Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Return to 'last great wilderness'

By Iain MacDonald
BBC Scotland

A stag in Knoydart
Knoydart can only be reached by boat or on foot

The regular ferry isn't running.

It's having its MoT at the hands of the Department of Transport, or the Marine and Coastguard Agency, or whoever's in charge of that sort of thing.

So we go to Knoydart in the "school boat" - though only after a careful head count - and get there a lot quicker than we normally would have.

It turns out that the man driving the boat is the nephew of a certain Alan Macrae - resident pig farmer and firebrand in Assynt.

Assynt was the first community to take its destiny in its own hands, close its eyes and jump.

They only last a year here
Bernie Evemy
On the survival rate of flags

The crofters, with Alan to the fore, blazed the trail for community buy-outs way back in 1993… when nobody had done anything like that for more than half a century. Apparently, his nephew used to deliberately start political arguments involving Alan, then retire to watch the fun.

Today we're crossing heaven and hell - aka Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn - to get to Knoydart, the place known in Highland history as the Rough Bounds, to throw our tuppence-worth into a 10-year celebration.

It was 1999, just months from a new millennium, that the people left in what was left of Knoydart finally achieved their ambition and bought out their land - and their futures - following the last in a series of appalling owners.

It's actually mildly astonishing that there's anybody left at all in Knoydart.

Go back to the aftermath of Culloden and you'll find great violence visited by the Hanoverian armies on a peninsula previously owned by the Macdonalds. Many of the 1,500-strong population of the peninsula opted to flee to places like Canada, leaving only about 400 in the Rough Bounds.

Community buy outs in Scotland:
Assynt 1993
Borve and Anishader, Skye 1993
Eigg 1997
Knoydart 1999
Gigha 2002
North Harris 2003
Assynt Foundation 2005
Seaforth Estate, Harris 2005
Galson, Lewis 2006
South Uist Estates 2006

Come forward a century and Josephine MacDonnell, widow of the chief of Glengarry, decided as part of the "improvements" to rid her land of humans and instead install sheep to help to clear her debts and provide an inheritance for her son.

Township after township was destroyed by roughnecks with axes and crowbars. People were dragged from their houses, which were then destroyed. Many were forced into boats and taken to sea - and from there to the other side of the world.

Families who hid out in the hills were subsequently caught by thugs from the estate and had their shelters pulled down. It was just another dark chapter in Knoydart's history.

The land changed hands repeatedly for another 80 years until the 1930s, when Lord Brocket, a Tory MP and Nazi sympathiser, purchased Knoydart.

After the war, in 1948, people who had fought the Nazis decided to seize Knoydart - but the land raid by the Seven Men of Knoydart, who have been immortalised in song and story since, failed.

Military playground

Lord Brocket, the most infamous of absentee landlords, eventually left. But the land once again changed hands.

There were various short-term owners - some of whom improved the infrastructure, installing a pier, a hydro electric scheme and a village hall at Inverie - before Philip Rhodes became the latest name in the Knoydart frame. He made undeniable improvements.

However, he also sold off large and small packages of land around the periphery of the peninsula, reducing the size of the estate from 58,000 acres to 18,000. It was asset stripping - but some of the businesses which now exist on Knoydart are down to Rhodes.

Sadly, he then sold off the main estate to a textile entrepreneur who tried to turn it into a boot camp for underprivileged teenagers. At this stage, Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary, was said to want "the last great wilderness" for a military playground and training centre - but the owners eventually went bust and even more exotic people moved in.

Eventually, there was Stephen Hinchcliffe, who was prone to arrive at his Highland hideaway by helicopter - and on one summer day wafted tons of grass cuttings through the open windows of the Big House in so doing.

He was a man who, in November 1998, was described by a High Court judge as "unfit to be involved with the management of a company".

The receivers took over - and after a campaign backed by public funds, the Knoydart Foundation bought their land, at a cost of about £750,000.

I've followed the progress of community buy-outs, from the Assynt Crofters back in 1993 - when so many bids were made and rejected that people like the Crofters' Bill Ritchie, the aforementioned Alan Macrae and John Mackenzie might as well have had a revolving door outside their homes to field journalists inquiring if anything had happened yet - to South Uist Estates' triumphal purchase in 2006.

Bernie Evemy
Bernie Evemy runs a new Saltire up a flag pole

But I have to shamefacedly admit that, since the day when Councillor Olwen Macdonald proposed a toast to Knoydart in the Fort William chamber 10 years ago to celebrate the purchase of the land, I've never been back. Until now.

It's an eye opener. I've kept pace with places like Assynt, Gigha and Eigg over the years. But Knoydart, quietly, under the radar, has got on with it. And it looks pretty good to me.

There are new houses where there weren't any. There's refurbishment going on on buildings that were frankly sub-standard. There's a business called Knoydart Construction which is actually building houses off the peninsula as well as right here.

And the hydro system actually works, after hundreds of thousands were spent on upgrading the plant, the pipes and the distribution line. Not to mention plugging new people and new businesses in, as the population has pretty much doubled.

We wander around the place and sample opinions. Jim Brown keeps the hydro running and doubles up as deer stalker during the shooting season. He has a three-month-old daughter.

Rude gestures

He's proud of his turbine, droning away in an unromantic shed in one of the noisier parts of Knoydart, though he concedes that there's a limit to how many people can be switched on to the service.

Angela Williams is the development manager in the foundation office, where I remember harried-looking men in plus fours running around making rude gestures at visiting journalists as the old regime collapsed.

The buy-out has brought stability and the ability to plan the future, she says, as we try to do a television interview between rain showers - but there's still a lot to do.

Davie Newton's a joiner who just happens to be chairman of the foundation as well. Public money being pumped into places like this used to be controversial - still is, for some people - but he says it gave them self respect as a community and showed the way to others.

Bernie Evemy's as hairy as ever he was when he led the buy-out a decade ago. He's running a brand new pre-celebration Saltire up the flag staff outside the Post Office. "They only last a year here", he says.

So what's changed? Well, he complains, nobody talks revolution in the pub any more - and nobody sings "Flo'oer of Scotland". I don't think he's entirely serious, but I do suggest he's like Che Guevara after Cuba fell to the Communists - now what do I do? He's not planning to move to Bolivia, apparently.

Ladhar Bheinn
Rugged and mountainous Knoydart is known as the Rough Bounds

We eat excellent Cullen Skink in the tearoom that I remember resembling a bombed-out building the last time I was here.

The landlady at the Knoydart Lodge is planning to send hundreds of books left by visitors to a charity shop on the mainland by the next ferry, including some of her husband's. It's not that unusual, but traffic of that kind used to be entirely the other way.

In the main street of Inverie, I'm hailed by a man in a boat. The RIB is on the back of a trailer which is being towed by a four by four. The man in the boat is Iain Robertson, who runs the famous Old Forge Pub.

Why is he in a boat on the back of a trailer in the main street of the village, I ask. It's part of my new door-to-door delivery service, he says.

Load the bottles and booze onto the boat in Mallaig, sail across to Knoydart and run the boat straight onto the trailer, then drive it up to main street and unload the delivery at the back door. Who said they're not ingenious on the west coast?

We wrap up and head for the boat. The books are loaded aboard. But there's food by the bag load coming the other way for the celebrations.

And though it turns out few of the party guests got ashore on the day in question, they had the party anyway. Of course they did.

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