Crofters draw up battle plan to save community

The buyer of a pounds 1.5m Highland estate will find the locals organis ed for action. John Arlidge reports
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The Independent Online
Villagers living on Britain's most remote Highland estate have joined forces with environmental campaigners to try to secure the future of their wilderness home.

The 50-strong community on the Knoydart estate, which is for sale at pounds 1.5m, has fought a bitter battle with a succession of owners in recent years. Locals complain that lairds have neglected the 16,500-acre peninsula which overlooks the Isle of Skye. Now they want their say in running the estate.

At a meeting in Mallaig earlier this week, crofters set up the Knoydart Foundation, a pressure group comprising local authorities and environmental groups such as the John Muir Trust and the Brasher Trust, run by the former Olympic athlete, Chris Brasher. The group will draw up a business plan for the estate which will be presented to the new owner.

People living in Inverie, the sole village on the peninsula which can only be reached by boat, say owners have failed to invest in the local economy. They say that for months the current laird, Reg Brealey, the chairman of Sheffield United football club, failed to pay the estate's nine workers, who maintain the 1,300-strong deer herd, fell timber and look after the 18th-century Inverie House.

They also complain that Scotland's arcane feudal land laws, which give lairds complete control over tenants' lives, have encouraged owners to treat the area as a private fiefdom, ignoring the wishes of locals. Mr Brealey provoked a storm of protest last year when he tried to set up a boot camp at Inverie to train 50 deprived children from inner-city Glasgow. He argued the scheme would help to secure the future of the estate.

Bernie Evemy, 56, a plumber who moved to Knoydart 10 years ago and has helped to set up the foundation, said: "We are a small community living in a marginal area. If we and the estate are to survive then things have to be properly managed. We are fed up with being treated like the play things of rich men. We live here and we demand a say in our future. We want to work with, and not against the new laird."

Mr Evemy, who has led the opposition to Mr Brealey, said that the locals had hoped to make a bid to buy the estate outright but could not raise the funds. Instead, he said, the foundation would draw up a business plan which would seek to boost traditional industries like fishing, fish farming and forestry, while diversifying into tourism and outdoor pursuits.

Foundation members also plan to attract new residents to re-occupy abandoned crofts and cottages on the banks of Loch Nevis, the Sound of Sleat and Loch Hourn.

The Knoydart Foundation is the latest move by Highlanders to challenge Scotland's traditional pattern of land ownership. Three years ago crofters in Sutherland bought the Assynt estate after launching a fund-raising appeal and locals on Skye are also planning to buy their land.

Crofters argue the Scottish Office is acting too slowly to reform Scotland's feudal laws.

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