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 Superquarry: a Sabbath of the Land?

A Sabbath of the Land


by Alastair McIntosh



This article was commissioned by the editor of the Stornoway Gazette for publication on 20 July 2000, following the announcement on 12 July that South Harris is to be considered for designation as a Special Area of Conservation - Europe's highest conservation status. Such designation would almost certainly preclude the superquarrying of Mt. Roineabhal at Lingerabay.



We must thank Lafarge Redland Aggregates for the £6 million they have spent on the Harris superquarry proposal. Human consciousness develops when faced with moral challenge. Redland provided this.


Their proposal for Harris was like a shot to the cultural immune system. It stimulated a dying community to look at the options open to it, to recognise that it had to choose a future and develop a vision for it. As John MacAulay of the Quarry Benefit Group put it, “the Public Inquiry was an education for the whole community.” Or as God put it to Moses in Deuteronomy 30: “ I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses - therefore choose life.”


The superquarry issue was a theological one because “membership one of another” – which means, spiritual interconnection - is the glue that holds any true community together. Anything less is merely a “community of interests,” and as human beings we are called, spiritually, to a communion that is much higher than mere mutual self-interest.


What the superquarry did was to face the people of Harris, and a much wider Scottish constituency of observers, with a classic God versus Mammon dilemma. The Rev. Prof. Donald Macleod put it very clearly to the 1994 Public Inquiry. He said: “Man's relationship with his environment has been disrupted by the Fall. One primary symptom of this is that he is always tempted to allow economic considerations to override ecological ones.  In the present instance the divinely appointed guardians and servants of Lingerbay are the people of Harris.  Unfortunately, these very people are now suffering a degree of economic hardship that threatens the very survival of their community.  Torn between their love for the land and their need for jobs they face a cruel dilemma.  Capitalism offers to help them in characteristic fashion: it will relieve unemployment provided the people surrender guardianship of the land thus violating their own deepest instincts.”


At the end of the Public Inquiry, when the arguments for and against were freshest in peoples’ minds, an astonishingly high 83% of the people of Harris participated in voting 68% against the scheme. There was a real sense of a people trying to decide the future of their place in this independently organised secret ballot. Since then, the work of Harris Development Ltd. and other local agencies have laid the foundations for creating more employment than the 33 direct jobs and 10 indirect ones that the Public Inquiry draft report finds would have gone to Harris residents.


Another hard fact that emerged from the Public Inquiry was that 150 tonnes of explosive would be needed per million tonnes of rock extracted (section 8:42-49 of the 1998 draft inquiry report). As the quarry’s total output over 60 years was planned at 550 million tonnes, this would have been equivalent to 36 tonnes of explosive a week at full production, or 82,500 tonnes overall.


By way of comparison, present Lewis and Harris usage of explosive is only 90 tonnes a year. The Hiroshima atom bomb was “only” 13,000 tonnes of TNT equivalent, so depending on the types of explosive being talked about (and the report is not clear on this), the superquarry would have been something like dropping six Hiroshima-sized atom bombs on Roineabhal. The trickle of residual nitrate run-off into the sea, quite apart from twice-daily thuds unto the bowels of the earth, was a sobering factor for consideration.


Looking towards Edinburgh, it would have been welcome if Sarah Boyack, the environment minister, had been able to give a clear answer one way or the other last week. However, Scottish Executive sources suggest that she had been landed with a dog’s dinner from the previous regime. The Inquiry Report and process was, it has been said, so flawed that had she used it to decide in either direction she would have been open to legal challenge and judicial review. This would have protacted the waiting game even further, and added to “planning blight” – the dampening effect that happens when people can’t plan because the future is unclear.


If South Harris is now granted European status as a Special Area of Conservation, the way will be open for future development that respects the Creation rather than destroying it. However, it is important that the Scottish Executive deliberates in a way that, if it possibly can, avoids starting up the whole inquiry process again with the proposed Readymix Concrete (Scottish Aggregates) superquarry on Loch Seaforth, as well as, possibly, Redland’s previously aired intentions for Carnish at Uig.


It is also vital that the people of Harris should be in control of any move towards special conservation status. Just as a “Quarry Benefit Group” was set up by the Harris Council for Social Services to look at potential benefits if the superquarry went ahead, so too consideration should be given to setting up, perhaps, a “Conservation Benefit Group.” This may be the opportunity for Scottish Natural Heritage, at last, to get it right with crofting communities.


The Isle of Eigg is showing what can be achieved when a community is able to use conservation for social and economic advantage. Something similar in South Harris could happen without any change in landownership given that, it seems, the people there are generally satisfied with their landowners.


One simple but practical starting point would be to enhance the effectiveness of the Croft Entrant Scheme. There needs to be a more proactive way of matching up those who need land and those who are ready to hand theirs on. Another way forward, that would attract national attention and market opportunities, would be to develop organic production. This is the only economically sound future for small-scale agriculture and aquaculture. A third consideration is to capitalise on the fact that Harris produces an incredibly high rate of university graduates. The island’s employment strategy must aim at holding on to these. They are its potentially most productive human resource, and that means creating jobs other than just quarrying and fish processing.


