In part four, we heard what went on behind the scenes as senior politicians sought to overturn a decision to reject Donald Trump’s £1bn golf resort plan for the north-east.
Here in the final part – part five – we look at the political fallout from that row, how Alex Salmond fell out with Donald Trump, and what those involved in the Trump International saga think of the development after all these years.
Recalling that moment in the Aberdeenshire Council Chamber as councillors – including some from his own party – voted to sack Martin Ford as Infrastructure Services Committee chairman, his fellow councillor Graeme Clark said: “We were surprised by the outcome.”
Ford said: “Councillors had gone from saying ‘you’d look really stupid to vote for that’ to voting for it.
“People I had known for many years, people I regarded as friends and colleagues, who turned out at best to be spineless unprincipled cowards.
“People who mattered to me in my life ceased to be friends.
“It tested me and told me things about myself that I didn’t know.”
A few months later, Paul Johnston was kicked out of the Lib Dems for accusing the council of selling land around the Menie Estate to Trump at a reduced rate as a “sweetener” for the golf resort project.
He was cleared in a misconduct hearing. The council denied his allegation.
Martin Ford, Debra Storr and Sam Coull also left the Lib Dems.
Lord Bruce, who was then the Lib Dem MP for Gordon, said: “There was a frustration that it was presented as one group of Lib Dems, who were the majority, being really nasty to the minority whereas there were stresses on both sides.”
The group had to bring in senior Lib Dems from outside the Aberdeenshire group to improve their procedures.
Ian Mollison said: “It was a very traumatic time. It struck me as most unliberal.
“When I was elected in May 2007 there were 24 Lib Dem councillors. That took the number down. We soldiered on.
“To this day it still has a resonance.”
The issue also impacted on the council as a whole.
Jim Gifford said: “The Trump thing was a massive distraction for months.
“It tied people in knots.”
Ford said: “It was catastrophic. The council had been consensual to a fault and the Trump experience turned it into a tribal, bullying culture amongst the councillors.
“It wasn’t a pleasant experience but I felt like quite confident in my own conduct and that’s what mattered most to me.”
Stuart Pratt said: “The council was wounded to start with. In the long term it benefited but I think it was damaged in the short term.”
Scottish Government steps in
In the end, the golf resort decision was taken out of Aberdeenshire Council’s hands.
Five days after the ISC rejected the proposal, the Scottish Government ‘called it in’ – effectively scrapping the ISC’s ruling, starting the process over and make a final decision after a public inquiry.
Ford said: “I thought ‘thank God for that. We’re in total chaos. Maybe we can start some kind of journey to normality.’”
Call ins are usually used to review granted projects.
This is the only known occasion where the Scottish Government overturned a rejection.
“Words like ‘unprecedented’ are not inappropriate in this case,” said Debra Storr, who voted against the resort and whose professional background is in planning consultancy.
She added: “Talk to any senior planner. They will tell you this was just a joke.”
Alex Salmond, who was First Minister at the time, said he made a change to planning rules following the application so developments of national importance would no longer be treated like house extensions.
He told us: “One of the lessons I took from the Trump experience – apart from the fact that if Trump says anything to you, you should take it with a large pinch of salt – was that the best way to do it is to have a public local inquiry.
“With the best will in the world – to have a huge strain of expectations falling on a local council makes things very difficult for them.”
That change was made in 2009, though the Scottish Government claims it was part of a reform package to simplify the planning system and speed up decision-making process, not due to this application.
A Holyrood investigation was called because, five days after the ISC decision, Salmond met with project cheerleader Neil Hobday and Trump’s right-hand man George Sorial at the Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen for 45 minutes.
The meeting took place with Salmond in his capacity as MSP for Gordon, of which Hobday was a constituent.
Explaining why the meeting was held, Sorial said: “We were not getting information from the council.
“Our attorneys were saying one thing, the council’s attorneys were saying another.
“We were just trying to find out what our options were.”
The call-in decision was announced the following day by Salmond’s right hand-hand man, John Swinney.
A subsequent investigation into allegations of sleaze would later clear Salmond and others of interfering in the planning process.
This was because Salmond had gained permission from the Scottish Government’s chief planner Jim McKinnon to hold the Marcliffe meeting.
And also because a civil servant had previously suggested a call-in as the best way to resolve the matter, independent of Salmond’s involvement.
But accusations still remain.
Martin Ford said: “There was a strong suspicion it was a done deal.
“Firstly, Salmond’s meeting (at the Marcliffe) was highly questionable. He had a conversation with the chief planner – he says as the local MSP.
“There are 129 MSPs.
“If you are an MSP, can you phone the chief planner of Scotland at 6.30pm (for guidance on the rules) and get a meeting with your constituents the next afternoon? I would suggest not in normal circumstances.
“It was a highly questionable act and was called into question.
“The consequence of that meeting was the recommendation of Mr Swinney to call it in.”
