Donald Trump wants to put a luxury golf resort on a gloriously unspoiled swath of Scottish seacoast. His plan has come under fire by environmental activists and led to a battle that has reached the highest levels of government. Plus, he’s up against another character: local fisherman Michael Forbes.
by Alex Shoumatoff
Donald Trump is on the phone, and he is pumped. “Alex, my man. I bought the most beautiful piece of land in Europe: the Great Dunes, in northeastern Scotland.” (Only the Donald, it should be pointed out, calls them “the Great Dunes.” Not that they aren’t great—they’re fantastic—but they’re actually called the Menie dunes.) “Fourteen hundred acres with 3.8 miles of beachfront, just north of Aberdeen, which is the oil capital of Europe. The dunes are considered to be S.S.S.I., which means scientifically important something”—a Site of Special Scientific Interest—“and that you sort of can’t touch them. It’s like going in and ripping down a landmark building in New York. But I’m going to build a world-class golf course in the dunes and another 18 holes on the property, plus a tremendous hotel with 450 rooms, 500 homes, 950 condos, and 36 golf villas. I’ll know at the end of the month if I get the zoning. If Jack Nicklaus tried to do this he’d have zero chance, but they like what I’ve done, and because I am who I am and my mother is Scottish—between you and me, Alex, I’m going to get it.
“Royal Aberdeen Golf Club,” he continues, “where they just had the Open”—not quite: Royal Aberdeen has never hosted the British Open, but the Senior Open was played there in 2005—“is just down the road. Its front nine is in the dunes, and it’s generally considered to be the best in golf. But Royal Aberdeen’s dunes are nothing compared to mine. The dunes are just starting to rise at Royal Aberdeen, and they peak on my property. My dunes are the highest on the whole Scottish coast. So imagine how great the course is going to be. I’ve hired Martin Hawtree to design it. He’s a consultant for the Royal & Ancient at St. Andrews. And he’s from that part of the world, which is important.”
Trump and I have an improbable friendship that began with a round of golf we played at Winged Foot, the famous course in Mamaroneck, New York, 10 years ago. I was writing about the invasion of the megabucksters, the turnover from old Wasp gentry to new money in my hometown, Bedford, in northern Westchester County. Trump had bought the magnificent Eugene Meyer estate (Meyer made The Washington Post a world-class newspaper) and had applied to build a luxury golf-course development on its 213 acres. Even the new-money Bedfordites were not happy about it.
I needed to talk to Trump and, knowing that he plays golf, I suggested doing it on the golf course. He thought it was a great idea and invited me to join him at Winged Foot, which he belongs to. Joe Pesci was supposed to join us, but he didn’t show, so Trump and I set off with an old caddie lugging both our bags. I rose to the occasion, at one point stiffing a five-wood 210 yards to within eight feet of the pin, but Trump is a ferocious competitor and put his ball even closer. No matter how well I hit my shot, his was always better. We had a game. I put the pressure on, and he ended up shooting a 71, which was the lowest score he had ever carded at Winged Foot, and he was ecstatic about it. The 18th hole, one of the most fearsome closing holes in golf, Trump calmly birdied, like it was nothing. (I flew my six-iron approach into a trap and was out of contention.) We shook hands, and he said, “I just wanted to finish with a bird, Alex, to impress on your frigging gourd that the Trumpster can play.”
Since then Trump has married the model Melania Knauss, his third wife, and they have a son, Barron, his fifth child. He also became a global television star, firing aspiring young employees on The Apprentice. When I called to tell him that Vanity Fair wanted me to look into the local furor over his proposed golf course in Scotland, he asked—I could feel his almost child-like excitement growing, even on the phone—“Do you think they’re going to put me on the cover?” Trump tells people he’s been on the cover of Vanity Fair twice, but it was only once, with his second wife, Marla Maples, and their child, Tiffany, in 1994. I told him, “That’s something I have absolutely no control over, but I hope they do.”
Trump didn’t get to do the golf course in Bedford, because its pesticides and fertilizers would have run off into Byram Lake, which provides drinking water for three towns. Even Trump can be shot down, but it doesn’t happen very often, and when you have as big a stack of chips as he does, it doesn’t matter if you lose a hand or two. He went on to build two fantastic Trump National golf courses—one nearby in Briarcliff, the other in Bedminster, New Jersey. When I asked him about Bedford, he said he decided not to do the golf course because it would have cut into the profits at Briarcliff. Instead, he’s going to build 24 houses on the land and sell them for $20 million each. Trump does not admit defeat.
My conversation with Trump took place last November, and the Scottish project was looking pretty good. The local population was overwhelmingly in favor of it, and the Scottish government in Edinburgh seemed to be all for it, except for Scottish Natural Heritage, the government’s environmental protection agency, which is concerned about the S.S.S.I. being invaded and the spectacular mobile-dune system being stabilized and grassed over with fairways and greens. There’s also a local fisherman, Michael Forbes, who has 23 acres in the middle of Trump’s 1,400 acres that he refuses to sell to Trump for any price—a David and Goliath story that the European and American press has been having a field day with.
“What about this Michael Forbes?,” I ask Trump, and he tells me, “Forbes is a wise guy … and now that he’s become well known because he’s fighting Trump, he’s playing it up to the hilt. His property is a mess, and I would like him to clean it up, but it’s in the flatland behind the dunes, and my approvals have nothing to do with it. I own 100 percent of what I need to own. There are people on the outskirts making noise because it’s me, unfortunately, but between you and me, Alex, Forbes is making my land more valuable.”
Five months after my conversation with Trump, and a subsequent weeklong trip to Scotland, the fate of the Menie dunes is still undecided. Trump’s project has generated such a passionate response between those opposed to the development and those in favor of it that the Scottish government in Edinburgh has gotten involved, which means that the decision will be made at the national, not the shire, level, ultimately by the Cabinet secretary of finance and sustainable growth. It could come in a few months, or take much longer.
