rare bird species, and concerns raised by, inter alia, the RSPB, regarding the impact of the wind farm development on breeding birds in the site area, which include red-throated diver, whimbrel and merlin. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 885 tells us that:
“Red-throated divers have a high wing loading and small tail, so fly fast but with low manoeuvrability. They may be at risk of collision with terrestrial wind turbines if a wind farm lies on their commuting routes between breeding lochs and marine foraging habitat.”
In fairness, Viking Energy’s HMP seeks to restore degraded lochans to provide more breeding-grounds for the divers, an admirable aim. And, very responsibly:
“A peat slide risk assessment will be carried out for each of the lochans where the waterlevels will be raised and if there is a significant risk of a peat slide being generated as a result of the increased water burden in the lochan then the raising of the water-level will not be carried out.”
I can’t help thinking that with all these problems and issues, it would have been better simply to leave the wilderness in its undisturbed state.
Whimbrel are another rare bird species which relies greatly on its Shetland habitat. Its potentially declining numbers are such a cause for concern that a national whimbrel survey is being carried out this year by the RSPB Rare Breeding Birds Panel. Viking Energy’s HMP does show great understanding of the issues affecting whimbrel and measures that might be taken to improve breeding numbers. One of the suggestions is the funding of a research project to investigate the breeding requirements of whimbrel on Shetland, and Viking Energy are offering to fund or co-fund a research studentship (PhD) at a British University to this end. It is, however, more than a little concerning (to me at least) that the fourth of the suggested questions to be asked and investigated is:
“Are whimbrel significantly affected by wind turbines?”
Shouldn’t this question have been answered before the wind farm development commenced?
And merlin, Scotland’s smallest breeding falcon. The HMP proposes to improve the height of heather for nesting by fencing areas off to protect them from over-grazing, but I should have thought a bigger problem was the prospect of them being killed by the turbine blades.
Finally, water, and water quality. The Viking Energy website says that stringent measures will be put in place to ensure that sediment created during construction does not flow into burns and lochs in and around the project site. An admirable objective. Sadly, however, during my recent visit to Shetland I heard lots of anecdotal evidence suggesting that that local water courses might already be suffering from the construction works.
There is an argument that the clearance of the crofters from Weisdale in the 1850s was a necessary act, on the basis that their way of life was unsustainable – mired in poverty, permanently in debt to their landlords, and with no prospects of a better future. Few if any, however, argue that it was done in a sensitive, decent, or respectful way, and the motives of those outsiders who were responsible, are generally assumed to have been more to do with making money than with improving the lot of the displaced crofters.
Today some argue that the installation of wind turbines is a necessary act, on the basis that continued reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable. Whether in this instance it has been done in a sensitive, decent, or respectful way, and what motivates the developers, I leave you to judge.
When writing about the Scottish exploits of his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus famously put imaginary words in to the mouth of Calgacus, a Pictish leader standing up to the might of Rome. The Latin, for those with a classical education, is:
“Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium, atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.”
Various translations have been offered, but I quite like this one:
“They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”
I’m not accusing anyone (other than Joseph Hunter senior) of theft, (although what amounts to taxation without representation comes perilously close in my opinion). Other than that, those words seem to offer an appropriate ending to what is in my view a very sorry saga.