He added: “By calling it in after the council had decided to refuse it – which was pretty much unprecedented – they did call into question their impartiality because the only reason to call it in was in some way you were unhappy with the reason to refuse.”
Salmond said: “Just because you’re First Minister, it doesn’t mean you stop being the local MSP, otherwise nobody would ever want to become FM.
“How am I meant to check if I can do something unless I ask my officials? Just as Martin Ford would have asked his officials what he could and couldn’t do.
“It’s a moot point. This all went to a committee of a majority of my political opponents who couldn’t find anything wrong with what I’ve done.
“The difference between me and Martin is Martin was anti-development and anti-Trump, whereas I was pro-development and anti-Trump.”
Sorial said: “There was really nothing wrong or untoward about having a discussion about what had happened.”
He added that the meeting triggered an “eternal parochial fist fight” between Holyrood opponents that reflected badly on Scotland.
“It was foolish, it reflected small-minded thinking and I believe it back fired,” said Sorial.
Trump golf course permission is granted
In 2008, the public hearing was held.
Among those speaking against the golf resort was Paul Johnston.
He claimed that, moments later, Sorial approached him in the lobby.
Johnston said: “He came up to me, very slick. He pulled me aside so nobody could hear and said ‘we will get you for this’ and ‘we will ruin you’.
“He’s a lawyer. I thought ‘you know what you’re doing here. It was a direct threat’.”
Sorial described it as a “tense exchange”.
He added: “I don’t recall threatening him.
“I probably told him he was a disgrace. I probably had some tough words for him.
“What are they whining about? That’s life. You have to have thick skin.”
Scottish Government ministers granted permission for the resort on the recommendation of three independent reporters.
Salmond said: “The great thing about a public local inquiry was we were able to balance to positives and the negatives.”
“It wasn’t a great surprise,” said Ford.
Once permission had been granted, the golf resort saga continued and has been much documented elsewhere.
Alex Salmond has told us why he and Trump fell out.
He said: “In the space of about two weeks in late 2011, in Trump’s public statements I went from being ‘the greatest first minister the world has ever seen’ to ‘mad Alex, trying to destroy Scotland’.
“All based on me saying ‘no’.”
Salmond described the moment Trump called him to complain that the main road was no longer going past the golf course according to approved plans.
The A719 road passes just yards from the entrance to his Turnberry Golf Course – Trump’s other Scottish golf resort – and Trump viewed the need to ensure there was a similar layout at Menie as a top priority.
Salmond said: “I replied ‘that road is very busy, it’s an accident blackspot. It’s a great thing’ (to have it away from the golf resort entrance).
“Trump replied ‘no, you don’t understand – all of my properties are on the main road. Could you divert that road?’ To which I said ‘no. Donald, we’ve just battled our way through the courts to get (the golf resort) approved and it’s taken two years.’
“I think his mother – had she had said ‘no’ to him once or twice, the world would be a better place.’”
Are there lessons to be learned?
Fifteen years on from when the application was first tabled, what do those involved in the tumultuous events back then think of it now?
Jim Gifford said: “I had a bit of a falling out with Trump Scotland organisation because we didn’t see that economic development coming through.
“The original planning application looked fantastic and, as we know, we’ve got a golf course and a club house, a revamped Menie House and a rejigged planning application for 500 houses.
“The original economic argument just haven’t materialised.”
Anne Stirling, who was Aberdeenshire Council leader at the time, said plans were approved in October 2020 for a second golf course and added: “The development in the initial masterplan has not been delivered.”
Ian Mollison said: “We don’t have the housing. We don’t have an SSSI because that designation has been taken away but we do have what I’m told is a very good golf course, and a boutique hotel.
“The ambition for hosting the Open or the Ryder Cup seems to have receded.
“There was other nonsense at the time that this project would be the saviour of the north-east economy when the oil runs out. Anybody would realise how ludicrous that is.”
When asked about the fact that the area lost its SSSI status in December 2020, George Sorial alleged that Scottish National Heritage (now NatureScot) had not visited the site “in decades” before the proposal.
However, NatureScot told us that is untrue.
A spokeswoman said: “We visited the site on several occasions prior to the proposal coming forward in 2006/07 as part of our routine work to monitor SSSIs and advise on their management.
“We had also commissioned research into the geomorphology of the SSSI before the proposal arose.”
When asked if the council regretted the loss of SSSI status, an Aberdeenshire Council spokesman said: “The council is not a person – it cannot show any ‘personal regret’ – it follows policies and procedures.”
Sorial added: “A lot was going on on that site. It was a shooting estate and there still to this day are locals dumping on that site.
“We cleaned it up. We really put together a top team of scientists.
“We did the best we could to mitigate a relatively small impact to the SSSI.
“With any kind of development you’re always going to have some sacrifice.”
John Cox said: “I’m not a golfer, but I have driven along that road hundreds of times and thought ‘wow, putting a golf course in Balmedie – that’s the last place I’d put it’.”
