Coul Links

*12 February 2024

From the Highland Environmental Forum newsletter

Ministers call in Coul Links plans

The Scottish Government has called in controversial plans to build a golf course on one of Scotland’s important and last remaining undeveloped dune systems, meaning they will make the final decision on whether the development can proceed. This move has been strongly welcomed by the Conservation Coalition of seven environmental charities, that is campaigning to save Coul Links in East Sutherland from the damaging development.

Read this article from the Scottish Wildlife Trust


*6 December 2023

Coul Links golf course application approved

Highland Council's North Area Planning Committee today granted the planning application for a golf course on Coul Links north of Dornoch, against the recommendation of planning officials, by a majority of 8 votes to 6.  

Because a statutory consultee (NatureScot) objected to the application, the decision has to be referred to Scottish Ministers, duplicating the situation in relation to the previous similar application for a golf course on the same site. 

This was lodged in 2017, granted by Highland Council and called in by Scottish Ministers in 2018, was the subject of a lengthy Public Local Inquiry in 2019 and finally refused by Scottish Ministers in February 2020.  It is probable that a similar process will follow today's decision, so it is unlikely that the final outcome of this long-running saga will be known any time soon.

Coul Links - Help Save this Special Place for wildlife (video)

Lots more recent and historical information below

November 2023

Coul Links course recommended for refusal

BBC News   28 November 2023

Plans for a golf course at Coul Links in Sutherland have been recommended for refusal by Highland Council planning officials.

The coastal site near Embo has a number of environmental designations, and previous proposals for an 18-hole course were refused permission in 2020.

The developers, Communities for Coul Limited (C4C), say they want to create a world-class course which would attract more visitors to the area.

Highland Council planning officers said the project had substantial local support and could bring economic benefits, but added that concerns remained about its environmental impact.

The officials said changes had been made to earlier proposals that were rejected by the Scottish government following a public inquiry.

But they added that the revisions had “fallen short” and recommended that councillors refuse the plans at a meeting next week. (6 December)

Read the planning report recommending refusal  (40 pages)

Planning Manager's conclusions  (2pages)

Press & Journal    27 November   Michelle Henderson

Campaign group Not Coul has produced a 15 minute video  'The secret life of Coul Links' ,  making the case for viewing the golf course proposal as 'one of the most serious threats to biodiversity in Scotland'.

Alternative link

If you object to a golf course at Coul Links . .

There is still time to email any or all of the Highland councillors on the North Area Planning Committee, which meets on Wednesday to decide whether to grant or refuse the planning application from Communities for Coul.  There's no need to go into the planning details - we suggest you just ask them politely to follow the recommendation of their planning officials and vote to refuse the application.

There is a list of email addresses for councillors on the committee here, but note that the address for Black Isle councillor Sarah Atkin should be ,  not sarah.aitken. . as given in the list.  We suggest emailing at least Sarah and the councillors in neighbouring wards 6, 7 and 8.

You will be able to view a webcast of the meeting via this link .  The meeting starts at 10.00 and the Coul Links application is at agenda item 6.2 .


March 2023

New golf course planning application submitted

Communities for Coul (C4C), a not-for-profit organisation aiming to establish a championship golf course at Coul Links, Embo, has submitted a new planning application for the development to Highland Council.  A previous, separate bid to develop a golf course on the site, north of Dornoch, was rejected by Scottish Ministers in 2020, following a public inquiry.

View the application and related documents  here .

The application and supporting documents assert repeatedly that the new application is very different from the original bid, and that most of the environmental criticisms which led to its rejection have been addressed.  Much is made of the reduction in the area of the Loch Fleet SSSI which will be affected by the new proposal, and the claim referred to below, that funding related to the golf course would make possible far better environmental protection for the site than NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) is able to afford, is repeated.  One report quotes C4C as claiming somewhat unconvincingly that their plans amounted to a “major dune system restoration project, funded by a low-impact, world class golf course.”

