BALMEDIE, Scotland — When Donald Trump arrives this weekend at the golf course he built on the rugged dunes of this remote, windswept corner overlooking the North Sea, he will celebrate it as an example of his international business success.
“When I first arrived on the scene in Aberdeen, the people of Scotland were testing me to see just how serious I was — just like the citizens in the United States have done about my race for the White House,” Trump wrote in a column published this spring in a local newspaper under the headline “How Scotland will help me become president.”
“I had to win them over — I had to convince them that I meant business and that I had their best interests in mind,” he wrote. “Well, Scotland has already been won — and so will the United States.”
But to many people in Scotland, his course here has been a failure. Over the past decade, Trump has battled with homeowners, elbowed his way through the planning process, shattered relationships with elected leaders and sued the Scottish government. On top of that, he has yet to fulfill the lofty promises he made.
Trump has also reported to Scottish authorities that he lost millions of dollars on the project — even as he claims on U.S. presidential disclosure forms that the course has been highly profitable.
Trump’s original plan: a sprawling resort in the ancestral home of golf with two courses, a 450-room luxury hotel and spa, a conference center, employee housing, a turf-grass research center and a holiday community with hundreds of villas, condos and homes. The project would pump millions of dollars into the local economy and create 6,000 jobs — maybe even 7,000 jobs, Trump said at one news conference. Tourists would travel here from around the world, he promised, along with well-known celebrities such as Scottish actor Sean Connery.
Today, the Trump International Golf Links near Aberdeen employs 150 people and consists of one golf course that meanders through the sand dunes, a clubhouse with a restaurant and 19 rooms for rent in a renovated mansion and former carriage house. There is also a maintenance facility and a road running through the property. Lonely and desolate, the resort has attracted no major tournaments, and neighbors say the parking lot is rarely, if ever, full.
Trump, in a recent interview, blamed the delays in finishing the project on tedious local regulations and litigation over an offshore wind farm that he says would spoil his view. Trump said he or his children will eventually expand the hotel and build “thousands” of houses — but not until someday after the presidential campaign.
“In all fairness, right now it’s not exactly top of my mind because I’m running for president,” Trump said. “But what I’ve done is made the land incredible. . . . It’s a piece of land that’s fully sculpted, it’s beautiful, it’s ready, and I can go anytime I want.”
When Trump first announced the Aberdeen project in early 2006, he said he had scouted more than 200 locations in the region — and stopped looking as soon as he saw the majestic sand dunes on about 800 acres of coastline.
The land, which was previously used for hunting, presented a series of challenges. The ever-shifting dunes were supposed to be protected from development. There were plans for a wind farm just off the coast, with turbines as tall as Big Ben that threatened to ruin Trump’s perfect view. And there were a handful of neighbors who would probably have to move.
Some locals puzzled over why Trump would build a golf course in a spot regularly shrouded in cold fog.
“It is fabulous news for the area, of course, and also for knitwear manufacturers, who will make a killing when the world’s top players step out on the first tee and feel as though their limbs are being sawn off by a north-east breeze that hasn’t paused for breath since it left the Arctic,” one local columnist wrote.
Still, much of the focus at the start was the potential economic windfall for the community. When Trump visited Aberdeen that spring, the local paper wrote that his arrival “could turn out to be as economically historic as the discovery of oil under the North Sea.” Local leaders greeted his private Boeing 727 at the airport, along with a bagpiper playing “Highland Laddie.” They were all a bit confused as Trump repeatedly referred to himself as “Scotch.”
Soon after the visit, Trump was named a global business ambassador for the country. At the same time, the wind project that worried Trump — first proposed in 2003 — reduced its number of planned turbines from 33 to 23. The total would later be reduced to 11.
Trump’s formal proposal to a local planning board several months later was even grander than expected. A Trump official told locals they could expect their property values to go up 20 percent and see the creation of 1,200 permanent jobs and more than 6,000 jobs over 10 years. Trump said he would spend the equivalent of $1.5 billion on the project.
