Donald Trump builds a wall in Scotland, sends residents the bill

Trump speaking to members of the media during a tour of his International Golf Links course in Balmedie, on the east coast of Scotland on June 25, 2016.
Trump speaking to members of the media during a tour of his International Golf Links course in Balmedie, on the east coast of Scotland on June 25, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BALMEDIE, Scotland (NYTIMES) — President-elect Donald J. Trump has already built a wall — not on the border with Mexico, but on the border of his exclusive golf course in northeastern Scotland, blocking the sea view of local residents who refused to sell their homes.

And then he sent them the bill.

David and Moira Milne had already been threatened with legal action by  Trump’s lawyers, who claimed a corner of their garage belonged to him, when they came home from work one day to find his staff building a fence around their garden. Two rows of grown trees went up next, blocking the view. Their water and electricity lines were temporarily cut. And then a bill for about US$3,500 (S$5,000) arrived in the mail, which, Milne said, went straight into the trash.

“You watch, Mexico won’t pay either,” said Milne, a health and safety consultant and part-time novelist, referring to Trump’s campaign promise to build a “beautiful, impenetrable wall” along the border and force the Mexicans to pay for it.

The Milnes now fly a Mexican flag from their hilltop house, a former Coast Guard station that overlooks the clubhouse of Trump’s Trump International Golf Links, whenever he visits.

So do Susan and John Munro, who also refused to sell up and now face an almost 4.5m-high earthen wall built by Trump’s people on two sides of their property.

Michael Forbes, a quarry worker whose home sits on the opposite side of the Trump property, added a second flag — “Hillary for President” — perhaps because Trump publicly accused him of living “like a pig” and called him a “disgrace” for not selling his “disgusting” and “slumlike” home.

As many Americans are trying to figure out what kind of president they have just elected, the people of Balmedie, a small village outside the once oil-rich city of Aberdeen, say they have a pretty good idea. In the 10 years since Trump first visited, vowing to build “the world’s greatest golf course” on an environmentally protected site featuring 4,000-year-old sand dunes, they have seen him lash out at anyone standing in his way. They say they watched him win public support for his golf course with grand promises, then watched him break them one by one.

A promised US$1.25 billion investment has shrunk to what his opponents say is at most US$50 million. Six thousand jobs have dwindled to 95. Two golf courses to one. An eight-storey 450-room luxury hotel never materialised, nor did 950 time-share apartments. Instead, an existing manor house was converted into a 16-room boutique hotel. Trump International Golf Links, which opened in 2012, lost US$1.36 million last year, according to public accounts.

“If America wants to know what is coming, it should study what happened here. It’s predictive,” said Martin Ford, a local government representative. “I have just seen him do in America, on a grander scale, precisely what he did here. He suckered the people and he suckered the politicians until he got what he wanted, and then he went back on pretty much everything he promised.”

Alex Salmond, a former first minister of Scotland whose government granted Trump planning permission in 2008, overruling local officials, now concedes the point, saying: “Balmedie got 10 cents on the dollar.”

Sarah Malone, who came to Trump’s attention after winning a local beauty pageant and is now a vice-president of Trump International, disputed some of the figures publicly discussed about the project, saying that Trump invested about US$125 million and that the golf course now employed 150 people.

“While other golf and leisure projects were shelved due to lack of funds,” she said, “Mr Trump continued to forge ahead with his plans and has put the region on the global tourism map, and this resort plays a vital role in the economic prosperity of north-east Scotland.”

Salmond said that Trump’s impact on business in Scotland might actually be a net negative because his xenophobic comments have so appalled the Scottish establishment that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, known simply as the R&A, is unlikely to award his other Scottish golf course, the world-renowned Trump Turnberry, another prestigious golf tournament like the Open anytime soon.

“I don’t see the R&A going back to Turnberry, which is a tragedy in itself,” Salmond said. “But it’s also a huge economic blow: Several hundred million pounds lost — or, in Trump terms, billions.”

