Highlanders rise against a brace of absent lairds

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The Independent Online
THE BATTLE for ownership of a remote Scottish estate embroiled in financial turmoil is finally heading for a resolution. On one side are two "English lairds" facing Serious Fraud Office investigations, on the other the estate's 70 residents, whose lives have been put on hold amid all the uncertainty.

In a move which could hasten the sale of the Knoydart estate to the local community for around pounds 1m, the owner of the West Highlands estate has been ordered to pay an outstanding debt of just pounds 27,000.

A buyout by the community - for which pounds 800,000 has already been raised - would follow the example of Eigg, 20 miles away, where a public appeal last year raised pounds 1.5m to buy the Hebridean isle from its German owner, ending 700 years of dependence on absentee lairds.

The hopes of Knoydart's residents have been raised after a Sheriff's Court ordered the peninsula's owner, Stephen Hinchliffe, to hand over unpaid wages to the manager of the estate, who was sacked when Mr Hinchliffe took over earlier this year. His company, Knoydart Peninsula (KPL), has been given until the end of the month to pay the former manager, Ian Robertson, pounds 27,000. If it fails to do so, Mr Robertson will be entitled to take over the company. The development follows the arrest of Mr Hinchliffe's business partner, Christopher Harrison, who is now languishing in a Frankfurt jail, facing criminal charges of misappropriating funds.

Neither development comes as a surprise to the 17,000-acre estate's 70 residents. One of the two boats that link the peninsula to the mainland has been impounded for three months after KPL failed to pay a pounds 9,000 bill for repair work to the vessel. The only other access to the estate is by the mail boat, which sails three times a week, or by a hard two-day slog overland.

"We feel this is another chip away at the armour of the company. Sooner or later it will have to be sold," said Charlie King, a local councillor and chairman of the Knoydart Foundation, a community-led trust which has raised pounds 800,000 towards the purchase of the island.

"A lot of people have their own businesses here and their future is being dictated by someone hundreds of miles away who doesn't understand how things work up here.

"People don't even have to be consulted about changes. It's an emotive issue when your landlord can dictate what you do with your house. The whole principle is wrong."

Mr Hinchliffe and Mr Harrison bought the remote west coast peninsula at Easter from Titaghur, a Dundee jute company. A company controlled by the two men owns the shares of Knoydart Peninsula, owners of the estate.

The problems have steadily piled up. Both men are being investigated by the SFO and the Department of Trade and Industry in connection with the Facia shoe retail business, which collapsed in 1996 leaving debts in excess of pounds 100m. Mr Harrison was arrested in Germany in July and is awaiting trial on charges of misappropriating pounds 320,000 from a German shoe retailer, controlled with Mr Hinchliffe, that has also collapsed.

For its part, KPL believes it has been subjected to unceasing public and private attacks by people "not in possession of all the facts". John Turvill, KPL's managing director, has said the residents "don't like English incomers" - perhaps missing the irony that, apart from the children, all the residents are outsiders who have moved to the island, often seeking a Good Life-style existence. The Knoydart Foundation has received donations from Chris Brasher, former athlete and founder of the London Marathon, and the West End impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who owns a neighbouring estate and believes Knoydart can be bought for between pounds 800,000 and pounds 1.2m. A business plan will be published this week, outlining how the foundation would run the estate.

With the imminent creation of a Scottish Parliament, the affair has assumed a wider political dimension. Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, a keen hill walker, found himself drawn into the row during a stay at Knoydart this spring. In a bizarre sequence of events, the electricity at his house mysteriously "broke down" and the water supply was blocked off. Mr Smith was also attacked for his "Sassenach insensitivity".

The new Scottish Parliament is expected to reassess the law allowing absentee landlords to own estates north of the border.