NO-ONE knows for sure what happened. It could have been that lit candles inside the tiny makeshift wooden hut were knocked over, perhaps by one of the two dogs who lived there with their owners, setting the place ablaze in a matter of moments.
Whatever the beginnings of the tragedy, the end result was the death of Andrew Millhouse, a 24-year-old student from South Africa, while his friend Leonna O’Neill, a politics and philosophy graduate from Edinburgh University suffered terrible burns to her arms. It’s all too easy to imagine the horror, the screams, the desperation in the dead of night, in the middle of a forest.
Today, just over a year on from the accident, the Bilston Glen anti-bypass protest site is peaceful and calm. The unusually warm February sunshine cuts through the bare branches of the trees. And where Andrew’s temporary home once stood is a memorial to him, decorated with daffodils and snowdrops, created by the campaigners who are still camped out in the woods – some of whom were there that night.
Not too far away there’s also a home-made fire extinguisher tied to a tree – plastic bottles filled with water, their caps pierced so the liquid can by squeezed directly onto flames should the need ever arise again.
“I doubt it would work, though,” says John, a tall, blondish man in his 30s, who speaks in a quiet voice, thick with a Denver accent. “We just have to hope we don’t have a repeat of what happened. My house is the closest one to Andy’s. We don’t know what happened, candles were knocked over, we think. It was a terrible night.
“His family were here just the other week on the anniversary of his death. They flew across from South Africa to scatter some of his ashes. It was nice.”
His partner Monica, a 34-year-old from Spain nods in agreement. “I didn’t know him. I just met him the day he died. I had come to visit on one of the open days and had stayed the night, the night of the fire. But we’ve built a memorial. We think he would like it. His family certainly seemed to like it.”
The death of Andrew Millhouse last year put the Bilston Wood treehouse camp back in the headlines. Yet 2012 will be the tenth year in which activists have been camped out in the woods. While Occupy Edinburgh captured the imagination and the column inches last year with its tent city in St Andrew Square, the camp at Bilston has been proving how successful peaceful occupation of land can be – so far there’s been no road built through the wildlife conservation site.
It was in the late 1990s that the plan to build a 2.8 mile-long dual carriageway – to bypass the village of Bilston and make the route from Straiton to Penicuik quicker – was first suggested.
It was incorporated into Midlothian Council’s local plan, which went out for consultation, and there was soon a large body of campaigners determined that the new stretch of road should never be built. From local people to wildlife and conservation groups, and those charged with protecting the green belt, ultimately there were more than 700 objections and just three letters of support. Yet not only did Midlothian Council grant planning permission but the Scottish Executive backed the decision by refusing to “call in” the application. The then Labour transport minister Sarah Boyack also refused a public inquiry into the whole scheme – despite it being alleged that she was privately against it and would rather the £18.5 million was spent on new rail.
By 2000, those opposing the scheme were known as the “No Alignment Action Group”, and already some were planning more direct action. At the time, Joan Higginson, a member of the group, said it was determined to halt the road and if legal action failed they had not ruled out copying the direct action of the sort used in the protests against the Newbury bypass in England.
However, in 2001 it looked as though things had settled down. The whole plan was put on hold for three years as the council reviewed its capital expenditure. But by then it was too late. Word that the woods, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and owned by Edinburgh University, were in danger had spread – and, in the spring of 2002, activists from around the country were setting up camp to ensure that no digger or bulldozers could start removing trees. Ever.
Back then the protesters – including Dogend, a 32-year-old from Edinburgh who had been living on the road as an eco-warrior for years – numbered in the twenties. Today, there’s less than ten. “But the numbers fluctuate,” says John, who has been living in the woods for two years.
“There will be more people arriving as the weather gets better.
“There’s no-one here now who was around ten years ago, but the message is handed on to everyone who comes here. There’s been no movement on the development of the bypass for years now, but it’s still on the agenda as far as we know so this camp will be here until it’s finally decided that it’s never happening.”
The camp certainly seems well established, although those living there are keen to stress that there’s nothing permanent – not even their names, which they are reluctant to give. While some do work, others are on the dole, spending their time working in the camp and its garden.
There’s a library filled with political works on activism, refrigerators – obviously unplugged and rescued from landfill – which store the food they manage to source from supermarket bins, a compost toilet, an area where bands play on the Sundays they hold their open cafe for those interested in the camp and, of course, the 20 treehouses.
“We are on couch-surfing websites these days as well,” smiles John. “That attracts a lot of people to the camp, but they do get involved once they hear about its history. That’s how I came across it. We manage to get by with little or no money.
“We get food which the supermarkets throw out. The only thing we need to buy, really, is tobacco. But the aim of being here is to stop the woods being developed.
“It would cost a fortune for us to be removed, and with the treehouses and rope bridges built high enough, it means the police couldn’t evict us, they’d have to bring in specialists, which is even costlier. It’s all about driving up the costs to make it not worth the while.”
Midlothian Council’s argument for the road was that it was necessary for economic development and that firms interested in moving to the area would go elsewhere unless the dual carriageway was built. While work has been done to construct a new roundabout at Gowkley Moss, the lack of a dual carriageway past Bilston Glen has not put off Asda, Sainsbury’s or any of the other retailers now at Straiton. In the camp’s garden, work is under way to clear ground for planting. Lorrain Voisard, 24, from Switzerland arrived at the camp a few weeks ago after hearing about it on a website.
“But it is about activism,” he says. “It’s an alternative way of living and there’s no separation between the two in my mind.”
For Helen Watt, a 33-year-old Australian who lives in Edinburgh and works as a carer, the camp is where she likes to spend her spare time.
“I came for the first time last summer and just thought it was amazing,” she laughs. “It’s like going travelling without going anywhere, people here are from all over the world. It’s hard to believe they could ever put a road through here now.”
Perhaps the last word, though, should go to Dogend and what he said in 2002. For the activists who’ve followed, the ethos remains: “We will stay as long as it takes to stop a road being built through these woods. It is sacred ground.”
THE campaign against the proposed A701 bypass from Straiton to Milton Bridge outside Penicuik began almost as soon as the plans were mooted.
But despite intense lobbying by environmental and conservation campaigners and local people, horrified that the road would cut through green belt land and the Bilston Glen wildlife site, both Midlothian Council and the Scottish Executive gave the go-ahead to a new £18.5 million dual carriageway.
Labour’s then-Scottish transport minister Sarah Boyack also refused a public inquiry into the plans.
As a result, eco-campaigners took to the trees in woodland just off the A701, building their treetop homes just high enough to be out of reach of the police.
That was in 2002, and ten years on, though the people have changed, the desire to stop the road has not.