Profit, power and TV personalities: Photographing the community in conflict with Trump

Construction and damming of Blairton Burn causing course to collapse between third green and fourth tee; January 2013. All images © Alicia Bruce

Set in a coastal Scottish village, Alicia Bruce’s new book follows a community determined to defend their homes and land

“I know Menie like the back of my hand: the wildflowers that grow, the way the dome moved, the beach; it’s all absolutely gorgeous. You don’t walk a dog every day for 28 years without knowing every kink in the landscape.”

Written in 2010, these are the words of Susan Monro, who has lived in the village of Menie on the east coast of Scotland for more than three decades. She captures the beauty and tranquillity of the much-loved scenery, steeped in local history and home to a tight knit community. Yet since 2006, Monro and many of her neighbours have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter battle for this landscape – and for the lives they have built there.

Kym Swindells, Menie, 17 July 2022
John Munro, Leyton Cottage, 23 July 2022

Their struggle began in 2006, when Donald Trump – then a developer and still a decade away from the presidency – jetted into Scotland. Trump purchased the Menie Estate and declared that he would “build the greatest golf course in the world” there. He then set about attempting to purchase the homes of Monro and her neighbours, and working to build his golf course on the protected land that surrounded them. As the people of Menie refused to bow down, sell up, or be pushed around by the reality TV star, Alicia Bruce began documenting their resistance.

In her photobook I Burn But I Am Not Consumed, the photographer combines portraits of Monro – shown smoking amidst her beloved sand dunes – and other Menie residents, with images of vast, rolling landscapes. Working collaboratively with the community as they fought relentlessly against Trump’s plans, she acted as a conduit for social change. As a child Bruce had played on the dunes of Menie, and now as an adult was documenting the fight to save them.

In the introduction, the Aberdeen-born artist writes: “My wish is that others will see through this lens the importance of integrity, compassion and stewardship of our natural world above profit, power and TV personalities.” It’s a defiant and frank sentiment, one that is mirrored by many of Menie’s residents, whose words often appear next to their portraits. An image of Mike Forbes, standing sentinel next his wife’s memorial on the day her ashes were buried, carries a particularly poignant caption. “Trump said my hoose [sic] was a pigsty when they tried for compulsory purchase orders,” reads the quote from the crofter and quarryman. “Well it’s my pigsty. I said, it’s my home and they won’t put me out of it. There’s been nae positives. He’s ruined the dunes; he’s just ruined everything.”

Trump International Golf Links Scotland; July 2022

“My wish is that others will see through this lens the importance of integrity, compassion and stewardship of our natural world above profit, power and TV personalities”

Forbes’ words illustrate a sad reality: that despite the determination of Menie’s residents, Trump International Golf Links opened on what was the Menie Estate in 2012. In 2020, Scotland’s Nature Agency confirmed that the sand dunes around the luxury development had been stripped of their protected status as a result of the damage caused by the resort’s construction. And in the same year, Aberdeenshire council granted permission for another golf course to be built on the same site.

Despite this, the subjects in I Burn But I Am Not Consumed remain non-compliant. One image shows a tractor shed, the words “no more Trump lies” scrawled on its outer wall. Another, taken in 2022, shows the Trump International Golf Links sign, the “T” conspicuously missing from its owner’s name – leaving only “rump” behind.

Bruce’s images often poke fun at the ex-president in their composition. A portrait of Mike Forbes, clearly taken years earlier than the last, shows him accompanied by his late wife. They stand outside of the Mill of Menie, him grasping a garden fork, her staring, brow furrowed, into the distance. The image’s likeness to Grant Wood’s seminal 1930 painting, American Gothic, is striking even to the casual observer.

Menie bonfire, November 2012

As Louise Pearson, curator of photography at National Galleries of Scotland, writes in the book’s latter pages: “Mike and his wife Sheila’s confrontational portrait breaks the mould. In contrast to others in this series, theirs ‘trips up Trump’ on his home ground through an oft-parodied American painting in an American collection. This choice offers a witty riposte to the personal remarks made [by Trump] about the Forbes family property.”

Following these observations, a timeline of the now 18-year dispute between Menie residents and Trump spreads across the book’s final pages. Maps, newspaper headlines and even a letter from the fake news aficionado himself detail key moments in what has often been a high-drama tale. A document from Grampian police, issued in acknowledgement of “Threatening or Abusive Behaviour” experienced by Bruce at the hands of one of Trump’s security guards, details the photographer’s own role in the David and Goliath-style saga.

Publishing this document now feels like an act of ongoing defiance – as does this entire volume. The collaborative nature of Bruce’s images offers a resounding and uncompromising rebuke to a man who Pearson describes as a “global bully”. “This is a form of protest. A quiet, dignified act of rebellion,” she writes. “The motherland won’t forget.”

Photographs from I Burn But I Am Not Consumed are on show as part of LOVE: Still Not the Lesser at MoCP, Chicago, until 22 December. Bruce’s book is out now (Daylight Books [USA])