Opposition group Not Coul is understandably unimpressed with these claims, and has produced a detailed document with contrary evidence which could be used in objections, and another with details of how to object.  They say

'Coul Links lies in a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar Site (Wetland of International Importance).

Not Coul is now opposing a new 2023 proposal which we consider will create even more serious environmental damage at Coul Links.

This 2023 golf plan is one of the most threatening to Nature in Scotland. Like the Trump course at Menie Links, it could lead to loss of part or all of an SSSI, and part of the SPA and Ramsar. We need help again, more so than 2016 to 2022.

There is no need for a golf course on protected land, there is ample space elsewhere, adjacent to the SSSI.'

Also opposing the new application are Ramblers Scotland, who are gathering signatures to a petition to Highland Council asking them to reject it.

When the proposal for a new planning application was first made last year a coalition of seven environmental organisations - RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and Buglife - expressed fears about its potential impact.

If you object to a golf course at Coul Links . .

. . there are several things you can do

1. Submit an objection on Highland Council ePlanning site 
The originally advertised closing date for public comments has passed, but it is possible that comments will still be accepted.

  • write the text of your objection in advance in a word processor
  • go to
  • search for application reference number 23/00580/FUL
  • select Comments / Make a comment / Login or register
  • log in if you've made a comment before, otherwise register first
  • once you're logged in, paste your text into the comment window

It's important that you specify that your comment is an objection, and include the words "I object . ." in your text.  Otherwise just give your reasons for objecting.  These don't have to be technical, but if you want some ideas about what you might say, have a look at some suggestions from Not Coul 
.pdf    with general points and technical evidence  in small print
.docx  with general points more easily readable.

Not Coul have also provided detailed instructions on how to comment by letter, email or online.

2. Sign the Ramblers Scotland petition

3. Donate to Not Coul to help pay for expert advice  (website)

More information  (there are 316 documents and 965 comments associated with the application!)

Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess has publicly joined the opposition to the new proposal
Green MSP Condemns Return of Coul Links Threat
Highland Times  16 March 2023   Joseph Kennedy

Not Coul has submitted a detailed comment making the case that if planning rules are adhered to, Highland Council should decline to consider the golf course application, largely because of its similarity to the previous application refused in 2021.

More from Not Coul
On behalf of Not Coul, Aberdeen consultants Aurora Planning have submitted a detailed document explaining how adherence to national and local plans and planning guidance would require the application to be refused.

Not Coul have also submitted substantial evidence in several documents  from distinguished experts setting out science-based and socio-economic reasons for refusal.  These can be found near the top of the list of documents (now numbering 316, in addition to 965 comments) on Highland Council's ePlanning page  here .

Applicant's Design and Access statement
(.pdf, small print, difficult to read without zooming and scrolling)
Transcript as .docx, easier to read, no images
Agent's Planning statement
(more technical, conformity with planning policies etc.)
Summary Environmental Impact Report
Location plan - overview of the site

Not Coul detailed timeline and background to this application
The section on recent environmental management, under the heading 'Does everything now have a new leader?' (scroll down), is interesting.

Coul Links Golf  is a comprehensive archive of internet and media content relating to Coul Links golf course proposals going back to 2017.

Possible related development
Planning permission has been granted (February 2023) for an 'eco hotel' adjacent to the Coul Farm buildings which will be converted for the golf clubhouse.  The planning reference is  21/02644/FUL .  The hotel will only be built if the golf course application is approved.


July 2022

New planning move on Coul Links Golf course

The group Communities4Coul, which is campaigning for the building of a golf course and hotel on coastal dunes at Coul Links north of Dornoch, lodged a pre-Planning Application Notice (PAN) for the project with Highland Council on June 19 (planning reference 22/02800/PAN).  A previous application for a golf course on the site was approved by Highland Council but rejected by Scottish Ministers in February 2020 (see below).

