Donald Trump arrived at the opening of his new golf course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012, to typical fanfare.
A fleet of black Range Rovers wove a path to the temporary clubhouse, as throngs of reporters gathered to hear what pearls of wisdom the billionaire businessman might impart as he and family members Don Jnr, Eric and Ivanka toured the Trump International Golf Links – a course Trump had claimed would become “the best in the world”.
The pipers had filled their lungs on that drizzly summer day at the Menie Estate to give the real estate mogul a suitably Scottish welcome, yet it has since become clear their instruments were not the only things full of hot air. Trump’s plans for the course had come with promises of £1 billion (HK$9.34 billion) investment in the local economy and 1,500 jobs – promises that would not be kept.
And, while there were those who were thrilled at the opening of the course, for many in northeast Scotland it was already a source of controversy and heartache, with far-reaching political and environmental implications that, to this day, have not been fully resolved.
Out of this controversy, however, arose something of a local legend: the residents who stood up to Trump.
Their story offers an insight into how the newly appointed most powerful man in the world deals with those who stand in his way.
The Trump Organisation had approached these residents, several families living in the vicinity of the course, with offers to buy their property, planning to turn the land into a further development that would include a clubhouse, five-star hotel and holiday homes.
But, as if following the script of the 1983 film Local Hero, the families all refused to sell. (The similarities to that film were highlighted in 2011 documentary You’ve Been Trumped, by Anthony Baxter. Baxter himself, while researching the film, was arrested in a move the local police force was eventually compelled to apologise for.)
The Trump Organisation responded to what it no doubt saw as the residents’ temerity by threatening to seek compulsory purchase orders from the local government that would have forced them to sell.
The families stood their ground. No such orders were filed and the families remain in situ today, albeit surrounded by Trump property.
Among them, Michael Forbes and his elderly mother Molly were the most vilified for their refusal to sell. The farmer had refused an offer of nearly £500,000 plus an annual salary.
“It is slum-like and disgusting ... he lives like a pig,” Trump said of Forbes and his property, reasoning that the sight of the farm would be displeasing to golfers.
It is true the land was not as neat as a manicured fairway – it was farmland after all – but it was the Forbes’ family home, and had been for decades. They were not about to move because a billionaire American wanted to build a car park.
Perhaps Trump should have remembered his own Scottish heritage. His mother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, was from the island of Lewis off the west coast, where homes like the Forbes’ property are common. Would she have been so quick to judge?
Clearly, the Forbes family were made of sturdier stuff. Which was just as well given that, during construction of the golf course, the water to the property was cut – an accident, according to a Trump spokeswoman, that left the family without running water. Molly, over 90 years old at the time, was left to fetch water from a stream.
Another couple in Trump’s sights were David and Moira Milne, who were living in a converted coastguard station above the dunes. The property has been there since 1954. They, too, were offered vast sums of money to move, and when they too refused, one can only assume Trump must have been a wee bit miffed.
On the morning of the course opening, I arrived early to visit the Milnes and hear how they felt about the day. Their home, as might be expected of a former coastguard station, has a wonderful view out to sea – or, rather, it had. By the time I interviewed the Milnes, their view was of a thick line of trees, erected by the Trump Organisation.
It was this issue that I, and many of the other reporters at the launch, wanted to question Trump on. We waited hours for him to speak. Yet when he did so – even accounting for the free beer that had been on tap during our long wait in the press room – we were disappointed.
His team had promised us one-on-one interviews, but the only real chance to ask questions was at the end of a hurried press conference. I asked if he had a message for the Milne family on this historic day, but my question went unanswered. Many other reporters asked similar questions, none of which were directly addressed. Everything was “great” and “wonderful” – adjectives that most Trump-watchers today will no doubt recognise.
Trump did not then appear confident in the traditional sense of the word – and he does not now. He is certainly powerful, a fact attested to by the gaggle of handlers and associates that surround him at all times (Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie was among his entourage that day), but this power does not come across well. His speeches are, now as then, repetitive and rambling, filled with almost zealous optimism and often devoid of information. For a radio journalist looking for the perfect sound bite, he is the stuff of nightmares, not least because he doesn’t answer the question asked.
Dodging questions is par for the course in politics, and Trump has that skill down to a tee already, so perhaps it is not surprising there are so many unanswered questions about the golf course.
Questions such as how the course could be built on sand dunes designated “sites of special scientific interest” ( termed the ‘Great Dunes of Scotland’ by Trump himself or, in his parlance, ‘doons’). Or why the Scottish government overruled Aberdeenshire Council, which had shot down Trump’s application for planning permission on environmental grounds. Or why the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre needed to delay its plans for a windfarm in the North Sea amid censure from Trump (“I want to see the ocean, I don’t want to see windmills,” he had said at the time).
All these issues are great disappointments to many in Aberdeenshire and beyond, yet will perhaps not surprise anyone who followed Trump’s campaign to become president of the USA, AKA leader of the free world.
Trump’s attitude towards everyday people – as the Forbes and Milne families can attest – is telling. Even those without land bore the brunt. Dog walkers or horse riders who strayed over the boundaries of his land would be met by aggressive security staff in 4x4s, something not often seen in that part of the world.
Trump’s unwillingness to handle contentious situations with even a modicum of respect or compassion and his personal attacks against those who dare to disagree with him, as also evidenced on the campaign trail, make for worrying times ahead.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope, and it is one that would shine through even through the drizzliest days of a Scottish summer.
Over the next four years, those who find themselves in the headlights of Trump’s seemingly unstoppable juggernaut would do well to remember the Forbeses and the Milnes and the wee people of Aberdeenshire, and raise a toast to the day they stared down The Donald. ■