Clan chief gives crofters a chance of free land

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The Independent Online

A benevolent landlord handed over 9,000 acres on two remote Scottish islands to public ownership without charge yesterday.

For more than 1,000 years the family of Iain MacNeil, 46th chief of the clan MacNeil, has lived on the islands of Barra and Vatersay in the Western isles. But with the right to buy enshrined in the impending Land Reform Act - inspiring crofting communities in the region to take charge of their destiny - Mr MacNeil has agreed in principle to hand over his crofting estate to the Scottish Executive for nothing.

The deal means that the Executive, which already owns land on the islands, will now own all 16,000 acres. It paves the way for the 1,300-strong community to take control of the islands' 440 crofts, two working quarries, foreshore and all fishing and mineral rights.

Until then it will be managed by the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (Seerad). Mr MacNeil, a US citizen who divides his time between Barra and Edinburgh, said: "A transfer to Seerad will ... open exciting opportunities for local community ownership and management."

In 2001 Mr MacNeil donated the ancestral family seat, Kisimul Castle, on Barra, to the nation for a bottle of whisky and £1 each year after maintenance costs became too costly.

The MacNeils went to Barra from Ireland in the 11th century and became powerful lords.Many of them now live in the US. "We are delighted he's taken this step to protect the future of the island." said Jessie MacNeil, of the island community council.

Ross Finnie, the Environment Minister said the Executive would manage the land until the islanders were ready to take control. Alasdair Morrison, Labour MSP for the Western Isles, said: "It's not very often you find me praising a landowner but I will certainly do so now."