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17 April 2000

Mountains of cash

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

High above the jagged ridges of the Cuillin, on the Isle of Skye, an eagle was hunting. Banking into the chill winter winds, the great bird turned and flew at breakneck speed down towards the burn that trickles between the mountains of Marsco and Sgurr nan Gillean. Talons outstretched, it swooped low for an invisible mouse or rabbit. And missed. Despite the vicissitudes of the chase, eagles live a long time, some for more than 100 years, and they are among the hardiest creatures on earth. They need to be hardy to survive in these bleak and beautiful mountains. And the Cuillin are bleak, and heart-piercingly beautiful.

If you have £10m handy, you could buy the lot tomorrow. And probably the eagles as well, my son. John MacLeod of MacLeod, chief of the Clan MacLeod (his real name is John Wolrige-Gordon) has put the Cuillin up for sale for “not a penny less than £10m”. Apparently the roof of Dunvegan Castle, the clan HQ, is leaking and it will cost a staggering £6.3m to repair. Instead of getting another estimate, the chief decided to flog the Cuillin.

Following this announcement, it emerged that Ben Nevis had been sold. The owner was Duncan Fairfax-Lucy of Charlecote Park, in Warwickshire, and he sold the great ben, two neighbouring mountains and half of Glen Nevis to a conservation body for £450,000. Even though Fairfax-Lucy clearly behaved well and opted to sell for less to a chosen buyer, it is feared that other owners of Scotland’s mountains will attempt to cash in on what might be a market for famous peaks as geographical trophies for the wealthy and daft.

There has also been an extraordinary howl of outrage at the Cuillin sale. It came as a rude shock to many that Scotland’s mountains should be owned by anybody at all. But while this is palpable and genuine, it is surprising. All over Britain, the principles of private ownership of land are accepted, understood and routinely defined and defended at law. So why is the heather ablaze at what the MacLeod had done?

The answer is buried in the hidden history of the Highlands. If famous bits of the Lake District, or the Norfolk Broads, were put up for sale, no one would bat an eyelid. But in the Highlands, the weight of history presses hard on the issue of land-ownership.

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Highland clanship was dismantled only relatively recently, after Gaelic Scotland was blown to bits at Culloden in 1746. Before then, two linked but competing views of land-ownership were understood by the Gaels. The earlier was known as duthchas and it meant the collective heritage of a clan, with the emphasis on collective. Families settled territory and enjoyed the protection of a clan chief and his warriors in return for services, and eventually rents. Under pressure from the Scottish Crown, duthchas began to give way to oigreachd, or inheritance. This was the notion that title to clan lands resided solely with the chief and his family. Later Stewart kings demanded that Highland chiefs acquire written title to their lands to back up their customary ownership. After much rummaging around, genealogical fakery and sporadic fighting, almost all chiefs eventually produced written title, and the idea of duthchas, or collective ownership, faded. But it never completely died.

And last week, it came roaring out of the darkness of the past and was visited on MacLeod of MacLeod. Duthchas found modern expression in Scotland at the idea of selling the Cuillin for £10m – to anybody with ready cash. Many Scots feel that the mountains are simply a stunning fact of geography and that they are beyond price.

As a particular case, the sale of the Cuillin ought to be thoroughly investigated. MacLeod seems to have no specific written title to the land, and such documents as his lawyers do have date from the time of the later Stewart kings. No mention is made of the mountains, only valuable agricultural land is listed. If that is accepted, then MacLeod’s title to the Cuillin is only customary – exactly as Highland landholding was in the days of duthchas. A possible interpretation is that the mountains may belong not to the chief but to the whole clan, or perhaps even everyone with the surname MacLeod.

Whatever the legal niceties, there is a real and popular issue to be taken on here. The Scottish Parliament should use its existing powers of compulsory purchase to repossess the Cuillin on behalf of the people of Scotland for £1 and in return fix MacLeod’s roof for free. And then they should bring forward a radical land reform bill which restores duthchas, the collective ownership of land which has only a cultural value, and which properly belongs to the heart and soul of Scotland. No one should be able to buy and sell the places where the eagles fly.

Alistair Moffat

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