It takes its name from the Norse for turning point, where the Vikings either headed east for home, or south to the Hebrides. But now there are other signs of warlike creatures in Cape Wrath.
The Scottish Government's Land Reform Review Group will be getting some food for thought from recent events in the far north-west of Sutherland.
The group, led by Dr Alison Elliot, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, has been charged to advise ministers how further land reform could enable more people to own and/or control their local land in urban as well as rural Scotland.
As part of its inquiries it has been told specifically to bear in mind “the relationship between local and national interests”. It is that relationship which currently seems rather strained on the most north-westerly point of mainland Scotland.
The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) is selling off 58 acres round Cape Wrath Lighthouse and some buildings there, including an old Lloyds radio station.
Five years ago the community-led Durness Development Group (DDG) registered an interest in the same piece of land under Land Reform legislation. But when they went to renew their interest, they found the lighthouse board was already in advanced negotiations with the Ministry of Defence about it taking over.
The MoD already owns 25,000 acres of Cape Wrath, which it has long used as a bombing range, and the land has been owned by the military since the beginning of the 20th century.
So it is not clear to anyone why our armed forces need 100% of the Cape now, having managed to fight two world wars and wage 40 years of cold war against the nuclear might of the Warsaw Pact countries, with just 99.76% of it.
Locally, there are fears that it would lead to the Cape, already closed for around 130 days a year when pounded by bombs and naval shells, being shut off completely to all but the military.
That would directly affect three local businesses. A ferry takes visitors across the Kyle of Durnesss. Then a minibus company takes visitors the 11 miles to the lighthouse, where the only two residents run a cafe and bunkhouse business. Local B&Bs and hotels also fear they would lose out.
It would also impinge on the right to roam which sees many hundreds of walkers every year making it to the lighthouse entirely on foot. Indeed there already is a "Cape Wrath Trail”, which is just about to enjoy a significant promotion as Scotland’s wildest long distance route – 240 miles from the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William through rugged landscape of Lochaber, Knoydart, Torridon and Sutherland. It is also planned to link it in with the West Highland Way and the rest of Scotland's long distance routes.
John Ure, who runs the café and bunkhouse at the lighthouse, and still has nine years left on his lease, says between 2,500 and 3,000 arrive using the minibus and the walkers are additional to that.
But if the MoD’s objective is unclear, so is the motivation of the Northern Lighthouse Board, never mind its behaviour over this issue.
When a non-crofting community registers an interest in a piece of land, it is supposed to be informed if its sale is imminent. There are suspicions that private landowners often try to get round this part of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 as the community has first refusal and any sale is suspended for six months to allow it to raise the necessary money. (Crofting communities have an absolute right to buy with ministerial approval, whether the owner wants to sell or not.)
The Northern Lighthouse Board is a public body which has Scotland’s two highest law officers, the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General, among its commissioners, as well as the six sheriffs principal. So it should know full well both the letter and the spirit of the land reform legislation
The board was also well aware that the local community wanted the land to ensure continued access to the lighthouse. Yet it was well down the road in negotiating with the MoD, and would have concluded the deal had it not been for the timely but accidental intervention of the local community.
The NLB has refused to respond to inquiries about not informing the local group, saying only: “The land at Cape Wrath is now subject to a Community Right to Buy application and it would be inappropriate for us to comment while the decision of Scottish Ministers is awaited.”
Of course, the NLB and the MoD are answerable to Westminster. But land reform is Holyrood’s.
As turf wars go, this one this one is shaping up nicely. But it is also likely to feature in the thinking of the land reform review group who are due before Holyrood’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on Wednesday September 26, when it is likely to be raised by the committee convener Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Rob Gibson.
Still in Sutherland
Talking of Rob Gibson and north-west Sutherland leads us to Rob Donn.
Just to the east of Cape Wrath is Balnakiel, where a former Air Ministry station was bought derelict in the 1960s and converted into a craft village, which it still is today.
In the churchyard at Balnakiel is the grave of Rob Donn Mackay, the celebrated but unlettered Gaelic poet (1714-78). A refurbished memorial to this Sutherland Bard will be unveiled in Balnakiel on Monday October1.
But also in a little noticed move this week, Rob Gibson lodged a motion at Holyrood calling for Rob Donn’s work to be republished in time for the tercentenary of his birth.
This part of Scotland was the old Mackay country in the time of the clans, where Mackay chiefs managed to retain or recreate the ancestral pattern of cultural and social life encouraged by the old Lords of the Isles, far later than any of the other clans elsewhere in the Gaidhealtachd.
As a poet and observer of this, Rob Donn's work has been seen as crucial to understanding our past. The late historian Ian Grimble, who published The World of Rob Donn in 1979, wrote: ''Rob Donn remains the last and greatest of those who were in a position to interpret and illuminate the traditional, tribal way of life of Gaelic Scotland before it was destroyed...but the corpus of poetry that he did bequeath to posterity entitles him to the highest place amongst the illiterate peasant poets of Europe.''
Some have compared him to Burns, but Grimble speculated that had Rob Donn been literate ''he might have been another Euripides among the Greeks''.
