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 Harris Superquarry Debate Outcome

Sabbath and the Corporate Mammon:

Concluding the Harris Superquarry Debate


by Alastair McIntosh



Published in ECOS - journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2001, pp. 46-52. This paper was requested by the editor at short notice by way of a briefing on the outcome of the public inquiry process that integrated material about conservation theology previously published in the Stornoway Gazette. As it was quickly put together, it is not to the highest literary standard. It builds on an earlier contribution to ECOS on the same subject - see Issue 16 (1) 1995.


We must thank Lafarge Redland Aggregates for the £6 million plus that they have spent on the Harris superquarry proposal. Human consciousness develops when faced with moral challenge. Lafarge Redland provided this. I’d like to explore that in this article by addressing a theology of conservation. But first, let’s have the context.


In 1991 I was visited in the Centre for Human Ecology, then a part of the University of Edinburgh but now independent and offering its own MSc degree (www.che.ac.uk), by Mr Ian Wilson, who was building support for his scheme to “superquarry” Roineabhal, the highest mountain in south Harris in the Outer Hebrides and part of a National Scenic Area. Wilson, in league with an English company, Redland Aggregates (subsequently taken over by the French multinational, Lafarge) wanted to create probably the biggest roadstone quarry in the world on Harris.


This would not have been all. Wilson also speculated about dumping contaminated silt from the Elbe on Harris; he had in mind opening “satellite” quarries using the superquarry’s infrastructure; Redland were additionally thinking of partially evicting the crofters of Carnish on the neighbouring Lewis (my home island) to get a massive sand and gravel quarry going there; and Scottish Aggregates, a subsidiary of Ready-Mix Concrete, were drawing up plans for their own coastal quarry on Loch Seaforth, Harris, which is, in addition, a Marine Conservation Area.


In short, if Lafarge Redland got their way Harris would become, as one Norman MacLeod, a crofter and lobster fisherman put it, “The gravel-pit of Europe.” It would be a classic case of displacing the externalities of over-development in southern England onto the periphery, out of sight and out of mind.


The story of the campaign that a group of us built up is complex. Parts of it can be found on the websites of both Friends of the Earth Scotland and in the extensive superquarry section of my own site, www.AlastairMcIntosh.com. The nub of it is that environmental groups successfully campaigned for a public inquiry that turned into not only the longest-running that Scotland has ever seen, but also the most procrastinating in delivering its conclusions. At the end of the Inquiry in 1995, however, with the arguments for and against fresh in their minds, the people of Harris voted in secret ballot 68% against the scheme with an astonishingly high 83% participation rate.


We then waited, and waited, and waited for the Inquiry Report to be published. Harris, meanwhile, was affected by planning blight. People did not know whether it was to become  a company town or not. The impact of the quarry, if it went ahead, would be huge on a sensitive area. Crofting communities lived around the quarry boundary, Golden Eagles nested 400 metres from it, and otters (the highly protected Lutra lutra) lived where the shipping facilities would be built. In full production of some 10 million tonnes of rock per annum, 36 tonnes of explosive per week would be blasted off  – equivalent to dropping six Hiroshima-sized atom bombs on the mountain over the project’s projected 60 year life. 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 especially when the other mainstays of the economy are tourism, fishing and salmon farming – all industries that have their own environmental impacts but which rely, ultimately, on the perception and reality of a pristine environment. Indeed, it was revealing in the public inquiry to see salmon farming rally so staunchly to the environmental cause!


As the delay in publishing the Inquiry Report went on and on, it emerged that the Reporter had fallen ill during its production, and in any case, politicians seemed unenthusiastic about handling an issue that was going to upset either the environmental or the industrial lobby. It was understood that the draft inquiry report was so flawed that an appeal was inevitable from whichever side the decision went against. Accordingly, Sarah Boyack, the then-environment minister in the Scottish Parliament, attempted to circumvent making a decision on the basis of the still-not-released Report by asking Scottish Natural Heritage to consider whether the area merited designation as a Special Area of Conservation.


This, however, provoked immediate backlash from the pro-quarry lobby who claimed that it was an attempt to put nature before people. This required some circumvention. Accordingly I (as only one of many who have contributed to these debates) responded in the local press by drawing, once again, on the theological arguments pertinent to the community in question which, as it happens, is largely based on Reformed or Calvinist Christianity. These views had first been developed in the public inquiry by the Rev Prof Donald Macleod and me, together with a non-Christian perspective on “Mother Earth” from Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, then warrior chief of the Mi’Kmaq First Nation in Canada (see website or ECOS 16(1) 1995).


I reminded people that John MacAulay of the Harris Quarry Benefit Group had said that, “the Public Inquiry was an education for the whole community.” It was to many a theological issue 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, within both Christian and many non-Christian traditions, to a communion that is much higher than mere mutual self-interest.


What the superquarry had achieved then was to face the people of Harris, and a much wider constituency of observers including supportive readers of this journal, with a classic God versus Mammon dilemma. As the Professor Macleod of the Free Church College in Edinburgh had put it very clearly to the Inquiry: “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.”


