World & Nation

From the Archives: Chipping away at Scotland’s dunes: A battle brews over a Trump golf resort

Donald Trump
Donald Trump arrives at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he was meeting with the media to answer questions regarding Trump International Golf Links in this April 28, 2006, file photo.
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The chilly, wind-whipped dunes and grasslands of the Scottish coast may have been the birthplace of golf, but that hasn’t been much help to Donald Trump and his plans to create what he says will be the world’s best golf course here.

Don’t even start with the fact that the old Menie estate is said to be haunted by someone called the Green Lady. That’s chump change compared with a nasty battle that has pitted local boosters and Scotland’s new independence-minded government against those who complain that the New York real estate magnate is bullying his way across the foundations of Scottish environmental law.

Trump often seems to launch his development projects with a heavy wooden driver club; this time, he’s landed in a bunker. At issue are Belmedie’s sand dunes, a major part of which are protected as a “site of special scientific significance” under Scottish environmental law, removing them from any possibility of development.

“We already have some of the best courses in the world in Scotland, and the idea that another golf course and hotel is going to save us is absolutely grotesquely laughable,” said Mickey Foote, a former producer for the punk rock group the Clash, who is now spokesman for Sustainable Aberdeenshire, a group fighting Trump’s project.


“He’s sold the people on the idea that it’s wild, rough country and he’s going to tame it, he’s going to make it beautiful,” Foote said. “I’m saying, it’s perfectly beautiful as it is.”

The battle has led to the firing of the local infrastructure committee chairman who rejected the project and recriminations against all seven committee members who voted against it.

It also has sunk the Scottish government into a quagmire of allegations. After newly elected Scottish National Party ministers rescued the project by declaring it a matter of national significance, newspapers revealed that SNP officials had held meetings with senior Trump Organization officials on the eve of the decision.

“The pressure that was put on the council was absolutely unprecedented,” said Martin Ford, the committee chairman who was ousted after casting a tie-breaking vote against Trump. “This is not normal. Indeed, I think it’s very dangerous,” he said.


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Most people in Aberdeen, the North Sea oil town a few miles south of Balmedie, are excited about the Trump International Golf Links, hoping it will lure world championship-class golf away from places such as St. Andrews and provide a solid new economic underpinning for when the oil runs out.

The project, with its two championship golf courses, 450-room hotel, 500 villas and 1,000 vacation homes is expected to bring a $400-million jolt to the local economy and as much as $100 million a year thereafter.

“For the people of Scotland, generally the silent majority would think it’s a worthwhile project. But as is often the case, the minority is extremely well-represented, often vigorous, well-organized, and they have been able to hijack the democratic process,” said Geoff Runcie, chief executive of the local chamber of commerce.

In Aberdeen, a prosperous corner of Britain where unemployment hovers around 1% and few people are clamoring for waitressing jobs at a golf hotel, it is nonetheless hard to find many people who aren’t a) golfers and b) ready to roll out the red carpet for Trump (this despite the fact that there already are 70 golf courses in Aberdeenshire).

“I’m 110% for it,” said Bob Abercrombie, a 56-year-old native of Aberdeen. “It’s going to employ a lot of people. And there’s plenty of lovely, lonely places for people who like to go hill walking all over the place. It’s a strip of sand, and there’s miles and miles and miles of sand out there.”

The sand is the key. It’s commonly believed that golf got its first foothold on the grassy sand dunes of Scotland, famed for its coastal “links” courses -- challenging, often intimidating expanses of rolling sand, tough grasses and constant wind.

Trump says he wants to build on the scenic old seaside shooting estate at Balmedie as a testimonial to his late mother, who was born and raised in Scotland, and also because he believes the stark, majestic beauty of the wild coastline here could provide golfers with a one-of-a-kind experience.


“It’s our ambition . . . to build the best course anywhere in Europe, and maybe anywhere in the world, and I think we have the piece of land to do it,” he said on his website. “We’ll give them a course the likes of which they’ve never seen before, and the rest is up to them.”

But a coalition of environmental groups says the land includes one of the few remaining mobile dune systems in Britain. They have urged that the project be scaled back to eliminate the nine holes among the dunes, a feature that Trump officials say is the centerpiece of the project.

“They think we could damage or destroy this site of interest. But those two words are incorrect,” said Neil Hobday, Trump’s project director. “Alter, yes. Change, yes. But alter and change in a way that people who live beside the sea around the world and here in Scotland have done for centuries.

“What we’re talking about doing is simply planting grass, which would stop this highly mobile sand from traveling northerly, where it has essentially been gobbling up farmland like a giant sand slug.”

Environmental activists and others say parts of the dune system date back 4,000 years.

“To him, it’s a blight because it gets in the way of his golf course. This is like seeing a tiger in the wild and saying, ‘If I shoot it and stuff it and put it in my living room, it’s preserved and improved,’ ” said Don Banks, who lives in an old lodge house on the edge of Trump’s property. “If Trump is allowed to build on this one just because he says he wants it and my money talks, it undermines the whole system of environmental protection in Scotland.”

This is what the local infrastructure committee had in mind Nov. 29 when it rejected the Trump application, setting off a political shock wave. In addition to being called traitors, “numpties” (airheads) and “neeps” (turnips) in the local newspaper, committee members who vetoed the application have faced personal hostility. Debra Storr said a woman arrived at her front door and began shouting obscenities, then shoved her.

Immediately after the vote, the Scottish government seized control of the project, even as the Aberdeenshire council scheduled an emergency meeting to remove Ford from his job. A hearing officer, and ultimately the Scottish minister of finance, John Swinney, will make the final determination.


It has been revealed that Swinney was a guest at a Trump resort only days before the government “called in” the project and put the decision in his hands, and that the Scottish government’s chief planner, Jim McKinnon, had two Trump employees in his office Dec. 4, the day the project was called in.

This month, Scotland’s three opposition parties moved to call in for questioning First Minister Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish National Party, who also held meetings with Trump’s people.

Now, the story is no longer just Trump’s project, but the SNP’s dreams of Scottish independence from Britain. Salmond’s determination to generate tangible economic plums during the SNP’s maiden voyage in government, ahead of a hoped-for referendum on independence, has been a major motivating factor in the campaign to lure Trump, analysts say, even as opponents of independence hope to use Trump to discredit the party.

And for some of those in Balmedie, it remains not political, but highly personal.

For Michael Forbes, a fisherman and quarry worker who has lived in the middle of what is now Trump’s property for 30 years, it’s about seeing the home to which he has affixed a plaque that says “Paradise” turned into a golf course.

Forbes refused Trump’s offer of $750,000 and a job for life. Now, his ramshackle home, the prefab annex his mother lives in, the crumbling outbuildings and assorted broken-down farm equipment and oil drums will be a rickety island in the midst of the Trump resort.

“They think money can buy everything,” Forbes said, “but it can’t buy me.”


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