Long and narrow, Loch Shin stretches for 18 miles across awe-inspiring North Highland landscape, a haven for salmon, trout, ospreys and otters, it is hugged by unspoiled peat moorlands and rolling hills.
For visitors to the town of Lairg which sits at the southeast edge of the loch, there’s the curious ‘wee hoose’ to photograph – a tiny whitewashed building on a island in the middle of the water – and the glorious sight of salmon leaping at the Falls of Shin.
The land around is so precious, with its mountains, peatland slopes, sparse population and lack of development, that it falls within one of Scotland’s 42 designated Wild Land Areas, acknowledged as national assets and determined by their naturalness, remoteness and ruggedness.
The idea of a ‘wild land’ may conjure up a vision of unspoilt wilderness, peace and calm. However, it will soon rumble to the sound of diggers and construction vehicles tearing through the Reay-Cassley Wild Land Area on the lower edge of Loch Shin.
Last month, Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee unanimously passed an application from German energy company WKN GmbH for a nine turbine wind farm on the Sallachy estate.
Also German-owned, the private sporting and fishing estate spans 10,500 hectares and, says its website is “set within breath taking scenery along the bank of Loch Shin”.
Soon the scenery will include nine towering turbines, with a blade to tip height of 150 metres, output of just under 50 megawatts (MW) along with associated tracks and roads, various reconstructed bridges, energy storage facility and pits dug to provide stones for the foundations, all in an area within Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands special protection area, overshadowed by Cnoc a’ Bhaid Bhain and Cnoc Glas na Crionaiche, and surrounded by six Special Areas of Conservation and 27 Special Protection Areas.
The go-ahead was despite NatureScot’s warning of the “significant adverse effect on the special qualities of Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area, such that the objectives of the designation and overall integrity will be compromised”, and “unavoidable adverse effects on the Reay– Cassley Wild Land Area, which is of national importance.”
From nature charity, RSPB, came concerns over a pair of white-tailed eagles newly arrived in the area, golden eagles, black grouse and golden plover.
Mountaineering Scotland raised objections too, highlighting concerns over the “visual impact upon mountains and wild land… and the consequential potential adverse effect on mountaineering, recreation and tourism.”
Such worries, however, were not entirely echoed by some who may have felt the financial benefits from the farm’s development too good to turn down.
Along with £5,000 per MW per annum of community benefit payments, community groups will have up to 10% community shared ownership and a 5% price advantage for local companies tendering for jobs on the wind farm.
That, combined with a simmering sense that rural communities have suffered from poor investment and regulations which appear to favour land over jobs, may well have nudged them towards offering their support.
Ardgay, Durness, Lairg and Scourie community councils were in favour, leaving just Rogart Community Council to voice concerns over the 560 % increase in HGV traffic resulting from the development.
Sallachy wind farm divided people even further afield: letters of support, and some from objectors, arrived from as far flung as Westminster and Mayfair in London, Carlisle, Ayrshire and Cumbernauld.
While the wind farm is not alone in the North Highlands, it is contentious: in 2015 a proposal from the same developer for 22 slightly smaller turbines in the same area was refused by Scottish ministers, citing its visual impact in a designated Wild Land Area, and the Ben More Assynt-Coigach National Scenic Area.
At the time, Energy Minster, Fergus Ewing, said the Scottish government had to “carefully balance” the benefits to be drawn from renewable energy projects and their impact on scenic landscape and wild land, adding the Sallachy development had “significant and unacceptable landscape and visual impacts.
“We have been clear that wind farms can only be built in the right places and Scottish planning policy sets out rigorous steps to ensure wind farms are sited appropriately and sensitively,” he added.
To the irritation of some objectors, the new application was just 0.1mw below the threshold which would have required it to be handed to Scottish Ministers for approval.
That, plus a relatively narrow divide between the 123 objections and 189 supporters, led them to assume the planning debate would be intense.
Instead, councillors watched a planning official’s presentation before nodding through the application with only brief and largely supportive comments.
Asked to comment on the decision, chair of the committee, Councillor Maxine Smith said: “Everything I wish to say was said during the debate.
“I cannot remember the detail now as it’s past. We deal with so many applications. Not everyone can be happy. Planning often upsets an objector or a promoter.”
While the Sallachy wind farm is perhaps easy to forget, its location in a designated Wild Land Area has left conservation organisation, the John Muir Trust, dismayed.
It has now called for a meeting with Highland Council to “discuss the Sallachy decision, the value of wild places in the Scottish Highlands and the challenges we have in navigating future expansion of onshore wind for the benefit of communities and wild places.”
It adds: “For everyone with an interest in the future of wild places, how they are managed for local community benefit as well as nature, this decision, and where we go from here, is highly significant.”
The organisation stressed it understood the issues facing rural communities, and added: “Whilst community financial benefits are not a consideration for deciding a planning application, they are a consideration for people in local communities choosing whether to support a development.”
While the issue of financial deals might be seen by some as a means of currying favour, another is the loss of once wild and undeveloped land.
The Trust said visitors to the site were left in no doubt that it offers “a peacefulness and tranquillity that is rare for millions of people living in the UK”.
Development, it added, would be “seriously detrimental to the healthy peatland ecology as well as the wider, wilder landscape.”
And in a warning to other wild land areas, it predicts the wind farm makes the area a target for future development.
That is echoed by Iain Milligan, spokesman for campaign group Save Our Hills. “The knock-on is you get one development and then another one comes along and then another. It’s like a domino effect.
“Highland Council covers a lot of the wild land of Scotland, and if they have consented to this development where will they feel they should draw the line?”
Local communities may rue the day they accept financial deals, he adds: “Experience shows that community councils find it extremely difficult to decide what to do with the money they receive from these deals. People fall out over it, and they find they are very limited in what they can spend it on.
“Large sums of money end up locked up in bank accounts because they can’t agree what to do with it.”
That’s of little concern right now to communities set to benefit.
Neil Macdonald, of North West Communities, said: “Our discussions around shared ownership have been particularly helpful and there is potential for this project to really deliver lasting benefits for the communities.”
And David Watson, Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust, said the project could “create significant economic opportunities for the communities of Central Sutherland.”
Meanwhile, Oliver Patent, Head of UK Development at German wind farm developers, WKN, expressed his delight to have achieved a “positive outcome” after more than 10 years chasing the go-ahead.
“We are committed to investing in Sutherland and believe the project represents a potentially significant economic boost to both the local area, by bringing investment and economic diversification, as well as benefiting the wider economic wellbeing of Sutherland.”