Sale of Scots titles offers rich pickings for conmen

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The Independent Online

The end of 1,000 years of feudalism in Scotland next week could provide a multimillion-pound market for conmen dealing in ancient barony titles, some selling at £500,000 each.

The end of 1,000 years of feudalism in Scotland next week could provide a multimillion-pound market for conmen dealing in ancient barony titles, some selling at £500,000 each.

Land reform laws effective north of the border on 28 November will strip traditional legal safeguards to ownership of a Scottish barony title, namely the registration of land that until now acted as proof.

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure Etc (Scotland) Act 2000 removes the land-owning element from barony titles. At present, a title must be sold with land relevant to the barony, even only a few acres of scrub, and the land, with the barony details, must be registered with the official Scottish Land Register or the ancient Register of Sasines.

But from the end of this month only land transactions will be entered on the official registries and not the barony, which will leave would-be buyers no way to check the validity of a title against official records.

There are an estimated 2,500 Scottish baronies which will continue to be transferable, because the Holyrood parliament decided not to scrap the titles in case of huge compensation claims from owners deprived of a "heritable asset".

The titles, many from mediaeval times, allow the owner to use the prefix of baron on official documents, credit cards and cheques, but do not confer aristocratic status.

Yet the sale of titles still generates large profits with about 20 for sale each year. "This is a big business, worth about £2.5m a year," said Brian Hamilton, who sells 90 per cent of Scottish titles. "Without the proper checks and balances which the official records used to provide, unscrupulous people could try to sell bogus titles or ones that don't belong to them."

In England, where there have been numerous problems with sales of lords-of-the-manor titles, for which there is no official government register, fake titles have been offered for tens of thousand of pounds. So concerned is the Government about naïve Americans buying fraudulent titles that it advises on the official website of the British embassy in Washington: "You cannot purchase a genuine British title, with one exception, the feudal title of a Scottish baron; and you certainly cannot buy a peerage title".

The 7th Earl of Bradford, whose ancestor was ennobled three centuries ago, has his own website and there he publicly names and shames several fraudsters selling fake titles or masquerading as aristocrats.

But all is not lost for those who really want a title. From 29 November, experts will launch their own Register of Scottish Baronies to prevent fraudulent sales which can no longer be verified on Scotland's official land registers.

Alistair Rennie, the retired deputy Keeper of the Registers of Scotland who has devised the new register, said: "As time goes by, there is the possibility for people to make others believe that after the 28th they own the barony.

"It might be possible for someone to sell the same title several times over. It might be possible for someone to pretend they were the owner of the title and offer it for sale.

"Unless the buyer used a qualified Scottish solicitor to research the background they could find themselves with a worthless piece of paper."

Unlike English titles, Scottish baronies will continue to be "heritable assets" transferable to an heir, even though they will no longer be verifiable on official records.

Mr Hamilton, who was behind the sale of the Barony of Macdonald on Skye and the Barony of Braemar, near the Queen's holiday home at Balmoral, said: "The new register will allow a measure of protection for those who own or buy titles after the 28th. It will accept only titles which have been researched for owners by a Scottish solicitor with a practising certificate, prepared to show he or she has done all the relevant legal searches and is satisfied about the ownership.

"We believe bona fide barons will want to have their titles properly registered and available for inspection even if they have no intention of selling."

The prestigious baronies he has just sold? He asked for £1m each, but settled, it is believed, for £750,000 apiece.


* "Lord" Tony Williams with a barony from Berwickshire bought extensive property in the Aberdeenshire village of Tomintoul only to be unmasked as a senior accountant with the Metropolitan Police, who used the force's undercover slush funds to finance his lifestyle.

Locals mistook the title of baron to assume he was a peer. Williams was sentenced to seven years for fraud.

* Rosemary Aberdour borrowed the title of "Lady Aberdour" and on the strength of that, the 24-year-old book-keeper at the National Hospital in London, embezzled £2.7m.

But her flamboyant ways and the publicity meant the real Lord and Lady Aberdour read about her in a newspaper. The phoney fled to Brazil but returned to face trial. She was jailed for four years.

* Anna Anderson told the world in February, 1922: "I am Princess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and heir to the imperial throne of Russia."

Anastasia was supposedly murdered with the rest of her family in July 1918. Anderson moved to America and spent her life claiming she was Anastasia. Ten years after she died in 1984, DNA tests proved it was all a sham.