I should get this out of the way: I am fond of Trump. Underneath the unbelievable ego, he’s actually a good guy. On the other hand, Graydon Carter, the editor of this magazine, has a history with Trump. Back when he was the editor of Spy magazine, he called Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian,” which Trump is still smarting from. And I love golf. But I’m also passionate about advocating for and documenting natural sites like the Menie dunes and local cultures, which are being obliterated by the modern world. And “ecological sensitivity” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump. He doesn’t even believe in global warming. But this is because he is a city boy. The only apparent contact he has with nature is golf and sex. The rest of the time he’s wheeling and dealing and being the Donald. Which is why golf is so important to him. Which he doesn’t even realize.
The battle in Scotland between the Trumpistas and the Dunistas is just a local example of the bigger conflict, playing out all over the world and of crucial importance for the future of the planet, between those who believe that nature—what little of it is left—should be allowed to take its course, that its unfathomable intricacy and complexity cannot be improved upon, and those who believe that the natural world is there for us to exploit and alter to our advantage. Western civilization has basically been in the second, anthropocentric camp since the book of Genesis, which is why, after centuries of relentless destruction, the planet is now in such deep trouble. But try explaining this to Donald Trump.
A few days after my conversation with Trump, I am driving down a muddy lane to Mill of Menie, eight miles north of the city of Aberdeen, to Michael Forbes’s farm. I come down to the flats, behind which are the dunes—an imposing, jumbled, hundred-foot wall of grass-tufted sand—and, behind them, the gleaming North Sea. There is a farmhouse with a barn; half a dozen vehicles are being worked on, but on the scale of rustic squalor, it’s unremarkable. Forbes’s 83-year-old mother, Molly, who lives on the property and is handling the press, invited me to come to her house, a neat little white pre-fab that has been called a “trailer.” Forbes, who opens the door, calls it a “chalet.” A plaque beside the door says paradise.
“Beautiful spot you have here,” I say to Forbes as we sit down in the living room, and he says, “And Trump wants to ruin it. Every time he’s on television, all he talks about is the golf course. But that’s just camouflage, a blind. It only costs a few million to build a golf course. So why is this a billion-pound project? Because he’s putting in millions of houses. He never says anything about the houses, but we know what it’s all about. That’s what he does, isn’t it? He finds a beautiful place and ruins it. Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod, was from the Isle of Lewis, 200 miles from here. He says he’s doing this to get back to his roots, but if that was true, why isn’t he ruining the Isle of Lewis?”
A bald, mustachioed, 55-year-old reminiscent of the actor Robert Shaw, Forbes is wearing a white wool sweater and has a cast on his left arm, for recent surgery on his arthritic thumb. “The doctor said I was doing too much ruggin’ and rivin’,” he explains in the local Doric dialect, which means too much pulling and forcing of fishnets. “Fishin’ is in my blood. My father and grandfather were salmon fishers, the skippers of a salmon-fishing station on the beach.
“But there are no more fish here,” Forbes continues. “This summer all I caught was one salmon and one trout. The dolphins and the seals are chasing them out to sea. And there’s pollution.” For the past 17 years, Forbes has been working at a quarry in nearby Balmedie. “I’m the deputy quarry manager, but I do everything, including manning and repairing the machines. We mine whinstone, which is a type of granite.”
I ask Forbes if he’s related to the renowned American Forbeses. “I hope I am,” he replies. “Maybe they’ll give me some help to fight Trump. There’s always been Forbeses on the beach. There was even one called Malcolm. Seemingly, the first Forbes came over from Ireland, before they had a last name,” he explains. “The story goes Queen Bess asked one of them to kill a bear and he came back with three, and she called him Three Bears for Bess, which became Forbes. It happened at Strathdon, 45 minutes from here.” There’s an old Forbes clan motto: “Doe not vaiken sleiping dogs.” Which is just what Trump has done.
It’s ironic that Trump’s adversary is called Forbes. Trump was No. 314 on last year’s Forbes billionaires list, with a net worth of $2.9 billion. “Only No. 314, Donny boy?,” I will rib him later, when we are flying down to Palm Beach on his jet. “What’s the matter?” Trump quickly assures me that he is worth $9 billion.
“My mother’s a Lamb,” Forbes goes on. “There’s quite a lot of Lambs around this area. The Lambs, Lamberts, and Lambertons have the same tartan as the Forbeses, but without white stripes.” As he is saying this, in from kirk (church) comes Molly, who is as lovely as she sounded over the phone and still spry, mentally and physically. She puts on a pot of tea and brings out some fresh-baked sugar cookies.
I ask her if she is local, too, and she says, “No. I was brought up four miles inland. But I know this area. We used to ride down here on our bicycles and play in the halex.” “Halex” is how “hillocks,” the local term for grass-covered dunes, comes out in Doric. “Doric is worse to understand than Gaelic,” explains Forbes. “It’s a language they made up long ago to fool the British.”
The general term in Scotland for the crumpled sandy band between the farmland and the beach is “links.” The links are where the game of golf originated, more than 500 years ago.
Forbes is obviously very attached to his mother. I can see there is no way Trump is going to get this property while she is alive. “Trump buys people, but for some people it’s not about money,” Forbes says. In fact, the slogan of Sustainable Aberdeenshire, the grassroots organization of 50 or so objectors that was hastily formed to oppose the development, whose celebrities are Forbes and Molly, is “Menie, not money.”
