One autumn day three years ago a group of men tramped around an area of land at Embo, just north of Dornoch in Scotland. One was Bill Coore, the eminent golf course designer who works in partnership with Ben Crenshaw. One was Todd Warnock, an American businessman hoping to build a golf course there with his partner, Mike Keiser, the famous American course developer. There were sundry hangers-on but their importance is not relevant to the story.
Warnock had lived for part of each year in this part of Scotland and had invested in local businesses in Dornoch. “I had been to most of the links courses in the UK and something in my life changed when I came to Dornoch and played it in 2003,” Warnock said later that autumn day. “So I came back every year, in the spring and the fall, and spent four or five days by myself reading, writing, fishing and playing golf. I fell in love with it.”
Warnock had made his money in Chicago’s equivalent of the City of London. He once had dreamed of living in the south of France but now, having moved to Dornoch and opened a boutique hotel there called Links House, he thought that a golf course would sit naturally on this parcel of land abutting the beach and leading to the mouth of the River Fleet in Dornoch Firth. He believed a golf course threaded through dunes, with care and attention given to the flora and fauna, would bring golfers to Embo, population 300. And with the golfers would come a much-needed upturn in the local economy.
Warnock got to work with Edward Abel Smith, the landowner, the Embo Trust and with Keiser. It was two years before Coore’s first set of plans were submitted to the appropriate authorities.
It is just as well that Coore and Crenshaw are pretty much the flavour of the day among modern course architects. They have a reputation for being inventive, respectful of flora and fauna, not inclined to antagonise local people nor local environmental bodies. Just as well. The land on which Coul Links, as it was named, was to be laid out on was environmental gold, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.
The process of drawing up plans, submitting them, amending them, presenting them to yet another body and seeking that body’s approval took time. By last month a decision was expected imminently and, accordingly, the land was ready so that work could begin the day after permission was granted.
Except it wasn’t granted. To Warnock’s and Keiser’s surprise and disappointment the project was turned down by the Scottish government. The official report said: “likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the substantial socio-economic benefits of the proposal.”
Keiser was philosophical about this setback. “I’m moving on. I have so many other projects,” he told one publication. “God bless Dornoch.”
Warnock, in his winter hideaway in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was stunned. He has become immersed in Scotland and can talk knowledgeably about the notorious land clearances in this part of Scotland between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries. In addition, he wrote a significant contribution to a book highlighting the writings of John Sutherland, the longtime secretary of Royal Dornoch during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, I have a copy of it, Golf Causerie, with a handwritten note on the title page from Warnock: “John, To our Vision.”
“I drift between despair and anger.”
A few days after receiving the news, Warnock said this: “Gail Ross, the local Member of the Scottish Parliament and (Scottish National Party) member, was in favour of it. The Planning Committee of Highlands and Islands Council had held a two-day inquiry and had voted 17-1 in favour of it. VisitScotland, the national tourist board, supported the project. Dornoch Community Council and Embo Trust had voted unanimously in favour of it. Every golf club in the Highlands had expressed their support. And over 90 percent of the local population was in favour. In fact, when we held each of four public consultation events, less than 10 people were opposed.”
“The will of local government as represented by the Highland Council, Dornoch Community Council and the overwhelming majority of the local citizenry was disregarded as if irrelevant,” Warnock continued. “It sends an incredibly damaging message to the outside world as regards investing in Scotland. As a result of this future investors will think twice, no 10 times, before investing in Scotland. As will I.”
It does not require a deep knowledge of politics in Scotland to speculate that Coul Links was turned down because the Scottish National Party, who now require a coalition with the Green Party to govern, wanted to be seen to be endorsing the current worldwide feeling for ecology, for combating climate change and reducing carbon emission.
Another reason: the ripples of dissatisfaction spreading across Scotland from Donald Trump’s course at Menie, near Aberdeen. “Trump’s legacy in Scotland was disastrous,” Warnock said. “First, he was going to build 2,000 homes and a large-scale hotel. He didn’t do any of that. The economic impact of the Trump golf course has been a fraction of what they promised it would be.
“Second, the number of visitors to Trump Aberdeen was a fraction of the number expected as a result of general antipathy towards Trump and his golf courses. When they built Menie the feeling about Trump in the golf world was neutral to positive. Now a lot of people because of Trump’s behaviour as US president say, ‘I won’t play golf on a Trump golf course whether it is a great golf course or not.’
“And finally, in mid-2019, just as the month-long Coul Links Public Inquiry was ending, Scottish Natural Heritage announced it was rescinding the SSI status of the Menie dunes due to the destructive behaviour of the Trump construction and maintenance programs.
“In the light of this, you could see how the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, among others, could paint a narrative that says, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Warnock continued. “Two wealthy Americans making big promises about ecology and a lot of people coming to play on their golf course. We don’t like the sound of that.”
Thus was rejected a £10m project that was possibly the largest private capital investment in the historic county of Sutherland other than wind farms in the past 150 years, one that would have enriched the economy of Embo, of Dornoch, of much of that part of Sutherland. It has been a salutary lesson for Keiser, who in an e-mail said: “The best links courses in Scotland and Ireland could not get approved today.”
And Warnock? The man who had spent five years of his life and a considerable amount of money on this project? “I drift between despair and anger,” he said. “People up here feel abandoned by SNP and Scottish government, somewhat reminiscent of the Clearances that left a deep scare in the very heart of the Highlands.”
Top: The proposed site of Coul Links in the Scottish Highlands