Knight rides to rescue of Knoydart

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THE SETTLERS who make a hand-to-mouth living on Knoydart, an isolated finger of mountainous land on the west coast of Scotland, are preparing to celebrate victory in a protracted campaign to control their own destiny.

On Monday, 50 years to the day after the Seven Men of Knoydart unsuccessfully laid claim to a small slice of the estate then owned by the Nazi sympathiser, the late Lord Brocket, the 70-strong community will hear details of a "buy-out" many had feared was becoming a pipe dream.

The 17,000-acre Knoydart estate is to be bought by a neighbouring landowner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh - the impresario acting as a "white knight" - and then leased back to the community for a peppercorn rent. Solicitors were yesterday drawing up the terms of a lease between Sir Cameron, who is understood to be putting up about pounds 650,000, and the community-led Knoydart Foundation. Chris Brasher, the Olympic athlete-turned entrepreneur, is contributing a further pounds 200,000.

Bernie Evermy, the former Kent plumber who chairs the community association, said everyone on the island was highly delighted. "It's been a long haul, but now we can look to some stability," he said.

The Knoydart peninsula lies between lochs Nevis and Hourn, respectively the lochs of heaven and hell. The only village is Inverie, reached either by thrice-weekly boat from Mallaig or a two-day walk across the appropriately named Rough Bounds of Knoydart.

But behind the splendour of the landscape lies an unhappy story of ruthless clearances in the last century, absentee lairds, and parcel sales. None of the families of the 1948 Land Raiders remain on Knoydart and the only natives are children born to people who have settled since the Seventies.

Mr Evermy, Knoydart's part-time postman, has considered some sort of buy-out as the way forward almost since he arrived 14 years ago. But it was only with the election of a Labour Government committed to land reform that he saw it as a real possibility. "We have caught the tide," he said.

However the community has been aided by the financial troubles of the estate's latest English laird, Stephen Hinchliffe. At the end of last week his company, Knoydart Peninsula Ltd, went into voluntary receivership with debts to the Bank of Scotland and others totalling around pounds 1.4m. Mr Hinchliffe and his business partner Christopher Harrison are under investigation by the Serious Fraud Squad and the Department of Trade and Industry over the failed retail chain Facia. Mr Harrison is in jail in Germany, charged with misappropriating pounds 320,000.

The deal between Mr Mackintosh, the Bank of Scotland and Mr Hinchliffe has been thrashed out at a series of meetings over the past few weeks. The final price for the estate is about pounds 850,000, with Mr Mackintosh putting in pounds 650,000 and the Brasher Trust making up the difference. Though the final sum is little more than half the asking price when the estate was last on the market, it is unlikely the foundation could have raised that much through its public appeal. The pounds 200,000 it has raised so far - half from the wild land charity, the John Muir Trust - will be used on projects to boost incomes and safeguard the landscape.

Next Monday's celebrations will be accompanied by the unveiling of a detailed business plan. The foundation hopes that the population of Knoydart can gradually be increased to about 100. Today's residents are mixture of "Good Lifers" and romantics who have fallen in love with the place and eked out a living - a few quite successfully catering for the walkers who come to climb the hills.

The foundation has been in discussion with Scottish Homes about providing affordable housing for rent. But future residents will need to be fairly self-sufficient types. Amenities are few, the weather can be foul, but the views are unsurpassed.