Mill of Menie was part of the Menie Estate, which includes an ancient castle in the beech woods above Forbes’s property called Menie House. Forbes explains that the estate was bought by an American lawyer in the oil business named Tom Griffin sometime after the drilling in the North Sea started in the 70s. Griffin stocked the property with pheasant and red-footed partridge and ran it as a hunting lodge. “It was he who first had the idea of turning the place into a golf resort,” Forbes says. “About 10 years ago he started buying up land. The rumor was because he wanted to put the old estate back the way it was, but I was wary even then.
“Two years ago,” he goes on, “Griffin sold the land to Trump, and letters went out that Trump wanted to meet all the locals and was inviting us for a meeting at Menie House, but I didn’t go, because I wasn’t interested in selling. Trump was here for three days—this was last year. On the third day I was mending my nets at home, and Tom Griffin came to me and said, ‘Donald Trump wants to talk to you,’ and Trump came over all nicey-nicey. By this time, Neil Hobday [a developer Trump hired as his project manager] and his fiancée, posing as husband and wife who were trying to pick up a bargain vacation home—he was using the name Peter White—had been going around and asking them to sell, and when they came here, my wife said, ‘Get f—.’?” (Hobday says this approach is standard commercial practice: “If I turned up and said, ‘Hello, I’m from the Trump Organization … ‘”) “The rumor is he tried to do a golf resort of his own and went bust and he left the local people with thousands of pounds of unpaid bills, then turned up here.
“Three months ago, I got [an initial] letter from Trump’s solicitor offering me £350,000 for my place, lock, stock, and barrel. It was a nasty letter, demanding the place. So I stuffed it back in the envelope and wrote on the outside, ‘Take your insult and shove it and do not bother me again,’ and popped it into the postbox up at Menie Estate, and that’s when everything went mental. They stopped my access to the beach. By then Hobday, George Sorial”—Trump’s director of international development in New York—“and another lad had met Mother and me and started apologizing for the disruption that was going to be caused by all the machinery. They offered to move us to Blackdog,” a big rock three miles down the coast, so named because it seems to howl in the wind, “but it’s a dump, with methane gas coming out all over the place. I said no, then they offered to jack up the house and move me and Mother to the other side of the highway. I said no, and they said, ‘We’ll give you a job,’ but they wouldn’t say what it was and no money was mentioned. It could have been cleaning Trump’s toilets. The paper said I was offered a hundred thousand pounds a year for the rest of my life and that I demanded a million pounds for my property, which is rubbish. The only thing I demanded was to be left in peace.
“Then the board of environmental health came and had a look around and said there was nothing wrong,” Forbes continues, “and I said, ‘Who put in the report? It wouldn’t be Trump’s people, would it?’ And they said, ‘We can’t say.’ Then the R.S.P.C.A.—animal welfare—came. My wife’s got cats, geese, a horse, and hens. They had a look around and said everything was O.K. and wouldn’t say who reported us, either.”
Hobday denies that the Trump Organization called the Board of Environmental Health or the R.S.P.C.A. He also says that they have asked Forbes not to cross their land to access the beach, but that he continues to do so. Hobday claims that they never offered to move the Forbes house, though they did offer to move him to a house in Blackdog. And regarding the job offer, Hobday says it was at a managerial level.
“Trump himself came over a month ago and had a press conference at Menie House,” Forbes says. “He called my place disgusting. ‘Forbes sits there like an angel, but he’s a tough, smart guy.’ The first I knew about this rant was when The Guardian and The Times called up and asked if I was going to sue him. And that’s when this whole thing started up. I have never had any peace since. I’ve been getting letters from all over the world. Good letters.”
“A CBS crew asked me, Will Trump get us out?, and I said, Never,” Forbes says. He shows me a picture of him standing in front of the chalet in his kilt with his arms folded defiantly, like in Braveheart. “You’re talking about a thrawn Forbes here,” he explains. “?‘Thrawn’ is [Doric for] worse than stubborn. All the Forbes are known to be thrawn. Mother’s a Lamb, and they’re thrawner.”
I turn off onto the Green Lady, a lane that leads through the beech woods and is named for a female ghost, apparently one of the housemaids a few generations back, who haunts Menie House and always appears in a green dress. Trump has gotten a magical piece of Scotland. You can almost feel the local spirits.
I pull up to the estate’s quaint old stone lodge house, which for the last 25 years has been the home of Don and Valerie Banks. They are a nice couple. Don is mild-mannered and does risk assessments for the oil industry. Valerie has two horses and rides on the beach. She is one of the few people who use the S.S.S.I. regularly. Don is one of the founders of Sustainable Aberdeenshire and is the antithesis of Donald, who he says, disdainfully, “specializes in being O.T.T.”—over the top.
“This is quite a quiet corner of Scotland,” Don tells me. “The planning board has never had to deal with anything of this scale or magnitude, and it’s understandable that the council would welcome a celebrity. The best thing Trump has done is to give us a celebrity of our own, Michael Forbes.”
When I tell Trump, “Everybody says trashing Forbes at the press conference was a big miscalculation. You created a David,” he has no regrets: “The farmer got me all this publicity. Now everybody knows about what I’m doing in Scotland. It’s the hottest thing in Europe.”
Banks has invited Owen Vaughan, a geologist knowledgeable about the natural history of the dunes, to join us for a walk in them. Vaughan is on the council of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a non-governmental conservation charity, and works for an American oil company.
We drive out to the old Coast Guard station, on a bluff that has a sweeping view of the dunes and Aberdeen Bay beyond them. David and Moira Milne are living there and in the process of adding on to it. The eight stories of condos that Trump is applying for would come to within 50 yards of their back door, but it is still a gloriously isolated spot. The Milnes have no intention of selling, either. From the tower of the station, the sea and the dunes are bathed in soft golden light. We can see Aberdeen’s little thicket of skyscrapers, eight miles down the coast. This side of the river Don, just above the city’s northern limit, the dunes begin.
