Rear Window / The National Land Fund: The most imposing war memorial of them all

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THE SALE this month of the Strathaird estate on the Isle of Skye attracted attention because it included part of the mighty Cuillin range of mountains, and because the seller was Ian Anderson, of the group Jethro Tull. It has another claim to notice, a historical one.

The buyer was the John Muir Trust, a conservation body, but the purchase was assisted by a contribution of pounds 400,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. In making this grant the Fund, soon to become rich as a National Lottery beneficiary, was returning after a long interval to its original calling.

It came into being in 1946 as the National Land Fund, created in the final passage of Hugh Dalton's Budget speech as ''a thank-offering for victory and a war memorial which, in the judgement of many, is better than any work of art in stone or bronze''. It was a visionary act, in immediate post-war conditions, to set aside pounds 50m - almost pounds 300m at today's values - for a fund which was to acquire ''some of the loveliest parts of this land . . . dedicated to the memory of the dead, and to the use and enjoyment of the living for ever''.

The Fund worked well at first, buying the run-down, 39,000-acre Lake Bala estates in Wales and then the 12,000-acre Rowardennan estate on Loch Lomond. The lodge went to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, which occupies it to this day. All over the country - mainly on the death of their owners - estates fell into the hands of public or recreational bodies.

The Conservatives never liked the idea, which they saw as a challenge to private ownership, and when they came to office in 1951, the erosion of Dalton's great vision was swift and subtle. First they amended the Act to allow the Fund also to buy the contents of properties it acquired. This was extended in 1956 to all works of art, and in 1973 prints, books, manuscripts and items of scientific interest were dragged in as well. The result was that the National Land Fund became an arts fund. It also fell slowly into disuse.

So little was acquired after 1951 that the capital actually increased and in 1957 the Treasury ''clawed back'' pounds 50m of the pounds 60m then in the Fund. That raid was condemned by Dalton as a ''dull and reactionary'' act, but his plea for a reversion to the Fund's original aims was

ignored.

The National Land Fund drifted along until 1977, when it was called on to assist in the purchase of the Mentmore Treasures. This prompted the House of Commons expenditure committee to review what had happened to the Fund over the previous 30 years. They found that its aims had been perverted - and bitterly criticised the Treasury.

Soon, however, the Conservatives were back in office and in 1981 all reference to land was dropped from the title, as it became the National Heritage Memorial Fund - devoted overwhelmingly to the purchase of buildings and works of art. This seemed to denote the final abandonment of Dalton's vision.

With the passage of another decade and a half, however, the wheel appears to have turned slowly in the other direction. With the growth of the environmental and conservation movements, there is growing recognition that areas of great natural beauty are vital parts of the national heritage.

So it is that the Fund has agreed to help buy Strathaird estate. It is an important change. The Fund's emphasis remains firmly on the arts, but the new willingness to consider substantial support for land acquisition represents a significant reversion to Dalton's original aims for the National Land Fund, and for a war memorial ''better than any work of art in stone or bronze''.

- The writer is Labour MP for Cunninghame North and publisher of the 'West Highland Free Press'.

(Photograph omitted)

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