Do we need another golf course? The answer to that, possibly, depends on whether you are an ecologist, a golfer, or a member of a community like that at Embo which stands to gain a possible 400 jobs from the arrival of a course along its site of special scientific interest at Coul Links.

It also depends on the way you look at our coastline and the spread of golf courses along its dunes.

On hearing last week that Highland Council had given the go-ahead to a 371-hectare golf course development which incorporates protected areas of dunes, I thought of something that dune expert Dr Tom Dargie, a key figure driving the campaign against the development, said to me when I wrote an article on the proposal last year.

“If you take Google Earth,” he said, “and go up the east coast of Scotland, you go from one golf course to another on many of the sand dune resources. Coul is virtually the last good, deep sand system which is so far untouched by golf. That’s one of the reasons we should fight so hard.”

READ MORE: In the shadow of Trump. Coul Links golf course controversy

The question, in other words, is not just about Coul Links. It's about something bigger.

It’s not the first time Coul Links and its golf course proposal have been in the news. Some version or other of the plan has provoked controversy since 2016 when American businessman Todd Warnock first pitched the idea.

Five years ago, Highland Council approved the original proposal by Warnock and designer Mike Keiser's company Coul Links Limited, but when, following an objection by NatureScot, it was called in for review by the Scottish Government, it was ultimately rejected.

Since then, new-campaign-on-the-block, Communities 4 Coul, which describes itself as a not-for-profit community compan, has been driving the plan.

Yet, at the same time, it has very much looked like a revised version of the old plan, right down, ultimately, to its choice of developer Mike Keiser.

How local and independent of the previous applicants, some asked, were they, in spite of their five local directors?  Then news emerged that the group had been meeting at, and had as its postal address, the same address as Coul Links Limited.

The Herald: CoulCoul (Image: free)

C4C rebuffed the suggestion and said that the shared address had been “convenient”. It said Keiser had been chosen because he was aligned to the "community group’s key philosophy" and talked up the designer's green credentials.

As described by C4C,  he is a committed environmentalist who “made his fortune by founding one of the first greeting card companies to print on recycled paper”. But this is the same man that The Ferret revealed earlier this year had donated to climate denial organisations, including the Heartland Institute (in 2010).

Meanwhile, C4C has talked of “repeopleing not rewilding”. Director Gordon Sutherland has also declared this to be a “genuine chance to create much-needed new employment opportunities in an area where the working age population is falling, threatening the future viability of fragile communities”.

But it bothers me when people start saying repeopling 'not' rewilding, rather than 'as well as'., and  ‘fragile communities’ without nearly enough mention of the fragility of ecosystems.

READ MORE: Golf course row highlights wider problem in the Highlands

C4C argues that this will be an environmentally friendly design. But do we trust it? At Menie, Donald Trump said: “We will stabilise the dunes... They will be there forever. This will be environmentally better after it is built than it is before.” A few years later, in 2020, the site was partially denotified as SSSI.


There is no doubt, however, that the proposal does have support from people living within the area. One survey found that “more than two in three” of residents backed the development.  And aspects of the new proposal do sound better in terms of environment

But NatureScot’s objection remains, this time backed by and linked to  Scotland’s National Planning Framework 4 – and yet again, the decision is being called in for review. This kind of ping-pong, between local aThe Herald: Donald Trump swings a club during a visit to Menie in 2011. Image Danny Lawson/PADonald Trump swings a club during a visit to Menie in 2011. Image Danny Lawson/PA nd central government, does not feel comfortable. 

In the wake of the furious backlash over HPMAs, there’s a risk that this seems like another example of central government imposing on local communities, of becoming a tale of urbanites defining how land is used.  Yet what's happening is obviously more complex than that. Some of those, after all, most fiercely objecting, like Tom Dargie, are local.

Of course, one could easily argue that Coul Links is a special case.  But people are always arguing such special cases, and, added up, all too often, they take us to some version of the tragedy of the commons. That’s why a National Planning Framework is key– and why it matters that we look at the bigger picture. 

Coul Links would be the latest in a pattern of coastal land management around our coastlines that is so long-running that now we barely know what an unimpacted coastline is; in the same way as we now no longer know what our uplands would be had humans not chopped trees down and brought in the sheep.

Golf courses are up there with sporting estates as leisure grounds which have reshaped our landscape. Let's treasure and enrich the biodiversity of the ones we have; but let's not have another on such a precious spot .