Neal Sharp worked for the National Trust for Scotland for a third of a century, latterly as Senior Buildings Adviser. Among his many achievements, he took leading roles in the development of the trust's Little Houses Improvement Scheme and in the landmark Drumbuie inquiry - which de facto preserved the principle of the inalienability of land given to the National Trust for Scotland.
In 1968, Sharp had been appointed Area Surveyor for the trust's Highlands and Grampian Region. He and his ever-supportive wife, Dorothy, were posted to Lochalsh House on the Balmacara estate. The area takes in most of the Lochalsh peninsula and is criss-crossed with walking trails, running through native woodland and open moorland to sheltered bays and the gem-like villages of Drumbuie, Duirinish and Plockton. The Lochalsh woodland garden and the rugged coastline are enhanced by a wonderful view of the ragged Cuillins of Skye.
Out of the proverbial blue, in 1972, it was proposed by a consortium of Taylor Woodrow and Mowlem that, because of the deepwater potential, this area should be the site of a major oilrig construction yard. At the highest level, the trust decided to oppose this. Sharp assembled detailed information as to how the habitat of the Drumbuie peninsula would be affected and a public inquiry was held, from 1973 until June 1974, in the tiny district hall. The Chairman of the National Trust, the Earl of Wemyss, and the Director, Jamie Stormonth Darling, to say nothing of eminent planning lawyers, virtually took up residence at Lochalsh House. "Neal and Dorothy Sharp were simply marvellous," Lord Wemyss recalls.
Against the odds - the odds being the might of Taylor Woodrow and Mowlem, backed first of all by Gordon Campbell, Ted Heath's Secretary of State for Scotland, and then by Willie Ross in the incoming Labour government - the NTS was victorious. Drumbuie was saved. It remains pristine and beautiful to this day.
The fact that the consortium went to Kishorn, the other side of the bay, was a plus for the environment - albeit the yard turned out to be a disaster which Sharp, who had on a day-to-day basis spearheaded the trust's campaign, predicted. Crucially governments were deterred from going to the Commons to get the necessary amending legislation to overturn the planners; a blow was struck for the principle of inalienability.
Neal Sharp was born in 1934 into a printer's family, and seemed to inherit a talent for layout and design. After Falkirk High School he was apprenticed to the chartered architects William W. Wilson, working in Grangemouth from 1951 until he qualified in 1954. Beginning his National Service rather older than most of his contemporaries, at Aldershot, he greatly enjoyed being picked as a member of the élite Royal Army Service Corps motorcycle display team - normally the preserve of regular soldiers.
Returning to civilian life after a short spell in a National Health Service buildings department he was made District Master of Works for the Roxburgh and Selkirk Council. Impressed by his work on Border abbeys, the National Trust in 1964 took him on as master of works for their north and north-eastern region, which covered such fairytale castles as Crathes and Craigievar. He remained in the region, rising to the post of Assistant Regional Director, until 1982, when he was sent to Edinburgh as the trust's Assistant Director.
It was fortunate for Sharp that Stormonth Darling was succeeded in 1983 as Director by Lester Borley, at that time chief executive of the English Tourist Board (and before that of the Scottish Tourist Board). They developed an extremely constructive working and personal relationship. Sharp was appointed Joint Senior Buildings Adviser with responsibility for the trust's Little Houses scheme, in which he had been a key player since it was set up in the 1960s. The scheme depended on a revolving fund from which resources could be used to restore small vernacular buildings that were derelict or redundant and bring them back to life; these would then usually be sold, under the protection of a Conservation Agreement, and the money raised (each project aiming to break even) reinvested in further projects.
"Neal had a tremendous ability," remembers Borley, "to move from the small to the large in the matter of upgrading, and establishing an adoptive use for properties which would otherwise have been lost." Among his many triumphs were Cathedral Street in Dunkeld, the Robert Adam-designed 52 Charlotte Street in the East End of Glasgow and the townhouse in Falkland opposite Falkland Palace which is now in use as an integrated centre for town activity.
Sharp's work was rewarded by the National Trust for Scotland's being given a prize in 1975 by the Architectural Heritage Association. Some 230 properties in Scotland have now been preserved under the Little Houses scheme.
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