Royal Aberdeen, the sixth-oldest golf course in the world, built in l780, and the 100-year-old Murcar Links are nestled in them, working their way through the dune system. Then comes Balmedie Country Park, where the public enjoys access to the beach and the dunes. Then comes Trump’s land, which is at the center of the 14-mile mobile-dune system that extends on up to Cruden Bay, where it is stopped by a wall of cliffs.
“The sand is washed up by the waves and is picked up by the wind that blows it up the beach and inland, whipping it up into dunes,” Vaughan explains.
“It takes about a hundred years to make a dune, but the system is 4,000 years old. It started with the rebound of the land as the last ice sheet disappeared, which raised it out of the ocean. The ocean was also rising with ice melt from glaciers and the Arctic ice cap, but the land was rising faster. Two thousand years ago, people were living a hundred miles from shore, halfway across the North Sea to Norway.
“At the northern end of the dune system, a whole village called Forvie was covered by sand in 1413, supposedly in a single storm,” Vaughan continues. “The Forvie Dunes are a British National Nature Reserve. Seals and swans and short-eared owls congregate there. The site is untouchable. At Forvie the sand—whatever hasn’t been carried off by the burns [creeks]—is washed back into the sea by the River Ythan. So it’s a never-ending cycle—one of the most beautiful and dynamic mobile-dune systems in the world. Ten days of good wind could bury Trump’s course. I wonder if he knows this.”
The four of us bound down the steep slope of the bluff into the flats behind the dune wall, which are known as the “slacks.” We are now on the Foveran Links, where part of Trump’s golf course would go if the development is approved. The floor of the slacks is gravel hardpan—old raised beach, from when the sea was higher, before the dunes came into existence, explains Vaughan, pointing out a wind-bared section. Little ponds important for wildlife stand here and there. Skylarks and linnets, which have inspired poets from Blake to Yeats, nest in the short grass and sand on their edges. There are 12 species of willow in the slacks: prostrate willows, whose red stems lie over the sand; knee-high willows, favored by willow warblers; and tree-size willows frequented by coal tits and blue tits. In summer, orchids and yellow flag irises bloom on the dry slopes of the slacks, and there’s a rare fern called the lesser adder’s-tongue as well as a couple of butterflies that are not often seen. But nothing rare enough or endangered enough to stop Trump from having his way.
Vaughan shows me how a thick, triangular blade of marram grass poking up through the sand is beginning to trap sand particles. Most of the blades are eventually blown away, but every so often the sand behind one of them accumulates and becomes the nucleus of a dune. Marram is salt-tolerant and has very deep roots and holds the sand in place.
We thread our way between looming dunes along a narrow, wind-gouged crevice and finally come out on a 25-acre sheet of pure white sand, which came into being 40 years ago when a violent storm breached the dune wall, creating a corridor through which the sand could blow. The Menie Dome, as it is called, is the largest patch of bare white sand in the dune system and is at the heart of the controversy. Trump is planning to grass it over with the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 17th holes. Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has also filed a strong objection to the golf course with the Aberdeenshire Council, argue that trying to stabilize the dunes, particularly the Dome, would “completely interfere with the reason why they are an S.S.S.I.,” as Ian Francis, the Royal Society’s area manager for northeastern Scotland, explains, “which is to ensure that a special, pressurized site like this continues to be dominated by natural processes. There is a big nesting colony of skylarks in the slacks, 70 or 80 pairs, and skylarks are in decline nationwide, but the ecology is not unique. The geomorphology, however, is. It’s one of the more important mobile-dune systems in the British Isles. But the S.S.S.I. has a little get-out clause that says you can do certain things if certain things are complied with. If the project is of national importance, it can override protection.”
Trump is arguing that his project is a model for the Scottish economy after the oil gives out, in 40 years or so, and that his course will have the Open, but there is no guarantee of either. “What is nationally important—200,000 people coming every decade or so?,” Francis asks. “A billion pounds spent over 10 years? This is not of national importance, either to the U.K. or to Scotland. Other objectors have compared the development to putting in a large supermarket. We’re talking of regional significance, and in so doing destroying an unequivocally magnificent site of national significance. They’re building a town that’s now countryside.”
Francis tells me that 3,000 pink-footed geese, who fly down from Iceland, spend the winter picking over the harvested hay and barley fields where the houses are slated to go. But the Royal Society is not even making that their primary issue, because the proponents of the project could argue that the geese would find somewhere else to go. Its main issues are maintaining the integrity of the S.S.S.I.—is a protected area really protected or not?—and of the dynamic natural processes that make the site so special. Don Banks is more concerned about the integrity of the Aberdeenshire Council, which, if it gives Trump the go-ahead, will be violating its own planning code, which bans housing in undeveloped coastal areas. “There are already 70 golf courses in Aberdeenshire,” he says. “Why on earth do we need another one, especially if it means sacrificing this jewel of our natural heritage?”
“I wonder if anyone has told him about the Harr,” Valerie adds. The Harr is a dense coastal fog that arrives on summer days—especially in July, just when the British Open that Trump so wants would be played—causing a 10-degree-centigrade drop in the temperature and reducing visibility to a few yards. “How are they going to have the tournament when the Harr sets in?,” Valerie asks. I put this to Trump. He hasn’t heard about the Harr and lets George Sorial field the question. Sorial says it doesn’t have any impact in Aberdeen. But Sorial’s veracity quotient is no higher than his boss’s. Two of his statements to me—that 30 S.S.S.I.’s have already been de-listed so they could be converted into golf courses, and that the dunes are only 40 years old: “this bit about their being 4,000 years old is bullshit” (he is thinking about the breach that created Menie Dome)—have not checked out. “That’s not what I’m hearing,” I tell him, and he says, “Well, if it does, it’s just part of the game.”
