I vividly recall a bus journey I took as young man, a long one on which I passed the time by immersing myself in a book rather than listening to music and staring sullenly out of rain-flecked glass, as was my usual habit. That decision was a good one because of the excellent book I read: Sunset Song, the 1932 novel by James Leslie Mitchell, more widely known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Generations of schoolchildren in Scotland have studied this book, a classic, from the trilogy A Scots Quair. It profiles the lives and fortunes of rural communities in the northeast, the Scots language and the crushing effect of industrialisation and war. While these themes are fascinating in themselves, the book has particular resonance for me because of its setting, the Mearns, where I grew up.
Gibbon’s writing is rich and evocative. It beautifully captures the landscape of the Mearns and the “spik” of its people, scattered across red clay farmland and rugged coastline. In a favourite line from Sunset Song, the writer captures how alluring the natural environment of the Mearns is — how much it captures the hearts of its residents, despite life being a “sare fecht” at times.
“You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”
This prose moved me as a teen and it still does today. Scotland is a special place and those of us blessed to have grown up here feel a deep connection to the landscape we inhabit. We are proud of it and I think, to some degree, it shapes who we are. Given this, we are affected at a deep level when our landscape is marred — a forest felled, a coastline polluted, or a wild place spoilt by heavy industry. Anger is kindled within us.
We are seeing this reaction now in communities across the Mearns area as people decry plans for new electricity infrastructure. The energy giant SSEN wants to construct a line of “super-pylons” right through the heart of this cherished landscape by 2030. Ugly 55-metre-high pylons would run for about 70 miles, linked to huge substations at Fiddes, near Stonehaven, and Tealing, near Dundee.
SSEN says, without a hint of irony, that the towering steel pylons are essential to enable better connectivity to new, renewable energy sources. Locals say they would ruin the area’s natural beauty. The substations would be colossal — taking up to 120 acres. People living near new infrastructure would have their views and quietness spoilt and may even see a drop in the value of their homes.
Ken Allison, from outside Brechin, says the pylon line would skirt the Angus Caterthuns – Iron Age hill forts his home looks on to. He told The Courier that people like him will be seriously affected: “We are going to see them and we are going to hear them”, he said. “This is going to impact quality of life for people right down the east coast, and their mental and physical wellbeing”.
Shona Alexander and her husband John, who live near Fordoun, have said they may be left with no choice but to sell their farm if the project goes ahead in its current form. The couple, who have owned their land for three decades, say their house will become “uninhabitable due to the noise and the vibrations” from a planned five-acre substation.
Spoiling the look and tranquillity of Scottish countryside is far from the only concern associated with SSEN’s proposals. The Mearns is home to endangered bird species and protected animals. Experts also say new structures would hamper “agricultural output”. One figure even cautioned that vehicles could spread diseases the length of the route, killing crops.
Perhaps the strongest concern voiced so far is around consultation, which locals feel has been a mere “box-ticking exercise”. SSEN has asked for views from various stakeholders, including the public, but in a recent statement the company raised the spectre of “compulsory purchase orders” to seize land from those who object, such as Fordoun farmers who spoke to the BBC. The message is clear: we’re in charge.
To me, the position of SSEN is transparent. They want to complete their project at the lowest cost possible. This is why a direct, overhead line through the Mearns has been mooted rather than a more circuitous one, or a more labour-intensive underground line. It will take something massive to budge this corporate behemoth from its position, especially when, like the oppressors of Scotland’s 18th century Clearances, they hold all the power.
In spite of this, Mearns locals will not go away. They have organised and will continue to galvanise opposition in months to come. They will need powerful allies though, including within the Scottish government. Given the current administration is formed of a Scottish National Party that says it is “stronger for Scotland” and a Scottish Green Party that says it is “for people and planet”, I presume they can count on ministers’ loud support.
As one writer to The Scotsman intimated, there are better ways to improve electricity infrastructure than trashing pristine and historic countryside. In Denmark, huge pylons are no longer accepted for new power line construction. Instead, extensive undergrounding and aesthetic design of components is mandated to reduce their visual impact. Scotland can follow in the same vein and show more ambition.
Grassic Gibbon famously wrote of “lovely things in the world . . . that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that”. Mearns residents will be hoping SSEN’s shiny proposals will fall into this category. Surely in 2023, we can find solutions that work for both people and the planet. If we can’t do this, there is little hope for our broader transition to green energy.
This article first appeared in The Times on 19 June 2023
A consultation on the plans by SSEN is open until 28 July. Respond here: