Mud-slinging and Mexican flags define decade-long battle over Trump's Scottish golf course

The remote Scottish coastline just north of Aberdeen is a place of wild beauty, where the sand dunes rise to great heights. But there are other disorienting vistas — none more so than the site of a Mexican flag flapping in the wind. It's a not-so-subtle message directed at the man who has just become president of the United States.

'Since he first came here, we've been left with the worst of all possible worlds,' local councillor says

A bagpipe player greets Donald Trump as he arrives in Scotland on June 24, 2016. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Strange forces seem to be at work along the remote Scottish coastline just north of Aberdeen. 

It's a place of wild beauty, where the sand dunes rise to great heights. If it weren't for the bone-chilling cold blowing in with the spray off the North Sea, parts of it could be mistaken for the Sahara or Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter.

But there are other disorienting vistas. None more so than the sight of a Mexican flag flapping in a field overlooking the dunes.

It's a not-so-subtle message directed at the man who has just become the 45th president of the United States — someone locals say they've learned a fair bit about after a decade of watching him do business.

The sand dunes in Aberdeenshire stretch for about 23 kilometres along the Scotland's east coast. They are wild, wind-swept and beautiful — and 4,000 years old. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

"The last person you thought you'd see here was Donald Trump," says Susan Munro, recalling the first and only time she met the man, not long after he'd bought up a stretch of land along the coast, promising to turn into one of the world's best golf courses.

"He was out for a stroll, just looking at what he just bought, and that was about it. I thought, 'Oh well, he seems all right.'"

Until it all went wrong.

Berms and bills

The Munros lived right next to the site earmarked by Trump for his clubhouse at Trump International Golf Links.

When they refused to sell their land, diggers hired by Trump International arrived and started building up berms. They completely blocked the couple's views of the dunes and the sea beyond that they had enjoyed for more than two decades.

"It's just awful. I feel like I'm in prison now," says Munro.

Susan Munro owns the property right next to the site that was earmarked for the golf course's clubhouse. When construction on the golf course began, her view of the region's sand dunes was completely blocked. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Similar intimidation tactics were used against others who refused to sell; one neighbour was reportedly sent a bill for a fence constructed in front of his property.

That's when the Mexican flags started going up.

Trump initially invited in

Scottish officials had courted Trump's investment, inviting him in. It was a chance to diversify an economy long dependent on the fortunes of North Sea oil, says James Bream, of the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

"Since the investment began, we have a world-class golf course. It's in the top 100 in the world," Bream says. "We have a fantastic new hotel, which provides fine dining, and the course and facilities provide employment for over 100 people. So the development is significant in a regional sense."

But it fell far short of what Trump had originally promised to develop: $1.5 billion US in investment that was to result in a second golf course, holiday homes, more hotels and some 6,000 jobs.

Martin Ford is a local councillor in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He cast the deciding vote against Trump International's original proposal for the golf-course development. But that council vote was ultimately overruled by the Scottish government. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

That promised investment was deemed significant enough for authorities to brush aside environmental concerns. The system of dunes on which Trump International wanted to build the golf course was protected as a site of "scientific interest."

"Mr. Trump has behaved in a disgraceful and disgusting fashion from the first time he stepped foot here," says Martin Ford, a local councillor in Aberdeenshire who cast the deciding vote against Trump International's original proposal because of the area's special status. 

"Since he first came here [in 2006], we've been left with the worst of all possible worlds. Implausibly large economic benefits were promised. They have not been delivered. But a very remarkable, amazing dune system that has been here for thousands of years [has] been vandalized by the construction of a golf course across a large part of it."

Despite the local council's rejection, the Scottish government of the day intervened to push the development through.

'Didn't deliver'

But relations soon soured, too, between Trump and his former champions.

Alex Salmond — Scotland's first minister at the time — today admits he'd do things differently.

"My main problem with Donald Trump as far as the golf course is concerned is he didn't deliver what he promised."

His problem with Trump becoming U.S. president, Salmond says, is more related to character.

"Because as soon as somebody says no to Donald Trump, then he goes totally into the stratosphere. And that's the danger we all face … because that bit of character is a real danger to us all."

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond initially courted Trump to help secure plans to develop a $1.5 billion US luxury golf resort in Aberdeenshire. But the relationship soured when Salmond also supported development of an offshore wind farm not far from Trump International Golf Links. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Salmond says he was demoted by Trump, going from being "the greatest politician on the planet" to "mad Alex" after he refused to cancel a wind farm project that fell within view of the Trump golf course.

That's when the second phase of development sputtered to a halt.

Some say Trump was looking for an excuse to back out of a bad investment; the golf course was reportedly losing money. (The billionaire-turned-president also owns a second golf resort in Scotland, farther south in Ayr.)

But Salmond believes it's more about payback. 

David vs. Goliath

Trump International refused to let the properties that got away actually get away — he tried to convince the Scottish government to expropriate them.

Trump himself got involved with a very public mud-slinging match against a local fisherman and farmer named Michael Forbes, denouncing his property as a "slum" after Forbes wouldn't sell.

Michael Forbes, a fisherman and farmer from Aberdeenshire, poses for a photograph beside the Mexican flag he erected alongside Trump International Golf Links. (Michal Wachucik/AFP/Getty Images)

For his efforts, Forbes was awarded the title of "Top Scot" back in 2012 during the Glenfiddich-sponsored Spirit of Scotland Awards.

It was Trump's fight against the "little guys" that started to turn those who supported the investment against Trump, according to those in the nearby village of Balmedie.

"I thought it was good to start with because he's taking money into the community and stuff," says resident Gary Greenhowe. "But what he did to a few people trying to [keep] land and stuff wasn't very nice."

Mark Mitchell says he resented the pro-Trump coverage found in the local newspaper; its editor happened to be married to Trump International's chief executive in Aberdeenshire.

After Forbes wouldn't sell his 23-acre farm to Donald Trump, the U.S. billionaire started calling the property a 'slum.' (Margaret Evans/CBC)

CBC News requested an interview with that editor to ask about attitudes toward the Trump controversy. But in a rather Trump-like moment, he said wouldn't go ahead with the interview if he was going to be asked about allegations of conflict of interest. (Ultimately, CBC was asked to leave the newspaper's offices.)

Now local residents say they are awaiting the next chapter. It's not clear if Trump — or his designates — will be back to pursue original development plans, but reports suggest he will press ahead.

"It's surreal because we're a little village in Aberdeen in Scotland and we've got a president who's got a golf course next to us," says Colin Cormack.

"There's a big difference between somebody getting bullied out of their house and the fact that this guy now has his fingers on the nuclear button," adds Mitchell.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.