We are looking, therefore, at a vision by which “conservation” for Harris must equally conserve both the environment and its people. These two are inseperable and any attempt to split them is the ultimate undoing of community. This is true both scientifically and through the eyes of faith, because in both ways of looking at things human creation took place, and continues to develop, in that wider context of the Creation that is the natural world. If I may again quote Professor Macleod from the Public Inquiry, he said: “Theologically, the primary function of the creation is to serve as a revelation of God. To spoil the creation is to disable it from performing this function … [thereby raising] the consideration that rape of the environment is rape of the community itself.”


It follows that, equally, to treat the environment with reverence is to strengthen the fullness of community. In this respect, we might do well to think of “conservation” not as some sort of redundant set-aside, but as part of the enriching and providentially productive deeper meaning of “Sabbath.”


In his book, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press), Michael Northcott of Edinburgh University describes how the “Sabbath of the Land” or “Sabbath of Years” is as much part of God’s vision as is the Sabbath of the seventh day. Leviticus 25 assures that Providence will make good shortfalls in economic production caused by human beings granting this “rest unto the land,” and Leviticus 26 lays out the grave social and ecological consequences of not honouring such a covenant with the Creation. “Even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her Sabbaths,” says God.


The Bible’s suggestion is that where a nation has not honoured the rights of the land, a bit of catching-up is in order. We are, of course, talking metaphor here, but as is the way with poetry, it may be important metaphor. Nobody would suggest that the people of Harris have not honoured the Creation. But the treatment of the land in a wider Scotland, Britain and Europe is a different matter. Industrial agriculture has caused desecration. At the level of the nations, then, it may be that by understanding conservation in terms of “Sabbath” a deeper understanding can come about as to why it is valuable to set both time and space apart in which to draw more present to the presence of God.


Dr Northcott further remarks on how, “The Deuteronomist contrasts Egyptian agricultural practices, which treat the land ‘like a vegetable garden,’ with the moral sensitivity to the soil and its patterns of fertility which is required of the Hebrews, who will farm the Promised Land but recognise that it remains God’s and that he will tend and water it. This ethic of love, both divine and human, for the land, together with the admonitions to care for it, runs throughout the traditions of the beauty and fertility of Canaan, ‘flowing with milk and honey.’”


If Harris is indeed confirmed as a Special Area of Conservation and the majesty of Mt Roineabhal is spared, one vital remaining area of work will be reconciliation. When a small community is subjected to intense pressure from the outside, its fabric cracks. People experience difficulty in knowing what they really think, and in finding their voice, because those cracks run not just through different factions, but through the factions that are inside each one of us.


The most important thing for a small community is its social cohesion. Any massive development from the outside is like the force field of a magnet. It pulls things into a new shape and creates opposing north and south poles that were not there before. Long after the magnet has been withdrawn, the community will remain polarised … unless, that is, it can develop a conscious understanding of what has happened to it.


This calls for healing, which inevitably means forgiveness. And what is forgiveness, but a deep acceptance, one of another, for what we are and for all that we are. The need for forgiveness arises not necessarily because one party has “done wrong” and another is “in the right.” No. We need to understand spiritual psychology much more deeply than that. Our forbears in the Highland Church and some today would, of course, have conceptualised such psychology in terms of “original sin.” Buddhists would describe it as the inevitability of human imperfection before the divine. And Mahatma Gandhi of India, who was a Hindu, put it like this. He said, “All life entails violence. Our duty can only be to minimise the violence that we cause.”


Seen in such a light of inevitability, the concept of “original sin” becomes peculiarly liberating. It allows us to accept conflict as an inevitable part of being community. It shows that forgiveness is imperative simply in order to get on with the job of living. So, how does this apply to the superquarry? The fact is that if we were for it, we hurt some people; and if we were against it, we’ve equally hurt others. As Gandhi says, “All life entails violence”! The test of a people is not whether hurt happens, but how it is processed.


It could be, of course, that there are more comfortable ways of seeking reconciliation than by addressing it spiritually. But I think not – at least, not if we want a healing running deeper than resentment masked by the scar of time.


The fact is that forgiveness cannot come from the human will alone. If the great divide that opens up from woundedness is big enough, ordinary human powers cannot bridge it. The requisite power to go on loving one’s neighbour is, rather, a gift of grace. It emerges from those depths of the soul where it is no longer the conscious “I” that lives, but as Paul said, something “yet not I,” that lives within and joins us to the bedrock of all life. Such is what distinguishes brute survival from promised “life abundant.”


The future prosperity of Harris will depend on many things. Some of these will come to pass. Others will fail. But one thing is certain. An abundant future will hinge upon the grace of God.


That is why community development is ultimately a theological issue. Yes, we may run from God, but we will never be able to run away. Now, let us turn and get on with the only “business” that really matters – the business of becoming alive.





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