I conduct an unscientific survey of local public opinion in the pubs of Aberdeen, and the ayes have it—a hundred percent. Most Aberdonians, it should be pointed out, have never seen the dunes. The bartender at Wordies Alehouse tells me that of the 200,000 people in Aberdeen only a few hundred are against Trump’s project, and most don’t care one way or the other. This jibes with a taxi driver’s contention that “only the odd few, the sandal wearers and tree huggers, are making noise about it.” The manager of the Cock & Bull, down the carriageway from the Menie Estate—where Trump had dined, appropriately enough, the last time he was here—is a staunch supporter. Americans are liked in Aberdeen. The Texas oil culture has seeped into the local culture. Country and western is bigger than bagpipes.
With public opinion running so strongly for the resort, it’s hard to see the Aderdeenshire Council not voting for it. Its members’ first responsibility, like that of anyone who wants to be re-elected, is to their constituents, not to the environment or even its own planning code. The first vote, by the Formartine Area Committee (Formartine is the sub-jurisdiction of Aberdeenshire that contains the Menie dunes), will take place the next week.
A week after that, the more powerful Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee will hold its vote. This too is expected to be a slam dunk for the Trumpster. Another gem of nature lost, I think. But if Trump doesn’t do it, someone else will, and not as well. It’s too close to the city not to be eventually condo’d over. There’s already a steady stream of commuters from farther out at rush hour.
The next morning I meet Neil Hobday and his assistant, Lora McCluskey, at Trump International Scotland’s headquarters, in the renovated stable of Menie House, which is an enchanting piece of Scottish-castle architecture. “D.T. isn’t sure what he’s going to do with it,” Hobday says. Maybe he’s going to keep it to put up visiting celebrities like Sean Connery, a big golfer, to whom Trump has extended the first membership. “Connery’s membership number will be 007,” Trump told me, “and he’ll hit the first ball when the course opens.”
Hobday, 50, has a posh British accent, polished at the British military academy Sandhurst. He is articulate, old-school-tie but not nobby, and brings a touch of class to the project. He tells me he grew up on a 50,000-acre farm in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.
I ask about his own failed golf-course development, the one Michael Forbes told me about. “It was a much more modest proposal,” he explains.
“The permitting dragged on for two years, and when it finally came through, there was a stipulation that we had to hook up the sewage with a treatment plant miles away. This was an expensive proposition, and the American backers felt they had absorbed enough losses and backed out.” According to the London Sunday Times, Hobday’s development company went “into administration” in 2005 and has yet to be sold. Some 30 staff were “made redundant” (laid off), and investors were left with almost $2 million worth of unpaid bills, more than $330,000 of which was owed to local businessmen. Trump says he hired Hobday because he understood the application process.
“With Trump’s project we are leading the establishment of Scotland as a No. 1 golf destination,” he tells me. “There hasn’t been much since Muirfield and St. Andrews. Aberdeenshire, with its 70 courses, is a great destination for golf tourism, but the infrastructure for receiving them is not there. There aren’t enough hotels, and the ones in Aberdeen are filled during the week by people coming in and out of the rigs and other people in the oil business. And on the weekend all the tee times are booked by members. So when Trump International opens its 400-room hotel, the tourists can stay here and play them all. And it will bring up the whole region. It’s a classic case: if you flood a lake, all the boats rise at the same time.”
Other well-known developers are already jumping on the bandwagon. Jack Nicklaus is doing a golf resort at the Ury Estate, south of Aberdeen. Tom Watson’s name has been mentioned to renovate Hazelfield, a municipal course nearby that was designed by Alister MacKenzie, famed for the hallowed Augusta National, in Georgia. Castle Stuart, up in Inverness, and Gleneagles, in the heart of Scotland, where the G-8 summit took place in 2005, are already up and running. “It began with Tralee [in southwestern Ireland], Arnold Palmer’s first European design, in l983,” Hobday tells me, “and as the Celtic Tiger”—Ireland’s economic boom that began in the 1990s—“took off, it quickly went into golf-course-development overdrive. Scotland wasn’t so desperate for golf developments, because it had the oil revenue, and now the home of golf is playing catch-up.”
The three of us pile into a silver S.U.V. and head for the dunes. Hobday continues his spiel. “D.T. bought this property because he wants to host the British Open. It’s the only one left that’s capable of doing it. The beauty is we have such a huge envelope and can pre-plan for a major tournament. The usual venues—like Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal St. George’s, in Kent—have serious problems with parking and handling the crowds that descend on them.
“Tom Griffin had assembled 800 acres, and we bolted on three properties, bringing it up to 1,400. Within it are the holdouts who are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Hobday says.
“But why would Forbes sell his 23 acres now, when, if the development goes through, it would undoubtedly be worth a lot more?,” I ask.
“Michael Forbes can start a fight in an empty room,” Hobday says, “but his new pals at Sustainable Aberdeenshire have given him a social life. We’ve had a cordial relationship most of the time. Offered him a job for life—anything he wanted: head of landscaping, head of the machinery. The guy is very good with his hands. [Forbes’s wife] Sheila knows we said he would have a very senior role, so he has his agenda. We’ve now offered £450,000 sterling for his land when the going price before us was £200,000. We’ve tried to get him to understand that life will never be the same; the reason you’re here will be gone. These rusting machines may be important to you, but they look like shit. For Michael to take this kind of Braveheart role is a little bit disingenuous. Suddenly he’s wearing his kilt, when he never owned a suit in his life. It must be rented. But Trump understands where he’s coming from. We’ve told Forbes our door is always open.” (According to Forbes, he owns two kilts. He does admit, however, that he has never owned a suit.)