His work was handed down by oral tradition, being published first only in 1829, half a century after his death. But there is a mystery associated with one manuscript which appears significantly to pre-date that first publication. It was in the National Library of Scotland, but was stolen in the late 1960s and has never been seen since.
Its original catalogue entry at the National Library, the fullest description there is of it, reads: ''Paper. Note-book. 7 1/2 x 4 and 5/8th ins. Bound mottled boards and paginated by the scribe, pages 1 - 137. Contains collection of poems chiefly by Rob Donn.''
It then goes on to list an ''Account of the life of Rob Donn (Mackay)''; 25 separate entries for poems of varying length; and a final intriguing ''Note by scribe:- These Poems were taken from Janet McKay, dr. to the Rob McKay before Duncan McIntyre, poet, this 22nd of December 1800.''
The idea that they had been taken down directly from Rob Donn's own daughter and in the presence of the great Argyllshire bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812) only increased the significance of the National Library's loss.
It had been part of that was called the Irvine collection created by the Rev Dr Alexander Irvine (1773-1824), a Perthshire minister and collector of Gaelic songs. According to the NLS: "In spite of the Library’s efforts at the time we know nothing of its (the manuscript’s) whereabouts."
It has always been assumed at the time that it had been somebody interested or involved in Gaelic scholarship who had stolen it. But although there is a market for Gaelic material both here and in North America, it has never turned up at any sale or auction.
But some unscrupulous Celtic scholar somewhere knows the whole story.
The Scottish Salmon Company could be excused for being a little confused by the varying Hebridean reception it has been receiving to its plans to locate large new fish farms around the west coast.
It met virtually total opposition from the islanders of Eigg for plans to locate one near that island, but opinion was more divided on Rum for a development there.
On the Argyllshire island of Gometra, near Staffa, all five residents are opposed. They don’t all stay there all year round, but are all are against the company’s plans for a fish farm in Loch Tuath on the island’s northern shore, fearing it would damage green tourism and be a hazard to local navigation.
But on the neighbouring island of Ulva and in the nearby communities on Mull there is almost total support for the Loch Tuath farm, including from operators of wildlife boat trips in the area who are confident their business will not be affected. Most local people are desperate for the three or four jobs it will bring as well as the possibility of new housing.
This week they were boosted by Argyll and Bute Council’s planners recommending approval for the Gometra fish farm, subject to a local hearing.
This has been helped by Scottish Natural Heritage dropping its objection. The agency had concerns because Gometra and Ulva are part of the Loch na Keal National Scenic Area, one of the 40 NSAs which are protected because their outstanding scenery represent Scotland's finest landscapes. However, the agency has now been reassured.
One who is delighted is Rebecca Munro, convener for Ulva School Community Association: "I believe that having considered all the relevant submissions by consultees, and taken into account the views of both sides, the council has made an informed and impartial decision. I welcome the creation of jobs and possible housing in the area.
"I also trust that the Scottish Salmon Company will comply with the necessary regulations, and continue to engage and interact with the community in all matters concerning it. The marine environment in this area is one of our greatest assets, and it is important it remains as such."
But at the same council meeting the Scottish Salmon Company was refused permission for an accompanying application for a fish farm at Ardmeanach in Loch Scridain on Mull.
Reflecting on his mixed fortunes, Stewart McLelland, chief executive of company, said: "We are extremely encouraged by the committee’s recommendation for approval of our plans for a site at Gometra and we’re confident that with the local support we have received, we will have the opportunity to bring much needed sustainable jobs and investment to the area and further demonstrate our credentials.
"However, we are disappointed that it seems a second development we applied for, which would have created four further full-time jobs, at Ardmeanach, was rejected.
"While we will re-examine any options open to us for Ardmeanach, we remain positive about taking our plans for Gometra forward, which will be an important contribution to our long-term, sustainable business growth and is continued evidence of our investment in Scottish communities."
The crofting care trap
Scotland’s 12,000 or so crofters have long tired of the description of a croft being a small area of land surrounded by a great deal of legislation.
However, they had cause to recall it this week when they were warned to make arrangements for who succeeds them without delay, or risk losing their land to pay for the care of elderly relations.
The warning from the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) followed the experience of a member who was threatened with the loss of his croft tenancy to fund the residential care costs of his elderly mother.
Although the crofter had worked the croft for over 20 years and it was an important part of his livelihood, it remained in his mother's name until a year before she went into care. The family had not arranged to assign the tenancy until then, and did not see the need to do so as their mother's will made clear her intentions.
However, the local authority claimed that, despite the assignation, the croft was the mother's financial asset for the purposes of assessing her liability for care home charges.
SCF vice-chair Fiona Mandeville said: "We strongly urge crofters to consider whether they could be caught in this trap. We know of cases where crofts remain nominally in the hands of very elderly people while providing homes and income for younger relatives.
"These people could be faced with losing their crofts due to a very harsh interpretation of Government guidelines on the part of certain councils. If the councils had any sense of the history around crofting, they wouldn't be doing this. The best advice is to sort out your croft succession and to do it now."
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