Much of the case against the original application, led by campaign group NotCoul, was made on nature conservation grounds, and the site's being subject to three environmental designations, including being within the Loch Fleet SSSI.  In promoting the renewed application expected to be submitted later in the summer, Communities4Coul place heavy emphasis on the claim that funding related to the golf course would make possible far better environmental protection for the site than NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) is able to afford.  Much is made of the fact that the golf course would take up less than 1% of the SSSI (much of which consists of the whole of Loch Fleet).

Other points made in their website include the usual exaggerated claim about the number of jobs the project would provide, a reported 69.2% support for the project in a residents' survey (on a turnout of only 44%), and fulsome endorsements of the proposal from locals covering a large age range.

A 'consultatative exhibition' about the project took place at the Community Centre in Embo, from 3-7pm on Wednesday July 27 last year and an on-line (Zoom) presentation was held 4-6 weeks later to present the plans shown in the exhibition and to answer questions raised.

Is it possible they could be right in claiming that a golf course would be better for Coul links, on both environmental and community grounds, than the status quo? 

The opposition

The main opposition to the renewed proposals comes from Campaign group NotCoul, led by Dr Tom Dargie, and a coalition of environmental groups has expressed concern at the renewed proposals  BBC news 7 July 2022.

NotCoul has a new website and a Facebook page, and there is a 'Coul Links Golf' page of links and information which covers the latest developments without comment, and has a useful list of links to all recent press coverage of the proposal.  The Scottish Wildlife Trust   has a timeline of the history of the project, which it has consistently opposed, but which is not up to date with these developments.. 

On the day of the Embo exhibition the Press & Journal published a detailed review of the planning history of Coul Links from the first golf course proposals in 2015 to the current new aplication.  Representatives of Not Coul led by Tom Dargie picketed the exhibition and handed out leaflets opposing the proposals to those attending.  A smear campaign against Dr Dargie in September 2020 was one of the more unpleasant aspects of the controversy about the original golf course proposal.


May 2021

Mike Keiser back in the picture

Communities for Coul, the group behind new proposals for a golf course at Coul links, have announced that Mike Keiser, the American golf course designer who with businessman Todd Warnock made the previous golf course application which was rejected by Scottish Ministers in February 2020, has been confirmed as the developer for a new course should the planning application likely to be made by Communities for Coul be approved.

In arguing the case for the renewed golf course proposal, Communities for Coul claim that the SSSI, on part of which the course would be created, would be better managed under a fully funded Environmental Development Plan which the developer would be required to put in place - 'This would mean that the 1% of the Loch Fleet SSSI affected by the golf course would fund the protection of almost the entire SSSI situated to the south of Loch Fleet, 25% of the total.'  It seems reasonable to doubt whether a commercial developer could be held to implementing an Environmental Development Plan over the long term.

Communities for Coul also claim that a golf course would provide 175 jobs locally and 311 within the wider Highlands, and claim support from other local golf courses and three of the six local constituency candidates in the Scottish Parliament elections.  It is not known to what extent Communities for Coul have the support of the local community.

Independently of Communities for Coul, leading economist Professor David Bell is quoted in a Scotsman article as welcoming the idea of a golf course in the context of the wider economy of Sutherland, which, as he points out  'is never going to get a new Amazon warehouse or other major economic development'.

Opposition to any revival of the golf course proposal comes from the group Not Coul, whose spokesman John Campbell is quoted in the same Scotsman article as referring to Coul Links as a 'national treasure' covered by three protective environmental designations, and saying  'No golf course can be built without infringing these designations, to their significant detriment. That was proved at the inquiry';  and an almost single-handed campaign run on 38 Degrees by Andrew Weston.

Scotsman article      Jamie McKenzie   21 March 2021

Communities for Coul  website

Coul Links Golf     website appears to represent the views of Not Coul

Andrew Weston's latest email


February 2021

New proposals for golf course at Coul Links

(See below for the back story)

In recent months new proposals have been put forward for a Golf course at Coul Links, between Dornoch and Loch Fleet.  In October 2020 the Northern Times reported that a 'Screening application' had been submitted to Highland Council in the name of a defunct Embo football club.

