Cold Call

Jack O'Sullivan rings the Duke of Buccleuch
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WALTER FRANCIS John Montague Douglas Scott, the septuagenarian ninth Duke of Buccleuch, is the country's largest landowner, with vast estates in Scotland. His acreage is bigger even than the Queen's. He is also tipped as a possible future King of the Scots. Is he miffed, I am wondering, by the Government's new plans to buy up badly managed Scottish estates?

The phone at Drumlanrig, his vast fairy-tale castle in Dumfriesshire, is engaged. Apparently, there is only one. Finally, I get through.

"Your Grace," I say, verbally tugging the forelock as I announce myself. "You sound like a racing correspondent," laughs a friendly English voice that is a cross between Kenneth More and Tony Benn. "Well, you don't sound very Scottish to me," I reply, laughing back.

Is he really Scottish? "Of course. There are lots of people who don't have Scottish accents who are Scots. Being Scottish is about the air one breathes. It's the stuff one is made of. If one has walked the countryside as a child and trampled through the mud, one feels close to this land."

Ah, the land. And how much of it does he in fact own? "Just over 400 square miles," he replies as unpompously as possible. That's a small country, I say. "Yes, but 96 per cent of it is windswept hills, defined by the European Union as severely disadvantaged."

But it's not a bad slab, I say. "Does your family have any guilty secrets from the Clearances?" "No," he says, "because we took the reverse attitude down here in the Borders. We created a village, Newcastleton, to provide a base for people so that they could stay in the countryside instead of being drawn overseas and into the cities."

But he must agree, mustn't he, that the Scottish aristocracy are not a popular lot? "I don't know what you mean by the Scottish aristocracy," he says. "We're no different from anyone else. We don't have different coloured hair."

Hasn't he seen Braveheart, with its tale of Scottish aristocratic betrayal? "I must be the only person in Scotland who hasn't," he laughs. "I'm afraid the cinema is rather a long way from here. But I'd be delighted if someone would send me a video of it." I offer my pirate copy and he gives me his address, spelling out Drumlanrig.

Maybe he would be stirred to claim that King of the Scots title? "Certainly not," says the duke. " I would have no more interest in it than you would have in being King of the Irish." A step up from racing correspondent, I think to myself.

Anyway, what about Labour's plans? "Actually, I looked at them and concluded that they will not affect us. They are designed for exceptionally bad landowners, for whom one really has no sympathy." Nor does the duke mind plans to extend access to private land. "People have been free to walk all over our estates for the last 100 years or more."

Everybody except the duke, that is. For over 20 years, since breaking his back in a riding accident, he has been confined to a wheelchair. Would he swap his lands for legs? "No, I wouldn't. It's not mine to do so. I'm merely a link in a long chain of people who have acquired all of this land by perfectly honourable means. In any case, I'm 75 now and don't have long to go."

Does Britain's largest landlord think he will get to heaven? "If I can get into the House of Commons," laughs this former Conservative MP confidently, " then I can get into heaven. I found enough people to vote me in four times. Did you know that Robin Cook challenged me in 1970? I defeated him comfortably."