Gamekeepers turn protesters over land reform

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Indy Politics

An alliance of water bailiffs, ghillies and river workers gathered in the Scottish Highlands last night to protest against proposed reforms of the archaic laws that have created the most unequal distribution of land in western Europe. In Scotland, a country of more than 19 million acres, more than 16 million of them are privately owned. Two-thirds of this rural landscape is in the possession of just 1,252 owners who control the land under feudal laws dating from the 11th century.

The Land Reform Bill, which goes before the Scottish Parliament before Christmas, is designed to replace the old system with a more straightforward ownership giving small communities and individual crofters the legal right to own the land they live and work on, and provide greater public access to the countryside.

But at a demonstration in Edderton, Easter Ross, members of the newly formed Crofting Counties Fishing Rights Group said the plans could devastate traditional rod-fishing and cause the loss of hundreds of jobs across the Highlands. They are in unlikely agreement with Peter de Savary, the entrepreneur trying to secure exemption for Skibo Castle, his luxury estate in Sutherland where Madonna and Guy Ritchie held their wedding reception last year.

David Cotton, clerk of the group, said: "This is causing great uncertainty on many rivers with owners disinclined to invest in expensive long-term conservation projects because they no longer believe they have security of tenure.

"It is highly irresponsible to create an atmosphere that is already undermining our high-value industry, which provides so much employment in rural areas." Another critic claimed the legislation was tantamount to the expropriation of property.

The Scottish Executive's plans to modernise the system of land-ownership and management have attracted 3,500 submissions from concerned groups, notably ramblers worried by the potential denial of access.

"The Bill as drafted is a charter for mavericks," said Dave Morris, director of the Ramblers' Association Scotland. "Any landowner who was antagonistic towards public access would see lots of things in this Bill they could use to their advantage. It will, for example, enable landowners to call on the police to help them resolve access problems and it suggests that draconian powers be given to local authorities allowing them to declare land as exempt from access, or place exclusion orders on individuals they deem to be acting irresponsibly."

A clear example of the confusion caused by the reforms emerged yesterday when details of Mr de Savary's appeal for a special opt-out clause were given. The millionaire businessman is worried that Skibo Castle would lose its appeal as a destination for the rich and famous if their privacy was compromised.

The 7,500-acre estate, bought near-derelict by Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-born American industrialist-turned-philanthropist in 1897, is a favourite hideaway of celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas and Robert Carlyle. Mr de Savary is thought to have written to Scottish ministers warning them that to allow public access through the private estate would destroy its exclusiveness and jeopardise the £4m the hotel generates every year for the local economy. But within the provision of the Bill there is no right of access to land within the immediate vicinity of a private house, so the immediate grounds of Skibo would be excluded as a matter of course

Mr Morris said: "It appears Skibo has misunderstood the legislation as far as the hotel's immediate grounds are concerned. But, if they are referring to the whole of the 7,500 acres estate, that is a different matter. It would be quite hard for Skibo to justify a massive exclusion zone when the Queen readily accepts the presence of a right-of-way by the back door to Balmoral.

"There are no public access restraints at Balmoral even when the Royal Family are in residence so I don't think Peter de Savary can ask for more privileges than the Queen enjoys."