Mountains for the Masses: When an Impoverished Clan Chief Put the Black Cuillin Mountains on the Market, the Scottish People Were Up in Arms. Though the Sale Looks Set to Go Ahead, an Overhaul of Land Ownership Issues May Make It the Last Such Transaction North of the Border. (Scottish Heritage)

Article excerpt

THE MOUNTAINS OF THE BLACK CUILLIN ARE BREATHTAKING. RISING above the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of the Isle of Skye they are a sweeping range of spectacular peaks and ridges; a natural sculpture of sublime perfection cast in coarse-grained volcanic rock. Within their rough crown the lonely waters of Loch Coruisk sparkle, closed on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by sea. In 2002 -- designated the International Year of Mountains by the United Nations -- more climbers and walkers than ever are likely to be drawn by the mountains' Alpine likeness and abundant wildlife.

Such land is perceived as a timeless -- and priceless -- part of Scotland's natural heritage, yet it currently lies at the centre of a bitter wrangle, for the mountains of the Black Cuillin are up for sale. In the past two years various groups have disputed the owner's right to sell -- arguing that the land should pass into public ownership. But their efforts have been in vain -- the mountains are back on the market and look set to fall into the hands of an individual in the coming months.

The controversy began in March 2000, when John MacLeod, 29th chief of the MacLeod clan, offered the mountains for sale at a price of 10 million [pounds sterling]. The money was needed, MacLeod said, to fund roof repairs to his ancestral home at nearby Dunvegan Castle. MacLeod's decision did not go down well with everyone. Cameron McNeish, President of the Ramblers' Association Scotland, accused the clan chief of asset stripping and called for him to donate the area to the people of Skye. Ripples of outrage spread beyond mountaineering circles into the halls of the Scottish Parliament, where the fundamental question of whether the Cuillins actually were MacLeod's to sell was raised. Within a week of the news of the proposed sale breaking, an investigation into who owned the mountains was announced and the sale was suspended.

Who owns what and what they do with it is a vexacious issue in Scotland and the question of what people want from land, particularly in the wilder quarters of Britain, has become both public and political. The story of the sale of the Cuillins is another salvo in the ongoing conflict between those who believe they own the land by right of law and those who believe in a more fundamental ownership right. Rising from MacLeod's proposition was a ground-swell of indignation that one man could possibly have control over something that has been so magnificently created by the forces of nature. How could a price be put on something with no intrinsic commercial value, but inestimable symbolic and cultural value? The investigation into ownership was carried out by the Crown Estate Commission who, unfortunately for his detractors, sided with MacLeod. MacLeod claimed that his clan had held title to the peaks for 800 years. The commission backed down after legal advice suggested that there would be little prospect of success in any challenge to that point of view. A jubilant MacLeod duly put the mountains back on the market.

But still the waters were muddied. The Ramblers' Association Scotland also countered the laird's claim. Historical research led them to cast doubt on the assertion that MacLeod had been granted title for the Black Cuillin specifically. In essence, MacLeod only owned the mountains because he said he did. However, their claim failed to move the Crown Commissioners.

The controversy spread south of the border during the summer of 2000 when Labour Culture Secretary Chris Smith said that he thought the mountain range should go into public ownership: "There is enormous public interest in the Cuillins so there has to be a public-interest solution," he said in an interview for BBC Radio Scotland. "I very much hope that we will get into a situation where bodies like the John Muir Trust or the National Trust for Scotland will take over ownership."

This was not an unreasonable hope. The John Muir Trust, named after the Scottish pioneer of the national park movement, has made a habit of purchasing wild land and empowering local people to become active in its management. …