How then, in this framework, might the designation of Harris as Special Area of Conservation be culturally contextualised?  Similarly, how could rejection of the development be contextualised were this to come about? How could conservation be seen for what it is – as something more than merely the dilettante fad of environmentalists from away? How could it be seen, as it should be, as something germane to the very construct of sustainable community, of human ecology?


I addressed these matters by arguing, mainly in the Stornoway Gazette, that “conservation” for Harris must equally conserve both the environment and its people. These two are inseparable: any attempt to split them is the 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. To quote Professor Macleod again from his Public Inquiry testimony: “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 due reverence is to strengthen the fullness of community. This is canonical panentheism – God in nature – as distinct from simplistic pantheism – God as nature – which is non-canonical because it would deny God’s fullness as being both imminent and transcendent. It follows that we might do well to think of “conservation” not as some sort of redundant set-aside, but as part of an enriching and providentially productive deeper theology, and specifically as part of the extended meaning of “Sabbath.”


Sabbath is deeply important to the people of Harris. No shops open on a Sunday and no public transport at present operates, though this is currently the subject of fierce local debate. As such, the Hebridean Sabbath does, whatever its faults and arguable hypocrisies create a context where the whole community can be at rest. Everything stops for one day instead of operating, like on the mainland, at a relentless 7x24 hour pace. It gives punctuation to the passage of time. However, too often the understanding of Sabbath has been petty and neglectful of its full intent and scope. The Sabbath, Professor Macleod has written, is for humankind: a form of employment protection law that we lose at our peril. But equally, the Sabbath is also intended for the land. And this is where conservation can, where culturally appropriate, discover some little-recognised theological support.


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 speaks of the need for “rest unto the land.” 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.


OK, many readers of this journal, perhaps having suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of churchianity, will experience the cringe factor at arguments like this. But please, allow me to continue speaking from a culturally specific context. I am trying to make it understood what helped to shift opinion against the quarry’s promised pot of gold.


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 not only human time, but also geographical space aside in which to create space-time contests 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.’”


Accordingly, I argued that if the Hebrides were to be spared the ravages of becoming the gravel-pit of Europe, the justification to the nation as a whole for costs incurred (like keeping a costly public ferry service running and supporting marginal communities) might be viewed as part of a national set-aside or “Sabbath of the Land” that needs to be paid for by the nation as a whole. There is, of course, a danger of tokenism here, but there is also a very deep argument for not desecrating remaining pristine areas in interests that are both local and global. And who knows, it might be from these places that ancient but new ways of “being community” might emerge, to the benefit of humankind as a whole. Certainly, I am struck by how often I find other people from the Hebrides working in mainland Britain, or worldwide, in ways that, with or without overt theological underpinning, help to engender an understanding of community predicated on right-relationship with one another and place.


As an adjunct to this position I also suggested in the media that a vital remaining area of work on the island after the mountain’s fate had been decided would be that of reconciliation. When a community is subjected to intense pressure from the outside, its fabric cracks. People have trouble 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. It is that, as Mahatma Gandhi who was a Hindu put it: “All life entails violence. Our duty can only be to minimise the violence that we cause.”


Seen in such a light of inevitability and not forgetting the counterpoint of “original blessing,” the rather quaint Christian 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.


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. Perhaps this is what distinguishes brute survival from promised “life abundant.” Certainly, I find that my Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and even my neo-Pagan friends are in general agreement on these points.


It could be, of course, that there are more comfortable ways of seeking community reconciliation than by addressing it spiritually. It may be that there are better ways of justifying the set-aside of conservation that the seemingly antiquated construct of “Sabbath.” But I wonder.


So … let’s get back to what some readers would see as “real life”! How did the corporation respond to the prospect of their precious mountain possibly being designated for special conservation? Well, they did not like it very much. In the summer of 2000 they went to the Supreme Court in Scotland, the Court of Session, and attempted to force the hand of the Scottish Government. Remarkably, they used as the mainstay of their argument the exact inverse of a theological argument. They tried to colonise the very meaning of being human. They argued that, as a corporation, they had “human” rights under Article Six of the newly-domiciled European Convention of Human Rights. And they succeeded in getting Lord Hardie to rule that the long delay in publishing the Inquiry findings was a violation of these rights. Accordingly, the court forced the Government to arrive at its decision on the quarry within 14 days.


Again, see my website for discussion of the implications of corporate “human” rights. What matters here is to say that the Government duly did as it was told. Sam Galbraith, the new environment minister, published the Inquiry Report.


It suggested that the quarry would create only 33 direct jobs for the people of Harris and 10 indirect ones. Already, Harris Development Ltd., set up partly to look at economic alternatives to the quarry, had more than this number of new jobs in the pipeline from new initiatives in electronics, tourism and farmed salmon processing. In short, the people of Harris had already done more to help themselves than Lafarge Redland would have achieved for them!