Trump, whose mother emigrated from Scotland to New York in 1930, never showed any great interest in her place of birth. But in 2008, the same year he applied for planning permission in Balmedie, he visited the pebble-dashed cottage on the Isle of Lewis in Western Scotland where she grew up.

After emerging from his private jet and handing out copies of his book How To Get Rich, he reportedly told locals how Scottish he felt. “I feel very comfortable here,” Trump said before spending less than two minutes with his cousins in his mother’s homestead, The Guardian reported at the time. Within about three hours his private jet had taken off.

The visit clearly did not impress Ford, then the chairman of the planning committee at Aberdeenshire Council, which refused Trump permission for his golf course on environmental grounds. The 4,000-year-old dunes, the committee concluded, were a “site of special scientific interest,” or as Ford put it, “Scotland’s equivalent of the Amazonian rain forest.”

In the end, it was Salmond, a self-described golf fanatic whose constituency includes Balmedie, who came to Trump’s defence, granting permission to proceed in the “national economic interest.”

“Six thousand jobs across Scotland, 1,400 local and permanent jobs in the northeast of Scotland,” Salmond said at the time. “That outweighs the environmental concerns.”

Eight years later he contends that Trump took him in: “If knowing what I know now I had the ability to go back, I would rewrite that page,” Salmond said in an interview this week. “Most developments balance economic against environmental issues. The problem, and it’s a big problem, is that Donald Trump didn’t do what he promised.”

Trump later fell out badly with Salmond (whom he now calls “mad Alex” and a “has-been”), first because he refused to evict residents by eminent domain and then over his plans to install offshore wind turbines a couple of miles from Trump’s golf course.

“If Scotland doesn’t stop insane policy of obsolete, bird-killing wind turbines, country will be destroyed,” Trump wrote on Twitter in 2014.

At a parliamentary inquiry about renewable energy in 2012, Trump warned that Scotland would get into “serious trouble” if it continued to build wind turbines. Asked what evidence he had, he said: “I am the evidence.”

He then made a formal complaint about a Green Party politician who had made fun of the statement with a still from the Monty Python film The Life Of Brian, accusing him of blasphemy and threatening to take him to court.

The wind turbines, whose foundations are expected to be laid next year, still seem to rankle Trump. In a meeting right after his election victory, Trump urged Nigel Farage, the leader of the populist UK Independence Party — which has failed to win a single seat in Scotland — to fight offshore wind farms in Scotland on his behalf.

“To actually believe that having a conversation with Nigel Farage and his henchmen about wind energy is going to change Scottish government policy is on the outer limits of possibility,” Salmond said.

As a presidential candidate who was caught on a hot microphone bragging about sexually assaulting women, Trump found little sympathy among Scotland’s political leaders, most of whom happen to be women.

Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor, has called Trump’s comments “deeply abhorrent” and stripped him of his membership in the Global Scot business network. Kezia Dugdale, who runs the Scottish Labour Party, commented after Trump’s election that a “misogynist” would move into the White House, while Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, described him as a “clay-brained guts, a knotty-pated fool.”

And in Aberdeen, where 10 years ago public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of  Trump and his golf course, Robert Gordon University annulled Trump’s honorary degree after his comments about barring Muslims from entering the United States.

Some local residents remain fiercely loyal to him. Stewart Spence, owner of the exclusive Marcliffe hotel, has a photo of Trump and himself on display in the lobby as well as his own honorary membership of Balmedie golf course.

“How many tourists have the dunes brought in? Zero,” he said. “What he has done is build a beautiful golf course and made the north-east of Scotland an amazing destination.”

As for the American election campaign, Spence said, “He has done a fantastic selling job to the American people.”

Until six years ago, the Munros could look out their kitchen window and see 16km across open land all the way to the Girdleness lighthouse on the other side of Aberdeen. Now they look out onto the nearly 4.5m-high earthen berm built by Trump’s people.

“He has a thing about walls, that Mr Trump,” Ms Munro said.

“I hope America has a better experience than Balmedie.”