“Mr. Trump’s promises were extremely implausible,” recalled Martin Ford, who led the local planning council at the time. “The number of jobs seemed ridiculously high, and the amount of money seemed also to be implausibly large.”
Ford cast the deciding vote against the plan in late 2007, throwing the Trump Organization into lobbying mode.
Trump refused to appeal the decision and threatened to move the project to Ireland. Then-First Minister Alex Salmond huddled with Trump’s staff at a hotel in Aberdeen, and officials announced the next day that the national government would handle the application and hold a lengthy public hearing.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen declared that the series of events “smells of sleaze.” But Salmond said that at the time there was no indication that Trump wasn’t genuine in his promises, and he worried that barring the foreign investment would scare away others looking to do business in Scotland.
“There was nothing to suggest that there wasn’t serious intent behind it,” Salmond said. “We all wish that we had 20/20 hindsight, but I’m afraid that we are not given to having 20/20 hindsight.”
Battling with neighbors
The public inquiry started six months later, in June 2008. The world had dramatically changed since Trump first discovered the site. The global recession and collapse of the real estate market eventually pushed the Trump Organization to delay or cancel a number of projects. Trump stuck with the Scotland project, even as it became increasingly complicated.
While testifying at the hearing, Trump said that “the world is in chaos” and that the housing development might have to wait until after the economy recovered. But he promised to see the project through.
His testimony was filled with exaggerations — such as when he claimed to know more about the environment than his consultants — and seemed to show a lack of understanding of Scotland’s laws and customs. At the hearing, Trump came face-to-face with Ford, who suggested the businessman did not properly research his purchase.
“You know, nobody has ever told me before I don’t know how to buy property,” Trump responded. “You’re the first one. I have done very well buying property. Thanks for the advice.”
Months later, in November 2008, Trump received the green light. Construction began the next year.
With that battle seemingly ended, Trump quickly shifted his focus to challenging the proposed wind farm and the neighbors living near the golf course who refused to sell their properties at his offered price.
Unable to negotiate sales directly with the neighbors, Trump began to pursue compulsory purchase — similar to eminent domain in the United States — to force them out of their homes. Not only did he want their land, Trump said he didn’t want the views from his luxury hotel “obliterated by a slum.”
The largest property is owned by Michael Forbes, a farmer, fisherman, quarry worker and jack-of-all-trades who lives with his wife in a farmhouse surrounded by a collection of outbuildings. Trump once said that Forbes "lives like a pig"; Forbes painted "NO MORE TRUMP LIES" on the side of one of his buildings.
Trump’s threat to seize property angered many Scots. A group of activists purchased a chunk of Forbes’s land and piled their names onto a deed — making it much more complicated to seize it. Although elected leaders had bent to Trump’s demands in the past, they stood firm against kicking locals off their own land to make way for a private business.
It appeared the two sides would be forced to live alongside each other — and not peacefully. The development took steps to shield neighboring properties from the course, prompting years of feuding.
In one case, Trump workers blocked in the cottage belonging to Susie and John Munro, constructing a two-story-high hill in their front yard and then adding a fence and locked gate, the couple said. Whenever it rains, they say, their yard fills with water and their steep dirt road turns into a mudslide.
During a dispute over property lines, workers ripped out a fence near the home of David and Moira Milne, who live in a converted coast-guard station on a hill above the golf course. The Trump workers installed their own fence — and then sent the Milnes a bill for it.
“It ain’t getting paid. I’m never paying it,” said David Milne, an energy consultant who chuckles at the thought of Trump trying to get Mexico to pay for a massive border wall when he couldn’t collect on the bill for a slatted wood fence no more than five feet tall.
Trump’s workers also planted a row of trees that blocked the Milnes’ view of the sea. When the first batch died, the workers ripped them out and planted a second.