We walk out onto the Dome, and Hobday continues: “And here’s the biggest sheet of sand in the system. The closest comparison is an oil slick,” he says. “If it were an oil slick, what would you do? Would you let it float around, killing habitat? Or would you clean it up? I call it a giant sea slug. Or a land-based oil slick that devours farmland and habitat, gobbles it up. It’s not the result of a natural process; it’s an aberration, the result of a violent storm 40 years ago. And the responsible, natural thing to do is to stabilize it. By stabilization I mean strategically planting more of the native marram grass that is already here, holding the dunes in place. The fairways will be the native fescue, which is already growing in the slacks. As with all the links in Scotland, you have to use the indigenous grasses because of the high saline content of the soil and the wind. They evolved naturally and produce the kind of game associated with links, which is fast and firm and not target golf.”
I have to admit it would make a fantastic golf course. Trump was not kidding. And Hobday makes the valid point that covering the Dome with the native vegetation would increase the habitat for the birds and other animals. “Royal Aberdeen says it has 150 species of wildflowers,” he says. “Clearly this coastline has been used for golf for centuries to no ill effect.”
I don’t see anybody in the minute, rather tepid opposition who is capable of standing up to Trump and his hardball corporate lawyers. But I am heartened when I meet Mickey Foote, Sustainable Aberdeenshire’s press coordinator. His house is way out on a ridge north of Trump’s property, a mile from the carriageway and about the same distance from the sea. An Aberdeen native, Foote lived on a houseboat in London for many years. His claim to fame is that he produced the Clash’s first album, in 1977. And he has a mouth.
“So Hobday has given you the tour,” he says. “?‘The great sea slug that needs to be restrained.’ A lot of local businessmen in Spey Bay got burned when his resort development failed, and it was a peanut proposal compared to this.
“At the original hearing, Tom Fazio, who was the first designer, said all we need is a couple of tees and greens. And it kept getting bigger, doubling, then tripling in size, and once the people of Aberdeen had been sucked in, the bigger it got, the more excited they got. But I’m scared the whole thing is going to go tits-up and we’ll be left with this huge white elephant on our hands. I don’t think he’s going to fill his 450-room hotel or his luxury houses, condos, and golf villas. All the golf clubs around here are short of members.”
Foote starts to get worked up. “What kind of a heel would want to put a golf course in a natural links, anyway? How can he say this is the most beautiful place in the world? The most beautiful place to ruin. Why doesn’t he find a shithouse and do it up? The shit that comes out of his mouth—what’s he living in, a parallel universe or what? How can the environment be better with 1,000 units?”
Foote is pacing around his living room, spitting out zingers. “All our ‘moms’ are Scottish. Let’s see what he’d do if we put his off her land.
“Has anyone told him how nasty the climate is in Aberdeen most of the time?” he adds.
I ask Trump myself: “Are you aware that the climate up there sucks eight months out of the year?” And he says, “Well, maybe global warming—which I don’t necessarily believe in, at least the human part—is going to take care of that.”
Links golf is supposed to be played year-round, but on only two days during the week I spend in Aberdeen is the weather fit for golf. No one in his right mind would go out on the others. Serendipitously, these are the days I have set up to play Royal Aberdeen and the Old Course at St. Andrews. No golfer’s journey is complete without a pilgrimage to St. Andrews, the mecca of the game. This is where it all began, back in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Hobday has arranged for me to play with Malcolm Campbell, a respected local golf historian and a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, founded in l754, whose venerable Gothic stone clubhouse presides over the fabled Old Course.
Campbell is 64, a short, wily man in a brown plaid golf cap—the rill dill. He is working on a book about St. Andrews that will give five alternative ways to play each hole, depending on the conditions.
The wind this morning is “the merest zephyr,” as Campbell puts it, so the course isn’t much of a challenge apart from its severely undulating greens and infamous pothole bunkers. Afterward, we repair to the Royal & Ancient’s Big Room, which is lined with old lockers and monumental portraits of famous golfers, and sip port while watching players hit up to the 18th green. “Golf is the true religion,” Campbell reflects. “No wars were ever fought over golf. It was originally classless. If the world were run by the Royal & Ancient, it would be a better place—and safer.” A golfocracy—I like it, I say. Maybe we should give it a shot. Nothing else seems to work.
I am expecting more pro-Trump propaganda from Campbell, considering it was Hobday’s office that set me up with him, but Campbell says, “One thing we know, Trump International is not going to be understated. Scotland doesn’t need Trump. It needs more affordable golf courses, and Trump’s course is just a vehicle for a high-end development. He wants the Open, but he will never get it.”
There are already nine venues that take turns hosting the British Open: Muirfield, Carnoustie, Turnberry, Royal Troon, Royal St. George’s, Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham, and St. Andrews. “None of them are going to pass up the shot in the arm that holding the tournament gives their local economy,” Campbell says. “And I can’t see Trump getting it before Portmarnock, in County Dublin, Ireland, which is not in the U.K.; there’s been a lot of talk about giving it the Open as a conciliatory move. Trump gave a press conference here about how he was building the greatest course in the history of mankind, and how it was going to host the Open, and Peter Dawson, the R. & A.’s secretary, asked him, ‘And when do you think that might be?’?”
We talk about how golf started as something for the shepherds to do while they were minding their flocks. Then the English appropriated it and incorporated it into their club system, and it became a class thing. In the 70s, Florida-style golf communities started to be built for America’s baby-boomers who were doing well and taking up the game but couldn’t get into exclusive golf and tennis clubs and were looking for a nice place to live and raise their families. These developments found fertile ground in places like Scottsdale and Palm Springs and the “Redneck Riviera,” along the Gulf of Mexico, and took off; the real-estate boom was reinforced by the equipment and apparel boom. But the bloom has been off the golf boom for four or five years—a recently released report found that the number of Americans who play has declined or remained flat every year since 2000—and golf-course developments have been having trouble in America. The only market for them now is overseas. Trump’s son Eric tells me that 75 percent of the Trump Organization’s constructions these days are abroad. Gated golf communities are going great guns in Brazil, and one of the richest purses on the European Challenge Tour Open is now the Kazakhstan Open. Oil-rich Kazakhs are taking up the game. Where money is flowing, golf soon follows.
