When the gunfire starts it is like a thunderclap, the monks and nuns explain, and the sound reverberates up the valley. During the game shooting season, it is not unusual for avian casualties to land within the grounds of Samye Ling, the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in western Europe. Tame ducks who have sought refuge from the hunters now waddle and strut between the golden statues, and peck at the monastics’ brick red robes.
This secluded spiritual community now finds itself in a confounding position, standing with the local community of Eskdalemuir against the development of shooting ranges that threaten their “pocket of peace”.
The bitter row has culminated in a petition to the Scottish parliament, put forward by a local GP and regular visitor to Samye Ling, calling for legislation to create a five-mile exclusion zone to protect all rural places of spiritual importance from artillery and firearms.
“This is not Buddhists against guns,” insists Ani (Sister) Sonam, a spokesperson for Samye Ling. “We are not trying to stop people from running their business, we would just ask that some respect is shown to places of worship or spiritual significance. Do we want to protect these places of peace for future generations?”
Set in a verdant valley by the banks of the River Esk, Kagye Samye Ling monastery was founded in 1967 and was the first Tibetan Buddhist centre established in the west. Over the decades, the monastery has developed strong connections both locally and internationally, becoming a haven for those seeking peace of mind.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, it welcomed regular coach parties of schoolchildren, as well as offering courses in meditation, art and yoga. David Bowie reportedly considered joining the community in the late 1960s, but heeded the advice of a Tibetan monk to concentrate on music instead.
“Over 20 years we’ve had tens of thousands of visitors,” says Ani Sonam, “tourists, people coming to see our way of life, veterans suffering from PTSD seeking respite. It’s a really peaceful, tranquil place and they go away holding that in their hearts. But having gunfire resounding around the valley is destructive. People are very supportive of keeping this pocket of peace.”
The initial controversy concerns two planning applications lodged by nearby farms to develop commercial shooting ranges, which included use as 50-calibre, high-velocity rifle ranges, with targets up to two miles away. Cumbria-based Gardners Guns, which advertises the Esk valley as “one of nature’s most perfectly formed rifle ranges”, wanted to expand its business at Clerkhill farm, two miles from the monastery. At Over Cassock farm, about four miles from the monastery, plans to add permanent building were lodged by the land owner and the Fifty Calibre Shooters Association.
Gardners Guns insists that noise level tests have been carried out, while FCSA told the Guardian its plans are fully compliant with regulations and that “the range can neither be seen nor heard by any of the people objecting”.
The original proposals were rejected by Dumfries and Galloway council on administrative grounds, with the applicants asked to resubmit the plans as major developments, which will require public consultation, and this process has now begun.
Nicholas Jennings, chair of Eskdalemuir community council, says local concerns about noise have increased. “People do feel protective of the monastery, but also the valley itself. There’s always been an acceptance that there is shooting in the countryside, but it has grown exponentially in the past few years as the game shooting and the rifle range has expanded.”
He explains there was an outcry in February when the US air force used one of the ranges for a training exercise, resulting in sustained machine-gun and rifle fire. The air force has since suspended its operations after it was made aware of local concerns.
“People have found this to be a place of peace since the 60s, not just at Samye Ling but around the local walking and cycling routes. How do you balance our wonderful right to roam with the use of weapons with a range of two miles?” asks Jennings.
The Eskdalemuir community hopes that a public consultation will prove the strength of feeling against the disruption of the valley, and that the accompanying Holyrood petition will attract wider support to their cause.
One petition signatory is the musician and activist Annie Lennox, a supporter of the monastery for many years, who told the Guardian she was happy to add her name. “What a strange situation here: a peaceful retreat centre being threatened by the interests of a gun club. It sort of sums up the irony of the times we live in.”