‘A very small job for me’
The 18-hole golf course opened in July 2012 — and even critics acknowledge that it is beautiful, meandering through the stabilized sand dunes with sweeping views of the coastline. Even on days when the course is full, which is rare, golfers say they feel as if they are playing by themselves on the edge of the earth, as other tees are hidden away by the rolling landscape.
Trump likes to say that this is a course designed by God himself. He considers it his masterpiece, comparing it to a treasured, multimillion-dollar painting.
“There are lots of ways that he can make money, and there are lots of ways that he can make a fast buck, and this was a project that was about his legacy, it was about his family, it was about his love of the game of golf,” said Sarah Malone, the executive director of the development.
Also in 2012, Trump halted work on the resort to challenge the proposed wind farm, which was still on track to be built. In a letter to Salmond, Trump dubbed him “Mad Alex” and warned that the wind project would make him “the man who destroyed Scotland.” Trump also took out advertisements in the local press criticizing the wind farm.
During a hearing in June 2012, Trump accused the Scottish government of luring him into investing in the country on the false promise that the turbines would never be built — an assertion that officials deny. At one point, one of the questioners asked Trump whether he was fighting the wind turbines as a way to back out of the project without embarrassing himself.
“I’ve created something that’s magnificent — I’ve created what some people and myself are considering the best golf course anywhere in the world. That’s what I said I was going to do,” Trump said at the hearing. “We’re a very rich organization. We’re a very substantial organization. This is a very small job for me. This is not a big job.”
The next year, Trump sued the government to block the turbines, kicking off an expensive legal battle. Late last year, Britain’s highest court ruled against Trump.
His company released a statement: “History will judge those involved unfavorably and the outcome demonstrates the foolish, small-minded and parochial mentality which dominates the current Scottish Government’s dangerous experiment with wind energy.”
‘Nobody wants him around’
Trump has provided starkly contradictory portraits of the financial health of his golf course here, along with two other projects in the region.
According to reports filed with the British government, Trump said the Aberdeen course has lost more than 4.71 million pounds since 2012 — the equivalent of $6.9 million at current exchange rates. British authorities were told that the course lost 1.14 million pounds, or about $1.67 million, in 2014 alone.
Yet in a July 2015 disclosure filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Trump valued Aberdeen at “over $50 million” and put his income from the course at $4.2 million between mid-2014 and the end of 2015.
A similar pattern holds for records filed for his Turnberry golf resort on Scotland’s west coast, which he will also visit this week, and at a third Trump course in Ireland’s County Clare — millions in losses reported in overseas records, millions in profits reported on U.S. forms.
Trump told Bloomberg News, which first reported on the gap between the reports, that the amounts he listed on his U.S. filings were "projected future income."
Trump’s son Eric, who takes the lead in golf course developments, said in an interview that the U.S. disclosure forms report gross revenue, not net income. He also said the British and Irish courses are losing money only because the Trump Organization is spending aggressively to turn them into leading international resorts.
“We are incredibly pleased with Aberdeen,” Eric Trump said. “. . . It is the most beautiful course I have ever seen. It is a spectacular project that will continue to be the gem of Trump Golf for years to come.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s recent calls on the campaign trail for the United States to temporarily ban foreign Muslims from entering the country has sparked outrage here in Scotland. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stripped Trump of his business ambassadorship, and Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen rescinded an honorary degree it gave Trump in 2010.
Opposition to Trump is particularly strong in the Aberdeen area. Forbes and Milne — two of the neighbors that Trump feuded with — have erected Mexican flags on their properties in anticipation of his visit. And when more than 500,000 Britons signed a petition this year calling for Trump to be barred from the country, the highest concentration of signatures came from here.
“He would have us think that he is widely respected and loved, that Scotland he has won over. . . . That’s just delusional, I’m sorry to say,” said Aberdeen’s Suzanne Kelly, who organized the national petition. “Nobody wants him around. . . . And he refuses to see or refuses to accept what is reality.”
Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.