A FIERCE war of words has erupted between the Scottish Government and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over plans to expand a military bombing range at Cape Wrath in the far northwest of Scotland.
Internal emails obtained by the Sunday Herald reveal that the MoD intends to buy more land at the cape to increase the size of its range - despite publicly declaring otherwise. The MoD's position has been condemned as laughable and arrogant by the Scottish Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead MSP.
The MoD announced on May 13 that it had decided not to proceed with the purchase of land around Cape Wrath's famous lighthouse, built in 1828 by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather. But a private MoD memo makes clear that the Royal Navy is still interested in buying the land. One email on July 4 notes that the MoD may have the political clout to fight the Scottish Government for the purchase "on grounds of national security needs".
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But Lochhead yesterday derided the MoD's stance. "It's beyond belief that the MoD think that the local community becoming owners of the land at Cape Wrath is a threat to national security," he said.
"Perhaps they might like to explain if it is tourists enjoying the views, locals having tea and cakes in the café, or walkers completing the Scottish National Trail that pose the greatest threat."
In the midst of the battle between the MoD and the Scottish Government, the community is trying to buy the land to save it from the MoD.
More than 300 pages of documents released by the MoD under freedom of information law show that extending the MoD's 9000-hectare bombing range at Cape Wrath is seen as "critical for future military operations". The range is used twice a year for major Nato 'Joint Warrior' exercises on land and at sea, and is the largest live-firing range in Europe.
In 2011 the Northern Lighthouse Board offered to sell the MoD more than 40 hectares at the northwest tip of the range. The land surrounds a café and the historic Cape Wrath lighthouse, which is visited by thousands of people every year, including walkers completing the 470-mile Scottish National Trail from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders.
The MoD launched a major bid to buy the land, which it secretly valued at £55,000. As well as improving its firing range, it was anxious to prevent "a hostile neighbour owning the land which could see future military exercises being interrupted".
But the bid was dogged by "significant wrangling" between the navy and the MoD's property division over costs. In December 2012, a storm of public protest erupted after the MoD said that if it bought the land access by the local community would be precluded.
According to a senior MoD environmental adviser, this "created a huge amount of bad feeling towards the MoD and its interest in Cape Wrath". Access is restricted for up to 120 days a year during military exercises. When the MoD publicly withdrew its bid in May, it was widely praised. But an internal memo from Navy Command expressed concern about "potential issues" from the proposed community buyout, and said that it would be interested if the MoD property division decided to support "further development of the range area".
In June, the Scottish Government approved the local community bid to buy the land, giving them five years to raise enough money. This would bring "more benefits for the local area rather than more land for bombing," said the First Minister, Alex Salmond.
But in an email exchange on July 4, two MoD officials discussed how to respond to the Scottish Government's move. "It may be that MoD feels it has the political clout to contest such a decision on grounds of national security needs," said one.
He pointed out that this would make relations with the community "very difficult". The other official suggested the MoD would have to wait to see if the community bid failed before trying again.
The MoD's behaviour was condemned as despicable by the SNP MSP for the area, Rob Gibson, who backs the local community bid. "They are obviously interested in having a monopoly in the area, and we have to fight that," he said.
Ramblers Scotland was "delighted" when the MoD appeared to abandon its purchase plans, following protests. "These latest revelations, however, will send alarm bells ringing throughout the outdoor recreation movement," said the group's director, Dave Morris.
Durness Development Group, which is steering the community's bid for the land, has promised that it would not be a hostile neighbour. The MoD would be unacceptably heavy-handed if it attempted to exercise powers of compulsory purchase, warned local development officer, Kevin Arrowsmith.
The MoD reiterated that it had withdrawn its application to acquire additional training land at Cape Wrath. "There are currently no plans to purchase land at the site," said an MoD spokeswoman.