Around 300 people joined a march and rally against the Viking Energy windfarm in Lerwick today despite a bitterly cold gale and spitting rain.
In one of the biggest public demonstrations seen in Shetland for many years, the protesters trooped along Commercial Street and up to the Town Hall carrying placards and banners calling for the 127-turbine development to be stopped.
Several dozen people were left outside the building after it reached its 220 capacity for the address in the main hall by Sustainable Shetland vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth.
He won rousing support for his call on Shetland councillors to stop the project dead in its tracks instead of allowing more public money to be spent on an unpopular venture. Councillors are trustees in Shetland Charitable Trust which owns Viking Energy in partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy and four local windfarm entrepreneurs.
Mr Learmonth said: “Viking Energy and some councillors see these islands as mere commodities to be traded and bought and sold. We are telling them we are not commodities. Our islands are worth more than the pound sign they want to put on it.
“Stopping Viking Energy is our contribution to saving a small but beautiful part of the planet being ripped up in the name of profit.”
Sustainable Shetland also called on Scottish energy minister Jim Mather to order a local public inquiry into the Viking planning application, which is currently with the government’s energy consents unit for scrutiny.
He said it was a disgrace that nine councillors had “voted for their own project” when the council backed the development in December before passing it to the Scottish government for determination. The nine who subsequently voted to grant outline planning permission for the windfarm’s electricity converter station had also “treated the majority of the folk in Shetland with contempt and derision”.
“We cried foul and will continue to cry foul when the councillors are councillors one minute, trustees the next and developers an instant later. It is not on! This windfarm is threatening not only our community funds and our environment, it is also undermining our democracy and it has to stop.”
He drew inspiration from the people-power of Egypt and Tunisia which has toppled “immovable and rhino-skinned autocrats”, warning that council elections would be taking place in just 15 months’ time.
Sustainable Shetland has over 760 members and it put the day’s turnout at 350. They came from all over Shetland and from all ages and walks of life, ranging from babies just a few months old to pensioners in their 80s with a good mix of incomer and born-and-bred Shetlander.
Not one of the 22 SIC councillors nor local MSP Tavish Scott or MP Alistair Carmichael was present although former councillors Tom Stove and Peter Malcolmson joined the ranks.
As the march wended its way onto Commercial Road one of the shareholders in Viking Energy, Michael Thomson of Shetland Aerogenerators, watched from the ramparts of Fort Charlotte.
On the march, Jim Leask from Cott said the windfarm was far too big and he questioned the project’s business model, given that there could be a proliferation of small turbines and other renewable generators in the near future, much reducing the value of Viking’s electricity.
Susan Pearson from Whalsay said what scared her was the potential for further windfarms or expansion of Viking, which could ruin the islands’ beautiful landscape.
Musician Victor Carlin said it was a big turnout by Shetland standards and people were still joining the campaign, making it difficult for windfarm supporters to keep arguing that it was a popular proposal.
Architect Blair Bruce said the windfarm was too big and should be split up into much smaller farms for different parts of Shetland. He was also concerned about damaging the hills with all the new roads for a development which would only last 25 years.
Alan Mutch from Aith said far too many turbines were proposed and they would spoil people’s enjoyment, a point echoed by businesswoman Janet Davidge, who chairs the Shetland Retailers’ Association.
West Side vet Jim Nicolson said he spent a lot of time in the hills with his dogs and did not want to see the landscape being industrialised, possibly prompting peat slides from all the road-building. “I’m totally opposed to it. I just think it’s bad news.”
Brae octogenarian Maureen Robertson said she felt the windfarm was unnecessary because turbines would soon be superceded by smarter technologies such as solar cells. “The windfarm will desecrate Shetland forever more and it will cause landslides.”
Some of the protesters carried a 55-metre-long strip of white cloth which represented the length of a single blade of the proposed Viking turbines. Outside the Town Hall vicious gusts of wind made it difficult to hold onto, ironically demonstrating the sheer power of the untapped wind resource in Shetland.
Musician Carol Bulter of Tresta said seeing the size of the blade really brought home to her the magnitude of the proposed turbines. She felt the turnout of protesters was magnificent on such a poor day and really showed their level of commitment.
During the rally Sustainable Shetland yet again dismissed The Shetland Times recent sample poll which found 36 per cent of islanders in favour of the windfarm, 33 per cent against and 31 per cent undecided. The statistic it prefers as a gauge of public opinion is the 2,736 people and organisations which sent objections to the energy consents unit against 1,114 who wrote in support.
Mr Learmonth said: “The Shetland Times’ poll is truly yesterday’s news – interesting on a Friday, guinea pig bedding by the Thursday, compost by the following week.”
While the poll result might be a straw for some councillors and the MSP to clutch at he said it did not decide planning applications or the future of the community. If there remained any doubt about public opinion he said there should be a fair and independent referendum.
Afterwards, Mr Learmonth said he felt the day of action had been a fantastic one. “It’s a phenomenal turnout for a place the size of Shetland. There is not much of a tradition of taking to the streets in Shetland so I’m really proud of everybody who has turned up today, especially with the horrendous weather forecast.”