But at some point, like the tulip bubble in 17th-century Holland, the global golf bubble is going to burst, too. So I wonder if these high-rolling American golfers are really going to materialize, to spring for a million-dollar vacation home so they can play golf for a week or two a year on Trump’s course in Aberdeenshire. Is golf really going to be the savior of the Scottish economy after the oil gives out?
Trump has invited me for Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, the onetime Palm Beach residence of five-times-married Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, which he bought in 1985 and converted to a private club for very rich and successful people who can’t get into the old-line Bath & Tennis Club, across the street. This means that I won’t be able to attend the meeting of the Formartine Area Committee, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion that it is going to give Trump the green light. I leave Scotland and fly to New York and meet Trump at his jet, which he keeps at La Guardia. It’s hard to miss. Its flanks are emblazoned with trump in giant golden letters.
Rhona Graff, Trump’s longtime, devoted secretary, greets me with the news that the Area Committee vote went seven to four for Donald. “A bit of a cakewalk,” as she puts it.
Donald has put on a few pounds since the last time I saw him, but otherwise he is unchanged. “Did you bring your wife?” he asks me, and I say no. “No problem,” he says. “We’ll get you another one.”
While we are on the plane, Rhona’s 12-year-old son puts on a DVD of An Inconvenient Truth, and when Trump sees Al Gore on the screen, he says, “That man is going to close up the country.”
“That’s one thing you’re never going to get,” I say.
“What?,” Trump asks. “What?”
“The Nobel Prize.”
Melania, who is sitting with 20-month-old Barron on her lap, titters. I ask her if she’s planning to have more children, and she says, “I already have two,” referring to her outrageous better half.
Trump is living in a parallel universe. After landing in West Palm Beach, we drive to Mar-a-Lago in his multi-dialed Maybach, which belongs in a James Bond movie. Just over the last bridge, from which we can see Mar-a-Lago, there is a park off to the right that consists mostly of mangrove swamp. “That’s one good thing about this country,” I reflect. “When a park is created, it can’t be developed.”
“Who would want that piece of land anyway?,” Trump says. “Every year it gets wiped out by the hurricanes.”
I point out that Mar-a-Lago is going to be underwater if the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers around the world continues at the rate it’s going. “In 50 years you’ll have to take out the a-Lago. It’ll all be Mar.” He is silent. “I think you get it more than you let on,” I say. “You just have to keep up appearances with your fans, who are a bunch of idiots.”
We pull up to Mar-a-Lago’s gracious entrance. The moment Trump steps out of the Maybach, he slips into host mode, greeting all the guests and asking them if they’re having a good time. He introduces me (“This is the greatest writer in America. He’s doing a cover story on me for Vanity Fair. I’ve been on it twice before. But they want me again. They can’t have enough of me”) to Richard LeFrak, whom he has known since they grew up together in Queens. Their fathers were friendly competitors in the real-estate business. “Scotland has been hit by a tornado,” he says. “I’m not sure they’re ready for it.”
I am taken to the E. F. Hutton Suite, named for Marjorie Merriweather Post’s second husband, the stockbroker. On the dresser there is a bottle of Trump Ice spring water, but disappointingly no Trump vodka or Donald Trump: The Fragrance. Trump has got to be one of the most branded people on the planet. You can’t get away from him. At the window, I watch flotillas of black vultures, four separate groups of about 50 each, circling over hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of palatial real estate, over old money and new, the dirty and the clean.
The next morning Trump drives me in a white Rolls-Royce to his golf club Trump International. On the way over, he tells me about his dinner the previous evening with Charlie Sheen and his girlfriend, who are staying at Mar-a-Lago. Trump enjoys putting people on and uses it as a way of seeing how smart they are. There’s certainly been no shortage of dissimulation in his Scottish project. “I happen to know that Charlie has a collection of expensive watches that he changes 20 times a day,” Trump relates, “and he admires my cuff links. I tell him, ‘You can get them at Harry Winston’s for $100,000, but here, take them. I want you to have them,’ and I snap them out of my cuffs and give them to him. Charlie is bowled over. ‘Nobody’s ever given me anything,’ he says. ‘They’ve even got your name engraved on the back. I’d give you my watch, but it cost a million dollars.’?” Then Trump tells me the kicker: “The stones on the cuff links look like diamonds but are actually crystal and are part of my apparel line. You can get them at Macy’s for $40.”
We arrive at Trump International, which was designed by Jim Fazio, Tom’s father. It’s an absolutely magnificent course. Trump picked up 215 acres of impenetrable palm and palmetto brake for a song and pretty much obliterated it. He gouged out huge lakes and piled up the earth into some of the highest hills in south Florida. But already the wildlife has moved in. I see a limpkin and a wood stork—not birds you see every day, even in the backcountry of Florida. “It’s good to see the wood storks are coming back,” I say to Donald as we motor down in our cart from one of the tees. “Thirty-five years ago, they were down to a few hundred in Florida. And the manatees, which were on the verge of extinction, are back up to nearly 3,000. There have been some encouraging conservation success stories in Florida in the last 30 years.”
Trump says, “Do you think manatees know they’re alive? They’re like huge amoebas, constantly getting hit by boats. I don’t think they’re 100 percent there.”
I say they’re related to elephants, so they must have some smarts, and it’s not like they want to be shredded by propellers.
