It is an area so tranquil that the notion of bitter dispute is hugely anomalous. The serenity of Coul – in east Sutherland, north of Dornoch – is in fact fundamental to a backdrop of unrest.
When the Scottish government rejected a plan for a golf course at Coul early last year, it appeared those with grand plans had nowhere else to turn. This marked a victory for environmentalists who argued one of the most complex dune systems in
Scotland and a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) should not be compromised. “The harmful impacts to protected habitats and species would outweigh the potential socio-economic benefits,” said Kevin Stewart, then planning minister. Anne McCall, the director of RSPB Scotland, said: “These damaging proposals threatened a site of global importance for nature and should never have made it this far.”
With American investors key to the project, comparisons were not unreasonably – if unhelpfully to those pursuing a golf course – drawn with Donald Trump’s controversial development in Aberdeenshire. One glance across social media illustrates the depth of feeling attached to Coul and acrimony as attached. One golfer’s paradise is someone else’s idea of vandalism on sacred land.
Unbowed, a group of individuals want to bring Coul Links back before the planners. Edward Abel Smith, a London-based landowner, is working in conjunction with the newly formed Communities for Coul. He now wants to build an eco-friendly hotel and will, should planning be granted, hand over his territory for 18 holes at a long-term peppercorn rent. The multimillion dollar question, though, is why this scheme will succeed now when the previous one in early 2020 so publicly failed?
“I wouldn’t say we are confident but we feel strongly about the overall benefits that the development would bring,” says Communities for Coul’s Gordon Sutherland. “We want this golf course as a catalyst for economic development. The number of jobs forecast are calculated by businesses prepared to invest; there is almost GBP50m of private investment lined up and 180 jobs, 108 of which would be full-time.
“It would be such an important thing for this area, which had a decreasing population and ageing demographic even before Covid. It’s even more important now to create jobs in this area. We are prepared to fail but we will do everything we can to succeed.”
Several developers are interested in this scheme but, once again, it hinges on planning consent. It will be several months before a new application is submitted. Abel Smith admits he is currently presiding over a “loss-making farm”. The issue is, protected links land adjacent to the farm is fundamental for a renowned golf course. “The land has been in my family for a long time,” he says. “I genuinely believe the course is the best option for the area, whilst admitting my vested interest by way of the hotel. I will go as far as the community take this. I don’t see there being other options to benefit the land, the area or the environment in any comparable way.”
Highland councillors have previously offered heavy backing. The appetite within Sutherland for the golf course appears strong. “Of the 90,000 or so who signed the online petition against the [rejected] development, less than 0.15% live within the IV25 postcode,” say Communities for Coul. Sutherland adds: “We feel the vast majority of people who live locally support this.” Politically, the prominence or otherwise of the Scottish Greens after upcoming elections could be significant.
That Tom Dargie, an ecologist and the chair of Not Coul sits in the opposite camp to Sutherland and Abel Smith feels like gross understatement. Dargie had previously estimated the loss of 48 hectares of dune habitat, should the course go ahead.
“As before, sound economics with decent science and respect for protected land are awol from the Coul golf revival plan,” Dargie insists. “Not Coul individuals, possibly with new objectives under a new name, want to campaign for community-led management of all protected wildlife and habitats at Coul Links. We want to enable a vibrant, dynamic, golf-free and self-functioning dune ecosystem, with community initiatives involving many nearby, outside designated land. In short we seek respectful change and living-wage jobs approved by the majority in our community whilst doing no damage to our local supposedly protected environment.”
Dargie believes precious little has changed between the rejection of the previous plan and the arrival of Communities for Coul. He adds: “Much is being made in the press of damage to the local economy from Covid-19 lockdown and Brexit but those claims lack substance and are without proven information on local severe effects which are worse than elsewhere in Scotland. Instead, based on the local business results from the restricted 2020 staycation summer, other unquoted local business people feel our economy here will likely boom in staycation 2021 because it is already geared to family tourism, couples and golf on really excellent courses.” True though that may be, it of course ignores the longer term.
Where Dargie and Abel Smith do agree is on the poor and overgrown condition of a protected site due to no management plan being in place with NatureScot, previously Scottish Natural Heritage. “I have a productive relationship with NatureScot,” adds Abel Smith. “But they are incredibly stretched.
“I haven’t deliberately neglected the land. I would love to see it protected and looked after properly. In my view a golf course is the best way to do that; it takes up a small area and would provide capital to maintain the rest of the SSSI.”
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In nearby Royal Dornoch, Sutherland houses one of the finest golf venues in the world. Its vice-captain, the professor of economics David Bell, has sent a letter to the local MP, Jamie Stone, regarding golf and the post-pandemic scene. “The golf courses around the Dornoch Firth can play a vital role in recovery from what has been the most devastating economic collapse to affect this area, possibly since the Clearances [eviction of Highland tenants in the 18th and 19th centuries],” says Bell. “The golf industry provides vital employment, allowing younger people to stay in the area. This is particularly important in Sutherland, which faces serious demographic decline. By 2040, its population is likely to be around half of what it was at the time of the Clearances. Highland Council’s own estimates show Sutherland’s population declining by 10.7% between 2021 and 2041.”
Dornoch, just like the neighbouring and excellent courses at Golspie, Tain and Brora would benefit from increased footfall. In short, the economic argument here is compelling. Whether that is sufficient to circumvent lingering and deep environmental concerns remains to be seen.