Good Lifers try pounds 1.5m appeal to buy a paradise

Stephen Goodwin on how a community made up largely of incomers hopes to revive a lovely but remote part of Scotland
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The Independent Online
APPEAL notices have just gone out to thousands of hillwalkers, climbers and misty-isles romantics to help secure the future of 17,200 acres of wild land on the Knoydart Peninsula together with one of the most remote communities in Britain.

The tiny settlements around this wildly beautiful fringe of western Scotland - opposite the Isle of Skye - can only be reached by boat or by a two- day hike across the accurately named Rough Bounds.

The Knoydart estate, reduced by asset sales to the southern side of the peninsula, and people whose lives are bound up with it have suffered from the whims and regimes of absentee landlords for as long as anyone living there can remember.

But the appeal for pounds 1.5m to fund a community-led buy-out raises delicate issues. Apart from the children, all the residents are incomers; English accents are as common as Scottish. And even some of them wonder privately why distant strangers should subsidise their decision to opt for an alternative, if precarious, lifestyle away from the rat-race.

However, Bernie Evemy, part-time postmaster and chairman of the Knoydart Community Association, says a buy-out would give stability to residents and assurance to walkers that access to the hills would remain open.

A plumber in Kent before he fetched up on the peninsula in 1985, Mr Evemy - who is in his late 50s - is dismissive of doubts about subsidising incomers. "Given that a community has never been allowed to survive in Knoydart for hundreds of years, who else is there?"

Most of the residents trickled in during the Seventies and Eighties but newcomers are still entranced. Fliss Hough, from Derby, arrived two years ago after graduating in geography and history. "I came here for a weekend and decided I wasn't going back. It was hardly a wise career move but it's wonderful." Part-time housekeeper at the "big house" and librarian, Ms Hough had a baby daughter 10 months ago, a welcome addition to the population; the primary-school roll is five.

Now there is an opportunity for a new type of ownership, which could give stability to the 70 residents - mainly in the estate village of Inverie - and safeguard access to the rugged mountain core. "For hillwalkers this is hallowed ground," said Nigel Hawkins, director of the John Muir Trust, a charity in the van of land reform in Scotland.

The trust has joined the attempt to buy the estate from a subsidiary of the jute company Titaghur, an improbable owner for a tract of raw mountainscape.The pounds 1.5m asking price includes a Victorian lodge with 15-bedrooms, seven cottages and stalking averaging 55 stags and 138 hinds each year.

Shortly before Christmas the buy-out partnership, called the Knoydart Foundation, launched a public appeal. The trust donated pounds 100,000 as did both Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the impresario who owns a neighbouring estate, and Chris Brasher, the former Olympic athlete and London Marathon founder.

But since then progress has been slow. A chart on the wall of the shop at Inverie shows just over pounds 8,000 has been contributed in the past two months, taking the total to pounds 311,451. At that rate it would take 25 years to raise the asking price. A request for lottery funding was turned down.

To increase the momentum, the trust last week began mailing its membership of almost 6,000 worldwide in an appeal for funds. Other climbers and hillwalkers for whom Knoydart is such a challenge will be targeted through magazines and clubs. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people visit the peninsula each year, many to attempt its four Munros - peaks over 3,000ft.

Not everyone is as gung-ho about a buy-out as Mr Evemy, and some - particularly among the 10 estate workers - would probably prefer an old-style landowner, if one could be relied on. Even after finding the pounds 1.5m, as much again needs to be spent on Inverie House, the cargo-carrying ex-landing craft Spanish John, repairing the ageing hydro-electric system, and other infrastructure work.

Mr Evemy would like more houses built, tourism boosted and small businesses started such as market gardening and shellfisheries. "We are never going to be swamped. That only happens when tourists can come by car," he says.

In 1853, some 950 people were forced to leave Knoydart in the Highland Clearances. At Reidh an Daraich, the coastal "settlement" where Mr Evemy lives, there were once 96 homes. Now there is only the old Black House which he himself rebuilt amid the ruins. Against such a background, the foundation is confident that the cultural landscape can be restored without compromising Knoydart's natural grandeur.