Fiona McRae said: “I’m not sure if the club is making any money, and yet everyone I know who has played golf on the course say it was absolutely fantastic.”
The most recent accounts filing for Trump International Golf Club Scotland Ltd, dated December 30 2020 said: “The operating loss before depreciation for the year ending December 31 2019 amounted to £896,367 (compared with) £886,991 in 2018.”
Martin Ford said: “We can be 100% confident that nothing remotely resembling what was being proposed in 2007 will ever come to pass.
“Trump’s golf resort does not exist. We have lost our SSSI which we had a duty to look after. This has not been good for us and we should learn lessons from it.”
A Scottish Enterprise spokeswoman said: “We remain committed to supporting investment, and the jobs and wealth it creates for Scotland, but we recognise that all projects carry risk and, in some cases, for a host of different external reasons outwith our control, projects are not fully delivered.”
Marcus Humphrey said: “A lot of people at the time saw Trump and thought he would rain dollar bills across Aberdeenshire.
“Many people didn’t know much about Trump back then, but I knew a little more about it and was sceptical as to whether he would deliver on his promises.”
Albert Howie said that, though the resort has not delivered on its promises, he does not regret voting for it.
“I go down there quite a lot, I go to the restaurant sometimes and it’s just marvellous.”
Debra Storr said: “I occasionally summarise the whole debacle as (Trump) came, thought we were hicks, and proved it.
“The Open tournament will never come to his courses because the sponsors wouldn’t wear it.
“When Trump dies they might change the name of the golf course and have more luck.”
Neil Hobday, who first dreamed of the golf resort back in 2005, stepped down as consultant project director in 2010, shortly after, witnesses accused him of arguing with a golf course neighbour David Milne at a public exhibition.
He said: “There were no outbursts in temper. It was just ‘clear off and (campaign against the golf resort) somewhere else’.
“It really wasn’t quite the nose-to-nose confrontation that had been suggested. David was a very good neighbour all the time I was there.”
On the project, he said: “I’m very proud of the fact the golf course is so highly rated and regarded.
“Trump’s presidency has affected the viability of a number of major championships and other events.
“What will play out in the Menie Estate in years to come – whether it’s the Solheim Cup or Ryder Cup or some other PGA tournament, the Open, who knows? I think the water will go under the bridge for a while.
“I went into this with all the right feelings for golf, for Scotland, for Aberdeenshire and for all the bumps along the road, and all the personalities and all the conflicts, I do hope genuinely that one day those golf courses, hotels – the whole site – will be something Scotland can be rightly proud of.”
Trump International executive vice president Sarah Malone said: “The Trump Organisation has remained true to its vision and commitment to invest in Scotland, despite the innumerable barriers and external economic challenges of the past decade.
“When many other investment projects were shelved due to the global financial crisis, oil price crash and the unprecedented impact of this global pandemic, not to mention the unwieldly and obstructive planning system.
“Trump has continued to finance and develop two internationally acclaimed golf destinations in Scotland.
“Turnberry and Aberdeen lead in the world rankings and are of major importance to Scottish golf and the tourism economy.
“Trump International Golf Links, Scotland has been hailed by industry chiefs, world-class pros and golfers from around the world, as one of the greatest modern links courses ever built. And there’s a lot more to come.”
George Sorial said: “It will just take time (for the resort to realise its potential).
“Whether a developer would charge ahead with building 500 homes (during the financial crisis) in 2008 – that was absurd.
“I remain very close to President Trump and (his sons) Don and Eric.
“Their dedication is unwavering. Their dedication to Scotland continues.
“We have a great team in Aberdeen. Sarah Malone – her team is incredible. They reflect positively on the area.
“I know dozens of people that have been over to Aberdeen from New York and Florida.
“They say ‘the place is incredible, it exceeded my expectations, outstanding job, I can’t wait to go back’.
“I think it is a project that will continue to grow and impress in the coming years.”
And can the north-east community learn any lessons?
Fiona McRae said: “If I was in that position now, 14 years on from the ISC meeting, and knew everything I know now – would I make the same decision to support the resort? It would be very difficult.”
Graeme Clark said: “It was a difficult one. If it happened again next week I would vote against it again.”
Jim Gifford said: “Do people make mistakes? Yes they do, but people shouldn’t be shouted at on their doorstep or abused on social media just because they were doing their job.”
Ian Mollison added: “Mental health is a very prominent subject nowadays.
“Even in the 14 or so years since then, that has changed significantly.
“If criticism has to be made of someone it should be done in a respectful way and taken into account what it’s like to walk in their moccasins.
“You never know what other factors are bearing down on other people.”
He added: “I’m glad I was there (to experience this), because that was a privilege, but I wish that drama didn’t turn out the way it did.”
Watch our Missing from the Broch documentary here
- Words by Dale Haslam
- Story design by Cheryl Livingstone
- Graphics and illustrations by Roddie Reid
- Data visualisations by Lesley-Anne Kelly
- Video trailer by Drew Farrell