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Deja vu as part of our heritage is threatened

Anyone reading The Herald might have been forgiven for thinking they had inadvertently picked up or clicked on to an old edition.

News that Scottish Borders Council is considering allowing a housing development on the banks of the Tweed a few hundred yards from Abbotsford House provoked such a strong sense of deja vu that many of us will have done a double-take. Wasn't it just a few years ago that a similar proposal was given the heave-ho?

It was in 2007 that permission was granted to builders M & J Ballanytne to build 79 houses opposite Sir Walter's Scott's stately home, only to be thwarted by two public inquiries, which concluded that the greenfield site should not be used for housing. Among the loudest protesters was Historic Scotland, concerned about the impact such a scheme would have on the tourist value of Scott's stately home.

Yet despite what appeared to be a resounding defeat, the threat has resurfaced. In the council's new local development plan, the 7.5-hectare plot at Netherbarns has once more been designated as land on which 45 houses could be built. This, within view of an international literary landmark that attracts thousands of tourists every year, and has done since the mid 19th century, when Scott was barely cold in his grave.

Sadly, the world does not stand still, and things must change. Most of us, though, assumed Abbotsford's £11.5 million restoration - carried out by the Ballantyne builders themselves - was just such a change, and were mightily impressed by it. When Scott's home was reopened to a great fanfare last year, it felt as if its keepers had given it a fresh lease of life after winning that gruelling battle against the developers. The future, it was assumed, was bright. Now, however, Abbotsford's trustees have said they will have to fight the council's new proposal, diverting money that would be far better spent on the pile's upkeep.

It's a plot worthy of one of Scott's novels, private interests colliding with old-fashioned Scottish sensibilities and common sense. On the one hand there is a national treasure, described as the crown in the jewel of tourist attractions. Not only has a fortune been spent on its upgrade, but the region is soon to benefit from the rebuilt Borders Railway, with a station opening next year at Tweedbank. This line will bring tourists within a mile or so of one of the finest literary shrines in the world, as well as a host of sites of interest across the Borderlands. Ranged against these protagonists, on the other hand, is a council that, while prepared to help fund the restoration of Scott's home, also appears willing to make a decision that could ruin Abbotsford's environs, thereby diminishing its appeal and its income. It would not just be the house that would suffer, but the whole district.

It makes no sense, but then, despoliation is a senseless act wherever it occurs. One cannot help thinking, however, that the safekeeping of priceless assets is too often left in the hands of the philistine or the short-sighted. When it comes to protecting our historic heritage or magnificent natural resources we act as if it's news to us that these buildings or locations are the reason so many flock here from across the world.

Only last week, Highland Council agreed that a fleet of wind turbines could be built near Fort Augustus, close to Cairngorm National Park. Naysayers were assured this "farm" would not be visible from the main tourist routes. Whoop-de-doo. It's like knowing there's a septic tank in the garden. Even if it's hidden by a hedge, the thought of it festers.

Meanwhile, the mooted housing development on the edge of Culloden battlefield hangs like a claymore over the heads of those who think a place of such national significance should be spared the advancing army of executive homes creeping over the landscape. Where once the danger came from the redcoats, now it's redbrick and decking.

Particularly upsetting is that there is plenty of space for such developments elsewhere. In the Borders, empty land abounds, though none of it comes with the cachet of the Abbotsford view. I can only suggest that if the council wins the day, the house should revert to its original name, the less than alluring Clarty Hole.

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