“People know me as a real-estate genius. They don’t realize that I’m also a great golfer,” Trump says as he smacks a 280-yard drive right down the pipe. On one hole he flies an eight-iron short into the water from 155 yards out, and he drops another ball right where he is—he could have dropped it a hundred yards closer, but he is pissed—and fires it to within six inches of the pin. “Nobody realizes it, but I’m a very good golfer,” he says again. “I hope you’re going to get that in the piece.”
On Sunday evening, I drive out to the plane with Melania’s father, who is visiting from Slovenia with his wife. Trump is already on his jet and is impatient to get going and keeps calling us every two minutes: “Where are you?”
“We’re stuck at a drawbridge,” the driver says.
He calls again: “Where are you now?”
“You won’t believe this, Mr. Trump, but we’re stuck at another drawbridge. It just went up,” the driver replies. We can hear Donald going bananas over the phone.
“I’ve been going flat out all my life,” Trump tells me later on the plane. We are having the “What Makes the Donald Tick?” interview, which he is in no mood for. He’s wiped out and cranky, having been going nonstop for the last five days, playing golf, playing host, doing deals.
“Where does all this energy come from?,” I ask.
“Genes. It’s given by the genes. I know smart people who don’t have energy, and if you don’t have energy, it’s hard to compete. My son Barron has incredible energy. You know why? Because his father is a fucking genius. My father had tremendous energy, and my mother had tremendous promotional skills, even though she was a homemaker. You’re born with energy. It’s not something you’re ever going to be able to develop.”
Trump’s expected slam dunk was supposed to be consummated by an Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee’s vote, a week later, but this did not transpire. The vote went seven to seven, and the chairman, Martin Ford, broke the tie by casting his vote: No. Ford is a committed environmentalist. He bicycles 10 miles to work most days, and he felt the development was unsustainable. Though Ford later said, “Nobody who voted for refusal wanted that to be final. The vote was a negotiating position as part of a process.”
Trump issued a statement to the press saying he might have to take the project to Ireland. This is, in fact, the backup plan if Trump loses to the Dunistas.
“People think being Trump is a bowl of cherries, but it isn’t always,” a dejected Donald told me.
In Aberdeen all hell broke loose when word spread of how the vote had gone. Debra Storr, one of the original four “No”s on the Formartine Area Committee, opened the door of her house to see who was knocking, and was shoved and cursed by an irate 59-year-old woman. “You won’t believe this, Alex,” a recharged Donald called to tell me. “There’s rioting in the streets of Aberdeen—all because of my golf course. Thousands of people are demonstrating in support of it. The council has called an emergency meeting to see if the vote can be reversed. They’re firing Ford and getting another chairman.” (Which, in fact, happened two weeks later.) Both John Loveday (the Formartine Area Committee chairman, who voted no) and Ford are Englishmen, and the locals weren’t happy that “white settlers” (local anti-English slang) were making decisions that affected their lives.
But before this could happen, before anyone got seriously hurt, and to put an end to this “perilous” situation, as Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, described it, Trump’s application was “called in.” The Aberdeenshire Council was no longer going to be making the decision. The voluminous paperwork that the case had generated was to be delivered immediately to Edinburgh.
The procedure from here on out is this: a reporter, a sort of judge, has been appointed by John Swinney, the secretary of finance and sustainable development. Swinney has already decided that there should be a full-blown public inquiry, scheduled for mid-June, the lengthiest of the three options. This means that both sides can have their say, people who testify can be cross-examined, and the Aberdeenshire Council’s possible breaching of its own code could be fully exposed.
Mickey Foote tells me: “We have a forensic planning expert, an éminence grise of the planning system, who eats developers for breakfast.” If this expert is as good as Foote says, he can tie up the process for a long time. Once the reporter submits his findings, Swinney will make his decision within 28 days. Trump expects to be given the go by September, but Mickey Foote says, “I think we’re looking at a year from now at least. By that time, we’ll all be in financial meltdown, and it will be impossible for Trump to get financing.” Trump Entertainment Resorts—the casinos in Atlantic City and Pennsylvania—are already in trouble, their shares having dropped 20 percent this year and 75 percent since the company emerged from bankruptcy two years ago.
Trump told me he is on great terms with the new nationalist government, which took power after he started the application process. (One of the nationalists’ biggest supporters is Sean Connery.) In the days before the application was called in, Hobday and Sorial met with First Minister Salmond and the government’s chief planner. Political opponents accused the government of breaching the ministerial code. Sorial told me the meeting was completely aboveboard and purely procedural. Minutes were kept. He only wanted clarification of the decision-making process at the highest level, and a parliamentary hearing on January 16 absolved the officials involved of impropriety, though Salmond was chastised for his exceptionally “poor judgement.”
So the government will be under close scrutiny. If there is any evidence of irregularity, the decision can be appealed and possibly overturned. At the very least an appeal would cause further delay, and the Dunistas think that if they can draw things out long enough Trump at some point is going to walk. That’s their only hope, apart from the unlikely event that Swinney decides against it. If he did that, it would be telling international investors: Don’t come to Scotland. But if he says yes, it will be sending the message that Scotland’s environmental-protection laws are worthless. So he is caught between a rock and a hard place.
If Martin Hawtree gets to do the course, let’s hope he emulates the new campus of Kyushu University, in Japan, whose designers adopted a “no species loss” policy, ensuring the survival of 270 plant and animal species on the site.
Trump was philosophical. “It’s a great project. I feel very confident of the outcome, but we’ll see. I’m used to this. I’ve been doing this all my life, Alex. The funny thing is, my buildings start out being unpopular, but in the end everybody loves them. Half the people who fought Trump Tower, who picketed on the sidewalk, are now living in the building.”