In January this year the proposal resurfaced under the auspices of a new group Communities for Coul, and in conjunction with a proposal by Mr Abel Smith of Coul Farm, the owner of much of the land at Coul links, for "a £20 million eco-style hotel" consisting of up to 20 lodges and a reception building at the farm overlooking the links.

The Chairman of Communities for Coul is reported as saying that the eco hotel plan boosts the campaign for the golf course, and Mr Abel Smith is quoted as saying he "will be submitting a planning application for the first phase of the project imminently", but construction would not begin until Coul Links Golf Course is approved.  As far as we are aware, no planning application has so far been made for either project.

In addition to this activity, an outrageous attempt has been made to blacken the reputation of Tom Dargie, an environmental scientist and leading member of the group Not Coul which led the opposition to the previous golf course application by an American-led group, which was turned down by Scottish Ministers in February 2020.  In September 2020 a complaint was made to Mr Dargie's professional institution, The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM),accusing him of  "Lack of judgement. Lack of objectivity. Serious gaps in knowledge. Lack of expertise when claiming otherwise. Little if any reflection when proven wrong."  and including more than 100 individual instances of alleged misconduct. 

The complaint was rejected out of hand by the Professional Standards Committee of CIEEM, and rejected again when the complainant appealed.

Northern Times reports on October 2020 screening application

BBC News report on January 2020 developments

A website called  'Coul Links Golf' has been set up to monitor developments on this disturbing resurrection of a project which would do immense harm to an area in respect of which three environmental designations are in place (see below), and which should have been buried once and for all by the conclusion by Scottish Ministers in 2020 that "likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal".


Coul Links golf course refused planning permission by ministers

BBC news   21 February 2020

A controversial plan to build an 18-hole championship golf course in the Highlands has been refused planning permission by the Scottish government.

About 32 acres of the planned course was proposed for dunes at Coul Links at Embo, near Dornoch.

Highland councillors gave the project the go-ahead last June, before Scottish ministers called in the planning application for further scrutiny.

Following a public inquiry, the government has refused permission.

In their decision, Scottish ministers said the plan would have supported economic growth and rural development.

But they agreed with government-appointed planning officials' findings that the golf course would have "significant" effects on rare plantlife, wintering and breeding birds and the the dunes themselves.

The government said the "likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal".

Read the full article

Scottish Green Party MSP John Finnie commented on the decision

“I am absolutely delighted that this ill thought out and unsuitable application has been rejected. It seems the Scottish Government has learned the lesson from the disastrous decision to grant permission for Trump’s course in Aberdeenshire after all.

“Coul links is a spectacular site of environmental significance and has several important international designations. I welcome the fact that Ministers have made clear that post Brexit they will seek to maintain high environmental standards, they can be assured that Greens will continue to keep them under scrutiny in that regard in the long term.

“It’s important that the Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise now look at how they can deliver long term, sustainable and well paid work for the people of Sutherland, without threatening its precious environment.”

Decision letter

All decision-related documents

Image - Julian Paren

Image  - BBC News


Planning application for golf course at Coul Links, Embo

The application was lodged in September 2017 by Coul Links Ltd. led by Mike Keiser, President of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Oregon, Trump Golf’s main global rival, & entrepreneur Todd Warnock.  There is a separate application for two boreholes and a reservoir to store water for irrigating the golf course.

The site is an area of natural dunes of considerable scientific and environmental value, and is ajacent to or includes  Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),  The Dornoch and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA),  and the Dornoch and Loch Fleet Ramsar Site.

A group opposed to the development set up a 38 Degrees petiton to rally opposition to the applications.  This has been presented to Highland Council, who approved the applications in June against the advice of planning officials, but since the applications were called in it is being kept open to be presented to the public enquiry.

Below are links to the Highland Council ePlanning pages relating to the applications, and the petition.

Coul links golf course planning application         17/04601/FUL

Reservoir planning application                           17/04404/FUL

NOT COUL petition  (and more information)



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