Top Scot vs. Donald Trump

John Geddes on the serious issues behind an oddball story

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

An amusingly oddball story this week pits Donald Trump against a Scottish farmer named Michael Forbes. The distinctively coiffed American tycoon is fuming over Forbes being named “Top Scot,” an annual prize sponsored by the distillers of Glenfiddich whisky, for his refusal to sell his little piece of Aberdeenshire property to Trump for a controversial golf course development.

By way of retribution, Trump is vowing never to sell any products from William Grant & Sons, the company that owns Glenfiddich, at his resorts. He calls the award “a terrible embarrassment to Scotland.” In fact, Scotland seems increasingly proud of Forbes. And that’s largely because of the way he is depicted in an acclaimed documentary called You’ve Been Trumped, which chronicles how, in making his golf course, Trump marred an environmentally sensitive seaside and clashed with local landowners.

The film’s British director is Anthony Baxter and its producer is Richard Phinney, who happens to be Canadian. (Full disclosure, he’s an old friend of mine.) I called Phinney at his home in Kingston, Ont. to ask about the latest burst of publicity, and some more serious issues.

Q When did you first meet Michael Forbes and what sort of a guy is he?

A We met him in early 2010. He’s quite a private man really. He doesn’t give his phone number out and he doesn’t seek publicity. He’s become famous if you like but not through any of his own efforts—almost the opposite of Donald Trump, if you know what I mean. He means what he says and he’s rooted where he lives. There’s no artifice about him at all.

Q That clash between Trump and the farmers is at the core of your film. It would be easy to caricature both sides.

A When we first started exploring the film we’d seen reports of Trump vs. the stubborn farmers. It seemed cartoonish. We soon found that they are real, authentic individuals, who didn’t really know who Donald Trump was.

Q Your film and the related publicity has made Forbes a bit of a celebrity. That obviously wasn’t your intent. What do you make of it?

A I wouldn’t want the film to take all the credit. It’s been a long process. The film certainly created a burst of momentum for the Top Scot award. I think all along one of the things Anthony Baxter wanted to do was give voice to people whose view wasn’t being articulated. So having the publicity for Michael Forbes and this well-justified award is gratifying. But it doesn’t wipe away the difficulties they’ve had over the past few years.

Q Where does their battle stand, beyond the matter of public opinion?

A Well, the first golf course is there. Certainly the development is proceeding in a way that’s out of the [nearby residents’] control. There’s plans for another golf course next to the one that has been built. You know, it’s more of the same. More of dealing with an enterprise that has shown a lot of animosity towards them.

Q Is there a danger that the troubling issue your film explores—development proceeding with little regard for environmental and local concerns—might be lost in the entertaining contrast between Trump and Forbes, and diversions like the Trump’s boycotting of Glenfiddich?

A I think it’s important to remember that there was a serious environmental calamity here. In Scotland there’s an understanding that there’s something deeper underneath this. I think when people see the film they understand this. Every single screening where we do a question-and-answer session, someone will bring up a local example of a development that people felt they never than any input on.

Q That’s a concern that resonates far beyond the picturesque Scottish seaside.

A It may be different in different parts of the worlds, but these are often planning processes where those with inside information, contacts and money are able to sustain the pressure and lobbying and all of what makes these things happen. People don’t even know what happened, how that all works. That’s why we wanted to make this film.

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