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)
Varley, Martin, Geographical
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. The organisation already owns three estates adjacent to the Black Cuillin and would love to get its hands on such a prize, but not at the price. The 10 million [pounds sterling] tag placed on the mountains is about five times its market value and 20 times what the Trust paid for Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, purchased in June 2001. Since its creation in the early 80s, the Trust has bought 16,000 hectares of the Highlands. The majority of acquisitions have been made following approaches by landowners, allowing the Trust to avoid the unpredictability of auctions and the open market. Duncan Fairfax-Lucy, the man who sold Ben Nevis, was a Trust member, and selling at a knock-down price was a sacrifice he was prepared to make in order to pass the mountain into safe hands.
"Not all landowners are money-grabbing mercenaries," says Trust director, Nigel Hawkins, "The majority want to secure the future of their land. Selling is not always about profit, its about getting the right buyer. It's a vote of confidence when people approach us, but it's also a lot of responsibility as we have to live up to the owner's expectations for that land." At the 10 million [pounds sterling] asking price the Trust is not interested in John MacLeod's offer; that he went directly to the open market suggests the feeling was mutual.
There has been considerable interest in the land, from potential buyers in the UK, Europe and the USA. But while ownership is an issue, Guy Galbraith, Director of FPD Savills, Edinburgh, has no fears for the Cuillins' future. "It's a primary condition of the sale that the public will continue to have rights of access to it," he says. "People will be still be able to walk over the land."
The Black Cuillin sale is far from the only upheaval facing Scottish lands. At the end of 1999 the Labour Government in Westminster introduced The Countryside and Right of Way Act -- probably the most significant piece of countryside legislation for 50 years. It creates a new legal right of access on foot to areas of open countryside, predominantly in upland areas. Walkers will be now able to explore 1.5 million hectares of mountain, moorland, heath, down and common land in England and Wales.
North of the border a separate `right to roam' legislation is one of a raft of land reforms currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament. The measures could radically change public use of private land in a country where 80 per cent of the land is owned by less than one per cent of the population. But the new access proposals are experiencing a rougher ride than their English counterparts. Historically, there is a tradition of free right of access in Scotland, summed up by Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnson, in 1942 as, "The public is at liberty to walk over any land in Scotland, provided he does no damage to fences and does not commit a breach of any of the various Poaching Acts." However, the hope that the new legislation would enshrine this principle in law has now turned to fear that lobbying landowners will hijack the Act and introduce new restrictions on walkers in the countryside. With a decision on the Bill pending from Holyrood, the battle lines remain drawn.
Elsewhere in Scotland, elements of the land reform process are making better progress. Scotland is about to get its first national parks, which will enclose some of its finest countryside within a new web of protection. Legislation for national parks in England and Wales was introduced in 1949. Similar plans were laid down for Scotland, but successive governments failed to act, and it wasn't until devolution finally wrested power from Westminster that the pressure for national parks produced results. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs will become Scotland's first national park in 2002; the Cairngorms will follow in 2003.
National parks are designed to protect an area from damaging developments for the good of the nation. Under the national parks system in England, control is taken from the local authority and vested in a dedicated National Park Authority. The politics behind such a change are often volatile; the National Park Authority is required to make decisions on behalf of the nation, and these often conflict with the wishes of local landowners. The biggest hurdle for national parks in Scotland was agreeing just how `national' they would be and to what extent the balance of power could be shifted from self-interested local authorities to newly formed National Park Authorities. In the end the government agreed to compromise, proposing that the management of each candidate would be considered separately.
According to Brian Parnell, Chairman of the Scottish Council for National Parks, such a piecemeal approach is a recipe for disaster. "A national park authority without the power to control planning isn't really an authority at all. In the Cairngorms, the five local authorities involved don't want to give up their power, so the government is seeking a partnership approach to management. But the likelihood of the authorities presenting a united front seems remote."
Beyond the Cairngorms similar battles are being fought. The Scottish Council for National Parks would like to see Wester Ross, and Glen Nevis and Glencoe as the next nominees for national park status. While both areas encompass some of the most beautiful mountainous landscapes in Scotland, each area is under the control of a vociferously hostile local authority, which would resist any proposed designation. Brian Parnell believes that their stance will be softened if Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is successful. "Once the current parks are up and running, and some positive value is seen in them, I think it will be difficult even for the most belligerent council to stop future designations."
One step beyond an over-arching authority making decisions on behalf of the masses is for the masses themselves to take control of the land, and the final piece in the Scottish land reform jigsaw may allow just that. A new community `right-to-buy' legislation is being proposed. Rather than being forced to pay an inflated market price for land, it will allow local communities to have the price set by an independent valuer, should it come on the market.
In October, the residents of the island of Gigha hit the headlines after buying their own island -- despite not tabling the highest bid. Of the 4 million [pounds sterling] total, the islanders paid just 250 [pounds sterling], and that was from an anonymous donation. The rest came from grants. However, the community will have to repay 1 million [pounds sterling] in the next two years under the stewardship of a newly formed heritage trust. Its seven directors will have to make a sharp shift from being schoolteachers and shopkeepers to fundraisers. "This is the first true test of land reform," said George Lyon, local Democrat MSP. "The ultimate goal is to change the pattern of land ownership in Scotland."
As the International Year of Mountains begins, Black Cuillin is still on the market. No one has yet been bold enough to challenge John MacLeod's claim in court, nor to offer the 10 million [pounds sterling] asking price. But land ownership and land issues in Scotland are on the verge of a radical overhaul. With the possibility of land values being fixed independently when a community shows interest in purchase, high profile public sales, such as that of the Black Cuillins, could become a thing of the past.
A new gift for the nation
Scotland's first national park opens this year, complete with a 21st-century visitor centre and large-format cinema
Spring 2002 sees the opening of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, Scotland's first national park. Loch Lomond -- the largest freshwater body in the UK -- will become its focus, with the town of Balloch on the lake shore its southern gateway.
Development is already under way, with the 60 million [pounds sterling] Loch Lomond Shores visitor experience nearing completion on a brownfield site on the edge of the town. The visitor centre has a 20m-high glass frontage, which offers panoramic views across the loch towards Ben Lomond, and a large-format cinema showing a special film shot in the area.
Visitors to Loch Lomond currently spend 25 per cent less than the UK average. The huge retail development by Jenners, Scotland's oldest independent department store, is likely to change that. The new park will attract an estimated eight million visitors a year, helping to make the information centre at Loch Lomond Shores the third busiest in Scotland after Edinburgh and Oban. The site is due for completion in April or May.
What's happening in the International Year of Mountains in Scotland?
Events planned for 2002 include scientific conferences, practical conservation work, talks and cultural celebrations. Details and updates are available from www.iym.org.uk
* Series of winter lectures on mountain themes; National Trust for Scotland
* Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park launch
* Opening of new Glen Coe visitor centre; National Trust for Scotland
* Third European Mountain Convention; HIE/SNH
* Ecology of Adventure launch and conference; Glenmore Lodge
* Summer Mountain Festival; Mountaineering Council of Scotland
* Makrolab arts & science project; The Arts Catalyst/ Atholl Estate
* Highland Archaeology Week; Association of Regional & Island Archaeologists
* Northern Mountains of Europe Conference; Centre for Mountain Studies/SNH
* Dundee Mountain Film Festival; DMFF Trust
Throughout the International Year of Mountains, Geographical will run a regular column in its Worldwatch pages highlighting mountain issues. Turn to page13 for the first in the series…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: 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). Contributors: Varley, Martin - Author. Magazine title: Geographical. Volume: 74. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2002. Page number: 18+. © 2008 Circle Publishing Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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