In her report the Inquiry Reporter, Miss Gillian Pain, said:


I find that the proposed quarry will completely change the landscape characteristics of Lingerbay by changing the scale and character of its coastline and its hinterland… I find that the impact cannot be described as minimal – on the contrary, it would be locally severe… The quarry would create an area of massive disturbance, involving man made industrial features, heavy plant, and disruptive noise, etc… The present remote, peaceful, and traditional ensemble of a semi-natural and crofting agriculture environment would be disrupted by the intrusion of a man made excavation and associated quarry and harbour installations on an enormous scale… Altogether, I find that this would have a very disruptive effect on the character of the immediate area affecting local residents… Unless there are overriding reasons relating to national benefit, which is a matter for my conclusions, the acceptance of such an intrusive feature within such an important landscape would set a precedent that would undermine the continued successful operation of policy for NSAs.


However, she astonishingly went on duly to provide that justification! She broadly accepted Redland’s gazumping estimates, predicated on the post-Thatcher road building targets, that British aggregate demand was likely to increase from six million tonnes per annum in 1996, to thirteen in 2001, twenty-one in 2006 and thirty-three in 2011. But as Ian Callaghan of Harris and Kevin Dunion of Friends of the Earth Scotland repeatedly pointed out, actual demand was running at only some 50% of these forecasts. Motorway protesting had impacted. Not only that, but in England the roadstone industry already had huge stocks of unworked quarrying material – massive reserves that it called “landbanks.”


Miss Pain, nevertheless, considered that there was a justified need “for minerals operators such as Redland to look for alternative sources of aggregates in order to maintain their landbanks to serve the English market for the future.” Accordingly, she summed up her report by saying: “The potential for coastal superquarries does not derive from any need for the material in Scotland but is primarily related to the market in South-East England, with the possibility also of export outside the UK.” In this respect, aggregates from superquarries would represent “an important natural resource [which] make an essential contribution to the nation’s prosperity [and] can assist the balance of payments, either through exports of minerals or import substitution.”


All this, in the view of Miss Pain, justified “the conclusion that overall, the proposed development would be in the national interest.” The harm to the National Scenic Area would be offset by the economic benefit. In any case, after “restoration” the crater, she said:


… would undoubtedly be a dramatic feature and would eventually create a diversity of landscape which would not be out of place in an area of scenic beauty. The new road around [the hole] would also provide interesting views out to the Minch and the cliff itself would be attractive to geologists, mountaineers, botanists and even wildlife.


In short, Miss Pain presented the Scottish Government with her recommendation: “On balance, the proposals would be beneficial… Accordingly, I recommend that the application … be approved.”


Pressed by the Court of Session’s 14 day deadline, Sam Galbraith, the new environment minister, then wrote to the lawyers of Lafarge Redland. He detailed various points of disagreement with Miss Pain’s conclusions and points of law where she had “misdirected” herself. Perhaps sympathetic to the crushing weight of the task that had been landed on her single-handedly, he mostly made light of these. But he came down heavily on two points. Firstly, in stressing that she had interpreted the “national interest” as “primarily related to the market in South East England” and to export revenues, “she has made inappropriate connections between Scottish policy … and English policy.” Accordingly, she had come to the wrong conclusion about what constituted an overriding national interest. And secondly, Ministers took the view that “the Reporter has, in her overall conclusions, seriously understated the impact of the proposed development on the National Scenic Area.”


“Accordingly,” the letter concluded, “the Scottish Ministers hereby refuse to grant planning permission in respect of the extraction, processing and transport by sea of anorthosite from land near Rodel, Isle of Harris.” The superquarry had been stopped!


Lafarge Redland are, of course, appealing the decision through the courts. It is thought that their basis of appeal will be that English aggregate policies should hold sway even over a devolved Scotland, and that their corporate “human” rights were violated by all the messing about in arriving at the decision. Both of these arguments would raise constitutional issues that are of wide-ranging interest.


It is probable that this process is now more lawyer-driven than anything else. Possibly it simply represents a huge corporation, run by a chief executive whose office desk is built of … concrete … trying to show a government that it can act the bullyboy and perhaps extract compensation. Of course, nobody will compensate the community and environmentalists for all that we have been subjected to by the company!


As conservationists concerned integrally with the wellbeing of human community, we need to continue to keep an eye on the mountain in case the courts or Government yield to the corporation. Brief letters of support to Scotland’s First Minister, Henry McLeish, at The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, would be helpful. But there is an added factor now. With “corporate persons” trying to take away not only our rocks but also our sense of what constitutes human rights, there is an issue of, wait for it … corporate idolatry … to be looking at with.


I mean, it may be a little quaint in the 21st century to be writing about the merits of “Sabbath.” But when the biggest cement and roadstone company in the world starts acting God with respect to the definition of humanness … then maybe, whether we derive from a Calvinist community or otherwise, we all need to start thinking pretty hard about where our core values are rooted.




Aurum Press in September 2001 publishes Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh’s book about the superquarry and land reform campaigns on Eigg.






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15 Feb 2002


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