Unspoilt beach at Dornoch

Is the Coul Development One for the Long Grass?

Despite the controversy surrounding the Trump International Golf Links, a similar course is proposed, again on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), this time at Coul Links, Embo, on the Sutherland coastline. It had (and still has) widespread support, with the local group Communities For Coul (C4C) completely on board, given the promise of jobs that would accompany it. Highlands Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and several other bodies are also in favour. However, an opposing group, Not Coul, led by Dr. Tom Dargie, and supported by The Scottish Wildlife Trust and a host of others, highlighting what they considered was its disastrous environmental impact, got the proposal stopped in 2020.

Its status as:

  • An SSSI
  • A Special Protection Area (SPA)[1]
  • A Ramsar Site[2]

[1] The EU protection afforded to wild birds’ habitat

[2] These sites derive their names from the Ramsar Convention, a UNESCO Convention giving designated areas international status as recognised wetlands

was a key factor. Overturning the Council decision in favour, the Scottish Government decided that ‘the likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal.’[3]

Two years later, it is back on the table, but Dargie says nothing has changed. He does however point to a similar course, Dumbarnie Links, also near an SSSI, which he says has zero environmental impact, and which he would be happy to see replicated at Coul. However, the current plan, as it stands, cannot be allowed to go ahead. In order to assess the case, it is necessary to examine the make-up of tourism in the area, and also the conflicting claims of environmental damage versus economic benefit of the development. It is vital that the mistakes of the Menie[4] debacle are not repeated. In this case, the Trump Organisation was allowed to ride roughshod over council planning procedure, trash an SSSI, and make a mockery of the Scottish Parliament. Only a fraction of what was promised was forthcoming.  

Firstly, any promises to ‘improve’ a protected site by developing it, should be regarded with deep suspicion. Menie had its status as SSSI removed as there was no longer sufficient reason to retain it.[5] These sites have their status for good reason.

Comparisons are being drawn between the situation in the region today with the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, when peasants were forced to leave to make way for sheep farming; today, economic conditions are forcing people to leave the area. The other golf clubs in the area (The Royal Dornoch, The Brora and Tain clubs) claim a world class course would bring an economic boost to the area. But do the claims stack up? Dargie claims not. He claims that there are jobs in hospitality and catering that cannot be filled currently. The new development will merely bring more of the same.

People also come to the area for reasons other than to play golf. The area is a magnet for those who want to enjoy Scotland’s wild spaces. The Highland Wildcat mountain bike trail network is a mecca for enthusiasts, with the trail near Golspie billed as the UK’s longest freeride descent. Finally, the area is on the NC500, Scotland’s answer to Route 66.



Unless this development completely avoids the protected land, it should be rejected. Sooner or later someone in government will figure that our pristine land is a major part of our tourist offering. Dumbarnie Links leaves the adjacent SSSI completely undisturbed. This would appear to be a win-win outcome. If the Coul Links developers are not willing to make similar amendments, it should be thrown out again.



[1] The EU protection afforded to wild birds’ habitat

[2] These sites derive their names from the Ramsar Convention, a UNESCO Convention giving designated areas international status as recognised wetlands

[3] National Trust for Scotland, Website, 21 February 2020

[4] Menie is the location of the Trump International Golf Links, built on the Foveran Links, which had SSSI status prior to the development.

[5] NatureScot Website, 9 February 2020

English (UK)