Knoydart bereft by exit of saviour

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The Independent Online
EARLIER THIS week, when the bid by Sir Cameron Mackintosh to be the saviour of Knoydart fell through, he was said to be "close to tears". He would not have been the first to weep over this wildly beautiful Scottish peninsula.

Knoydart, an isolated finger on Scotland's west coast, has been a place of anguish since the 1850s when its population was cleared by Josephine MacDonnell of Glengarry and shipped to Nova Scotia. Its history is a litany of troubles, its future is unsure.

Fifty years ago the so-called Seven Men of Knoydart, returning from war service, staked claims to a few acres of their own. They were taken to court by the then owner, Nazi sympathiser Lord Brocket, and dispossessed. None of their descendents remains there.

Its most recent would-be saviour is Sir Cameron, who owns the neighbouring Nevis Estate. He was proposing to lease back the 17,000-acre estate to the 70 residents for an annual rent of just pounds 1 and a bottle of malt whisky.

But the theatre impresario's sudden exit from negotiations, and the loss of his pounds 650,000, have left the residents unsure of their future. On Wednesday, the community association re-launched its public appeal to fund a buy-out.

"The people of Knoydart are very aware that the outside world will be questioning why we seem to be looking a gift horse in the mouth," said the association members. But with Sir Cameron denying them a future right to buy and hiving off vital housing, the deal was "simply not acceptable".

The estate has become a cause celebre in the land reform debate in Scotland. There may lie the residents' salvation. They would love to see the Government step in with the extra pounds 300,000 their Knoydart Foundation needs for a buy-out.

Knoydart lies between lochs Nevis (Heaven) and Hourn (Hell).The only settlement, Inverie, boasts one of Britain's most remote inns, a watering hole for hill-walkers bound for the peninsula's two munros - peaks over 3,000ft. Catering for visitors is the main source of income for the community.

The original 50,000-acre estate was broken up in sales in the 1980s by Philip Rhodes, an English property dealer. An earlier owner was Lord Hesketh, one-time Tory minister, who bought it in 1972 for pounds 250,000 and sold it the next year for pounds 1.5m.

Today, the only natives of Knoydart are the handful of children born since settlers from afar began arriving in the 1970s and 80s. Bernie Evermy, 59, a former plumber from Kent, is the part-time postman and chairs the community association. He said: "It is quality of life that's important, and freedom from the aggravations I used get as a plumber, even just finding a place to park. It's also the sense of community; next week on Burns Night we'll all be together, Scots, English, German, Dutch."

Fed up with neglect by absentee lairds, the settlers decided on a buy- out and the Knoydart Foundation was formed in 1997. It includes two wild land charities (the John Muir Trust and the Brasher Trust set up by the former Olympic athlete Chris Brasher) the Highland Council and Sir Cameron's own charity, the Mackintosh Foundation.

Last November, Knoydart Peninsula Ltd, controlled by the businessman Stephen Hinchliffe, went into voluntary receivership with debts to the Bank of Scotland and others of pounds 1.4m. The fraud squad has been investigating him over the failed retail chain Facia.

The receiver is looking for pounds 850,000 for the estate. Sir Cameron offered pounds 650,000, the Brasher Trust adding a further pounds 200,000, with pounds 250,000 from the John Muir Trust and pounds 100,000 from the public.

Highland councillor Charlie King, chairman of the foundation, said: "We all knew Sir Cameron and there was no malice intended. He wanted to make Knoydart safe for as long as anyone living there wanted. He was pretty upset."

Iain Bennet, the receiver in Glasgow, has to recoup as much of the Bank of Scotland's money as he can. If it comes to a "fire sale", speculators could top the Knoydart Foundation's accumulated pounds 550,000.

The Knoydart group has written to the receiver, asking for three weeks to raise the money. It believes Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, might consider a grant of pounds 300,000 would place him in the pantheon of heroes with the Seven Men of Knoydart. And there's an election on 6 May.