Laird's right to sell the Black Cuillins challenged

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The Independent Online

A dispute over who actually owns one of Britain's most beautiful mountain ranges was expected to be at the forefront of a public meeting called to discuss the proposed £10m sale of the Black Cuillins on the Isle of Skye.

The mountains are being sold by John MacLeod, 29th chief of the Clan MacLeod, to finance roof repairs on his family home, Dunvegan Castle.

However, opponents are questioning whether the chief can actually claim ownership of the 35-square-mile range.

Before last night's meeting, John Farquhar Munro, the local Liberal Democrat MSP, called on Jim Wallace, Scotland's Justice Minister, to clarify the issue of ownership.

The 1611 royal charter that grants land on Skye to the MacLeod chiefs speaks of "the lands and castle of Dunvegan, together with the towers, fortress, sites of manor houses, mills, woodlands, fishponds, lakes and mountains". However, the charter does not actually name the mountains in question.

Opponents argue that the charter refers to the MacLeod's Tables, which stand across the loch from Dunvegan Castle, rather than to the more distant Cuillins. If Mr MacLeod is unable to prove that the charter covers the Cuillins, then ownership will rest with the Crown.

Very few mountains have original deeds of ownership, but in most other cases their present owners can point to having bought the sites as evidence of their own entitlement. The MacLeods have an unusual problem since the Cuillins have never been sold before and have, they say, been owned by the clan for about 800 years.

Opposition to the sale has been bolstered by criticism of the price. The National Trust paid £3.65m for Snowdon in North Wales last year, which was considered expensive. The John Muir Trust, a conservation body that owns a small part of the Cuillin range, paid just £450,000 for Ben Nevis last week.

Chris Brasher, the former Olympic athlete who was involved in the Ben Nevis purchase on behalf of the John Muir Trust, has described the price sought by Mr MacLeod as "being on cloud-cuckoo- land". The National Trust for Scotland is also unwilling to pay the asking price.

At the meeting, called by the Highland Council, a community buyout was expected to be rejected because so few people live in the Cuillin range.

An eventual compromise appears likely, involving the mountains being sold to a conservation body for less than £10m while Mr MacLeod receives funds from other sources to repair his roof, a deal that will suit everyone.