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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Islands gifted to residents
A view of Barra's main street
A view of Barra's main street
Two Scottish islands which have been owned by the same family for more than 1,000 years are to be handed over free of charge.

The islands of Barra and Vatersay in the Western Isles are to be transferred to public ownership by the landowner Iain MacNeil.

The 1,200 inhabitants of the islands may eventually become the owners of the islands' 16,000 acres and 440 crofts as well as gaining all fishing and mineral rights.

Scottish Executive ministers will oversee the exchange of the islands from private to public hands and will bear the minimal transfer costs.

The deal means the islanders will not have to raise millions of pounds for a community buy-out, like the residents of Gigha and South Uist.

Mr MacNeil said: "During my 35 years of active management I have tried to run the estate of Barra in harmony with the best interests of the crofters and of the community as a whole.

He could have put the island on the open market at a time when Scottish estates are changing hands for millions of pounds
Jessie MacNeil
Community council
"The transfer will open exciting opportunities for local community ownership and management, if appropriate democratic processes reveal that this is what the crofters and wider community of Barra and Vatersay want."

Rural Affairs Minister Ross Finnie said he was delighted with the move which will see Scotland's environment and rural affairs department manage the islands once the deal is signed.

Latterly, if it is requested by the community, ownership could then be passed to them at no cost.

Mr Finnie said: "We intend to manage this land with a view to its transfer, along with our own properties, to community ownership when the Barra and Vatersay islanders are ready to take control of the land management.

"We will encourage community participation in property management through an estate charter similar to those already adopted on other estates owned by ministers."

The islands have 440 crofts
Western Isles Labour MSP Alasdair Morrison said: "He's always had the best interests of the islanders at heart but this is quite a dramatic move for which he can really be complimented.

"It really is a sign of the times. It's not very often you find me praising a landowner but I will certainly do so now, he's done a very decent thing.

"Scottish ministers will be entrusted with the running and management of Barra and Vatersay and the important thing is that we will encourage community participation."

Jessie MacNeil, who sits on the local community council, said the move placed the islanders in charge of their destiny.

"He could have put the island on the open market at a time when Scottish estates are changing hands for millions of pounds," she said.

"That in itself speaks worlds about the man and how we see him."

Mr MacNeil is a US citizen who divides his time between his croft on Barra and his home in Edinburgh.

In 2001, he donated the ancestral family seat, Kisimul Castle on Barra, to the nation for a bottle of whisky and 1 a year.

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