Farmer and last laird of Coll;
Born: November 13, 1924; Died: August 18, 2012.
Kenneth Stewart, who has died aged 87, could never have imagined when he inherited much of the Inner Hebridean Island of Coll that he would become its last laird.
Though the prediction was apparently made by legendary Highland prophet the Brahan Seer – he foretold with uncanny accuracy that the laird would be a Cionneach or Kenneth, lame and have no male offspring – it only became evident to the Stewart family as they searched for a way to make the estate profitable.
Saddled with a dire financial legacy of double death duties and bankruptcy, coupled with the fact he had no male heirs, the decision was made to sell off land and property. And, while it allowed the estate to flourish, it ultimately marked the end of an era for a family who had been the main landowners on Coll for generations.
His introduction to the lovely little island four miles west of Mull was as a nine-year-old visiting his grandfather on holiday. Born in London and christened Charles, though he was always known as Kenneth, he was the only child of Dorothy Gilroy and Lieutenant Colonel Henry William Moncrieff Paul, who later replaced Paul with the surname Stewart.
A birth defect resulted in the youngster's right foot turning backwards and he grew up wearing a calliper, becoming a slightly solitary little boy who was left behind with a nanny when his father became military attaché to the British Embassy in Bangkok in the 1930s.
His summers were spent on the Coll estate, bought by the family in 1856 and where his Brigadier General grandfather lived at the New Castle for most of the year.
When young Kenneth's father returned to work at the War Office, the boy and his mother moved permanently to live on the island at Acha Schoolhouse. He attended a number of schools, including Wellington School, before going up to Cambridge to study agriculture.
As a child he had always enjoyed playing and working on the island's farms where the mostly Gaelic-speaking community worked the land with horses. There he learned the old farming methods, sowing corn by hand and acquiring his first cow at the age of 13.
It was while working in a cornfield during his holidays, six months after the death of his grandfather, that he discovered he had become the new laird.
His father, who had been captured in Hong Kong while fighting in the Far East during the Second World War, was unaware he had inherited the estate. When he died of dysentery in a Japanese prisoner of war camp the estate passed to his son. It was 1942 and the new laird was just 18.
It quickly became clear the estate was in a dreadful financial predicament, compounded by two sets of death duties, and there was nothing Mr Stewart could do but get on with managing the property.
Post-war agriculture on the island was challenging – cows were milked by hand and electricity did not arrive until the 1970s. There was also an exodus of workers to the mainland. One new arrival was Janet Wilson, a girl he knew from her visits to the island during his childhood summers. They married in London in 1955 and she moved to the island.
Despite their hard work the estate, which was made up of dozens of farms, cottages, crofts and a couple of castles, continued to run at a loss and it was eventually decided to break the entail dictating it pass only to male descendents. So began the sale of Stewart land and properties.
A range of money-making schemes were also hatched, including arable experiments and the production of flower bulbs, but failed. What did succeed, however, was raising livestock.
Having developed an obsession with bloodlines after buying a pedigree bull, from the 1960s, Mr Stewart focused on sheep, cattle and breeding programmes after selling off 14,000 acres of land.
It marked a transformation in the estate's fortunes. During the 1970s he became one of the first members of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and was reputed to have the largest collection of rare breeds in Scotland, boasting 55 of the 72 then registered. He also revived the estate's ancient Highland cattle fold and helped to establish the Luing Cattle Society.
He was the first chairman of the Hebridean Sheep Society, a sheep judge at the Highland Show and director of Corson's Mart in Oban for 20 years from 1968. In addition he supported the island community and that of neighbouring Tiree as a parish councillor.
After farming the estate enthusiastically for a gruelling 50 years he was forced to leave after suffering a stroke in 1989. Despite months of rehabilitation he was unable to regain the use of his left arm and leg and in 1991 the decision was made to sell the remainder of the estate.
He retired to the Borders where he continued to raise rare sheep near Selkirk and returned only once to Coll.
Last year author Mairi Hedderwick, who was once the family's au pair, recorded his personal recollections of life on the island in The Last Laird of Coll.
As he told her: "I'd inherited the laird thing. But I was just a farmer, really."
He is survived by his wife Janet, their three daughters Fiona, Fenella and Nicola, and four grandchildren.
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