A tale of brave men, mountains and mascara

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The Independent Online

Everything has its price including, it seems, the Inaccessible Pinnacle. On a scale of one to 10, the In Pin, as experienced climbers affectionately refer to this most formidable peak in the Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye, is up there in the 9.5 along with K2 and the north face of the Eiger.

A whacking pounds 10m is the current asking price for the entire Cuillin range, including the Red and Black Cuillins, the In Pin and 10 Munros (as summits in excess of 3,000 feet are known).

If you have never seen this particular set of Scottish mountains, the price tag put on them by the would-be vendor, John MacLeod, chief of the clan MacLeod, probably sounds a bit steep. If, on the other hand, you have, like me, driven through the Cuillins at sunset - alas, I'm not a climber - the idea of asking any money for something as staggeringly beautiful, as unique as the Cuillins is just plain daft.

Even more preposterous is the idea that anyone should seriously think they own the title deeds to such a natural phenomenon. The clan chief claims they were given to his family 800 years ago and is presently looking for the bit of paper to prove it. Still, it's a bit like saying you own the Great Barrier Reef or the Gulf Stream. What price Shangri La with planning permission?

When I heard about the angry and justified reaction to the MacLeod proposal, locally, nationally and internationally, my first thought was that William Arthur Poucher must be turning in his grave. WA Poucher, born 1891, was the first, indeed the only, person I've ever met not only to have reached the top of the In Pin, but to have done so wearing mascara. He was the chief of a cosmetics house and, on the face of it, so to speak, an unlikely candidate for the rugged sport of mountain climbing.

But he was an inveterate climber, with most of Scotland's 300 Munros under his belt - all achieved wearing mascara (waterproof, of course) and sometimes a little eye shadow. He always liked to look his best. He never wore blusher, he said, because all that exertion getting to the top meant he didn't really need it.

It was the quality of light up there on Skye that made the Cuillins so special, he told me. The Himalayas are higher, some might say more dramatic, but it's the light behind the Cuillins that pierces the heart.

A couple of years back an entrepreneur tried to introduce helicopter rides over Skye for a better view, but the locals objected. They want their mountains left as a wilderness, like the benefactor who bequeathed half of Sutherland to the National Trust on condition that it remained absolutely untouched.

I can see why the locals are worried now. Who knows what plans an unscrupulous developer might cherish in the way of car-parks, picnic areas, motels, hamburger bars and gift shops selling Bonnie Prince Charlie boxer shorts.

Some 30 years ago the pop singer Donovan visited Skye and fell in love with it. Was there anywhere for sale, he asked. Indeed there was, a wee island not a stone's throw from the coast, which the owner was happy to sell for pounds 15,000. Remember this was a time in Scotland when pounds 15,000 would have bought a castle and a couple of thousand acres.

Donovan was taken out in a boat, given a guided tour of the island, and, greatly impressed, he bought it. It was only later that he learned about grazing rights and the impenetrable legal intricacies surrounding Scottish crofts. In a nutshell the crofter kept his rights to graze his sheep on the island and the 15,000 quid. Donovan had no right to build anything on it apart from a small fire to grill his sausages whenever he came over for a picnic.

What's sad about the current debacle is that it isn't an outsider but the clan chief who's ripping off the locals. Let's hope he doesn't find those title deeds.