At last, an end to feudalism

The Highlands teem with foreign lairds, bristling with anger at the ingratitude of their serfs

I'M ON my honeymoon, dining with the Laird of Unst and his lady wife. It's not that I'm generally given to hanging out with the landed gentry of Scotland, it's just that the laird has recently come home to the land of his forebears and is - with the help of the ex-convent girl from the home counties who is his soulmate, helpmeet, and lifetime-on- cordon-bleu-course concubine - running the ancestral seat as an understated country hotel. It's not such an enviable way of living, for Unst is the northernmost island in Shetland, which, of course, means it's the last sliver of land in Britain.

We're already finding it hard to like the laird, not because he's such a bad chap, but because the best-known of his ancestors saved the bonxie from extinction. Bonxies are huge, hideously ugly and mind-bogglingly vicious gulls, best-known for dive-bombing any human who wanders on to their breeding-grounds. My husband and I have just spent an afternoon slithering across the moorland being buzzed by these creatures in scenes that made Hitchcock's The Birds seem as realistic as Peter Mandelson's lifestyle. We're a little shaken.

Still, things are going OK until an enquiry is made at the table as to whether the laird's family had anything to do with the Unst clearances. The laird appears chipper, and murmurs that thankfully his family can hold their heads high. His lady, however, turns into something of a bonxie herself, and starts screeching in her lavishly southern accent that there were no clearances on Shetland. Her husband interjects, explaining that the remains of some empty cottages, never owned by his family, can still be seen not a mile away.

"No!" she yells. Their people were traitors, walking out of their own volition, irresponsibly leaving their homes and their land on a promise of easy living down south, maybe even abroad. Where had we heard these vicious lies? From the blasted locals no doubt, was it not?

Well, no. From Eric Linklater's history of Orkney and Shetland.

Linklater, she screamed, was a liar. She then announced that she could no longer share a table with the likes of us, and flapped out of the room, like a bonxie flying into the sunset. Even the laird himself slumped back in relief at her exit.

Why a middle-aged Englishwoman should feel it so important to rewrite a 150-year-old history in which she could never have had any involvement, may seem like a mystery. Except that there's no mystery here. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are teeming with incoming foreign lairds and lairdesses, bristling with anger at the ingratitude of their serfs, while in return the hills are alive with the sounds of bitter locals cursing the bones of their incomer landlords.

Look at the sixth Earl Granville, owner of a 60,000-acre estate on the outer Hebridean island of North Uist. Although relations between lairds and locals had been cordial since the family's purchase of the estate in 1961, crofters were furious when they found that the meagre living they made from the harvesting and sale of seaweed would be a little more if his lordship hadn't invoked an ancient law which entitled him to claim royalties on all seaweed collected on the island. "It's disgusting, grasping, medieval," said one crofter, and he was absolutely right. Medieval it certainly is.

Until now, Scotland's land ownership has been run on a feudal structure that has survived since the reign of David the First in the 12th century. But yesterday the Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, announced radical reforms of land ownership in Scotland which will, among other things, end the superior-vassal relationship whereby landowners can, if they wish, tax seaweed picked up from a beach, or anything else at all they may fancy.

Residents, too, will have the right to purchase land that comes up for sale from absentee or neglectful landlords, and brings us back to local- hating incomer landlords such as poor old Keith Schellenberg, former Olympic bobsleigh champion, and more recently former laird of the Hebridean island of Eigg. He purchased the island as a holiday home in 1974, and set in motion a grand plan to build a self-sufficient utopia, which included - at the less bizarre end of his set of plans - a craft centre and the importing of a new breed of cattle.

Needless to say, the craft centre closed, the cattle didn't thrive and the whole thing went to hell in a hand-basket. For Schellenberg himself it wasn't so bad, as he wintered on his Banffshire estate. But the locals became fed up with his eccentric lairdship, and a very public battle ensued which culminated in Schellenberg's announcement that "his" islanders were "drunken, ungrateful, lawless, barmy revolutionaries" - followed quickly by his sale of the island to the German artist Marlin Eckhard Maruma. Although, after a massive public appeal - the islanders were refused lottery money to purchase the island - Eigg was purchased from Maruma by the locals, they would have been able force a purchase direct from Schellenberg under the new rules. Funding will be set aside for communities in such a situation. Similarly, the future of the estate of Knoydart is also looking rosier today. Spurred on by neighbouring Eigg, the residents of Knoydart have been bidding to buy the estate that they live and work on from Stephen Hinchliffe, a former city trader who is facing investigation by the serious fraud squad after the collapse of his retail empire, Fascia. The locals say the estate is being mismanaged by Hinchliffe and his partner, and if these claims can be proven it will now be possible for the Government to impose a compulsory purchase order, and for the locals to take over ownership. It is truly fantastic, and will change not just the topography of Scotland, but the nation's idea of itself.

Certainly, though, these changes have been a long time coming. Scots have been fulminating for years about the carve-up of the Highlands and Islands by subsidy seekers from Mohammed al-Fayed to Terry Wogan, and about the fact that there has never been any protection of Scottish land from foreign ownership. Half of the country is owned by 500 people, few of whom are Scots. Nationalists have been campaigning for years for Scotland to be brought into line with England and the rest of Europe by abolishing feudal structures and regulating land use.

There is no doubt a little political expediency in the timing of Dewar's announcement, as New Labour becomes increasingly antsy about Scotland's seeming desire to move directly from devolution to full independence. But, clearly, on this occasion Westminster is promising something right and necessary and with no strings attached - that one of the first tasks of the Scottish Parliament will be to move Scotland forward a thousand years. As for the good lady of Unst, thank God I'm not sitting round her dinner table this evening. This whole thing will be driving her off her bonxie.

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