BY the shores of a dark sea loch in the West Highlands, there is a
cairn commemorating a historic event. A legend on a silver plaque
informs visitors that it was here, beneath the towering grandeur of
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Sgurr Coire Choinnichean, that the Seven Men of Knoydart rebelled
against an English laird in 1948 and staked claims to live and work on
the land of their forebears.
It concludes: ''Their struggle should inspire each new generation of
Scots to gain such rights by just laws. History will judge harshly the
oppressive laws that have led to the virtual extinction of a unique
culture from this beautiful place.''
The sentiments are noble, but the hopes proved forlorn. The Seven Men
were denounced as agitators, and evicted from their ancestral homeland
like their forebears before them. The laws which permit the wealthy to
acquire vast tracts of land for personal recreation or profit are still
in place, and the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders are long gone.
Where a thousand people once lived on the Knoydart peninsula from
farming and fishing, barely 50 survive on a fragile economy largely
dependent on a 16,500-acres sporting estate. Apart from a handful of
Scots employed by the estate, most of the residents are English settlers
attracted by the wild beauty of the remote land over the sea from Skye.
Its tranquillity and charms are preserved by its isolation. There are
no roads to Inverie, the little village of whitewashed houses and
cottages straggling along the northern shore of Loch Nevis. Westerly
gales permitting, a passenger ferry makes the 45-minute trip from
Mallaig three times a week; the alternative is to walk a pony track
through the hills from the nearest road 18 miles away at Kinloch Hourn.
As there are only seven miles of paved road which don't really go
anywhere, there are just a few mud-spattered four-wheel-drive vehicles
and nobody bothers with road tax or MOT tests. The village has, however,
a shop, a post office, an excellent guest house, and a hostelry listed
in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote pub in mainland
Humans have made little impression on this natural wilderness. It is
still the domain of the golden eagle, the red deer, and the otter, in
which the silence of the hills is disturbed only by birdsong and the
rushing of Highland burns. Mists swirling around the forests and
snow-streaked peaks in winter create a mystical illusion that one has
stepped back in time into a land of Celtic legends.
Knoydart seems far removed from the financial crisis and boardroom
wrangles of its present owner, the Dundee-based Titaghur jute company,
but it is deeply affected by them. The outcome of a take-over bid will
determine in large measure the fate of its little community.
For months, reports that the company was deeply in debt and likely to
sell off its Highland estate have been the talk of Inverie. The arrival
of a management consultant to survey its assets in Knoydart last week
fuelled rumours that a change of ownership was imminent. It had much the
same effect, in a similar setting, as the arrival of the oil company
representative in the film Local Hero.
Dave Smith, the chairman of the community association, confided to The
Herald that he and others were plotting a take-over bid of their own if
Knoydart came on the market. ''The sooner Titaghur are out of here the
better,'' he said. ''From the start, they have been making promises and
breaking them. Now the time may be ripe to change the whole system of
Ironically, this talk of rebellion took place beside the cairn to the
Seven Men outside the village hall. But instead of Gaelic, it was
expressed in the accent of the Home Counties, from which Mr Smith came
almost 30 years ago to farm sheep and cattle in a remote corner of the
peninsula; and unlike the original Scots rebels, Mr Smith has
''The laird system does not provide stability any more, and there is a
strong feeling that the community should have more say in running the
estate,'' he said. ''It's probably too big for a single body, but we
have many friends who could help set up a partnership with a
conservation group, for example. We have done some groundwork and if the
estate comes up for sale I think a packet will come together fairly
Mr Smith declined to identify the community's friends, but apparently
they include absentee property owners such as Lord and Lady Craigmyle
who spend the summer months in their house at the western end of the
But opinion is sharply divided on the issue. Dave Marriott from
Nottingham, the community vice-chairman and affable proprietor of the
guest house, is sceptical. ''Of course people are anxious, because we
don't know if the next owner could be a pop star or an Arab or a
politician. But I don't think a community buy-out would work. It would
create greed and jealousy among close neighbours, and I can see all
sorts of fights and fall-outs.''
Mr Marriott's view, which seems to have some support, is that there
have already been squabbles over less critical matters and that communal
ownership of the estate would strain relations further.
The most contentious issue during Titaghur's reign has been a scheme
for an adventure training school for deprived youngsters. The ''back to
basics'' programme was shelved after only two short courses last year
when it aroused bitter opposition -- much of it from the absentee
property owners. Mr Marriott and his wife Jan, from Glasgow, who spoke
in favour of the project, were subjected to discreet threats of boycotts
Such conflicts are viewed sourly by John Morrison, one of the few
resident Scots who farms a few head of North-Country Cheviots near the
village. ''It was mostly the incomers who were against the youngsters
coming up here,'' he says. ''They had a meeting in the hall and people
were speaking against it you'd hardly seen here for 10 years. When they
voted against it, they put men's jobs at risk and deprived these
youngsters of a fresh start in life.''
Mr Morrison, who came to Knoydart from Harris in 1961 with his father
and two brothers to work on the estate, admits he is ''a bit of a
hardliner''. He views with distaste the corporate trading of the
peninsula and laments the passing of the Highland way of life.
''In the old days at least you knew who the owners were, now it's just
companies and you don't know who they are. If you go to a meeting in the
hall, there'll hardly be a Scotsman in the place. It's like a lot of
Highland communities, where the old ways go down the drain. Everything
traditional here is finished. It's not just sad, it's devastating.''
One man determined to revitalise Knoydart if he gets the chance is
Mike Reynolds, a former Army officer appointed by Titaghur to manage the
estate. His enthusiasm for the adventure school project has brought him
under more fire than he encountered in Northern Ireland with the King's
Own Scottish Borderers, but he is regrouping his forces for another
''We don't want this to be just an exclusive retreat for rich
outsiders,'' he says. ''I want to give young people from Drumchapel and
Easterhouse the same opportunity to enjoy these magnificent
surroundings, and to benefit from them. All we're trying to do is to put
back into their lives what they have been missing, a family, a community
spirit, and self-confidence. At the same time it would be good to inject
youth into the community, and provide jobs that would appeal to other
Mr Reynolds admits that Titaghur made a tactical error at the start by
failing to secure the co-operation of residents, but hopes he can still
persuade them that limited numbers of ''problem'' youths would not
disturb their tranquillity. He has been given permission by the regional
council to proceed with groups of not more than a dozen, providing he
does so tactfully, and he is negotiating with local authorities in
Scotland and England who are interested in sending young people in their
Neil Morrison from Aberdeenshire is above such disputes, in the
literal sense. As hill-keeper for the estate, he spends most of his time
in the highlands he loves, looking after 700 stags and an equal number
of hinds and calves. He does not get involved in local intrigues,
because they are of no interest to him.
''It's the high rugged hills that keep me here,'' he says. ''I can
spend a whole day among them and never see anybody. I never get tired of
looking at the deer, they're bonnie beasts, aren't they?''
A dozen stags are clustered near his Land Rover, nervously snatching
at the winter feed he has brought them. The wild grass is pale in the
mist, discoloured by patches of heather still wearing its brown winter
coat, and high above a lark is trilling. In the distance, a shaft of
sunlight transforms a dark loch into a ribbon of brilliant silver.
Mr Morrison points out that Knoydart is bounded by Loch Nevis (Loch of
Heaven) and Loch Hourn (Loch of Hell). ''So we're half-way between
heaven and hell here,'' he says. ''But up here, I think we're closer to
It would be misleading to suggest that life below in Inverie is
anything remotely resembling hell. For all their differences, the
residents are basically courteous, good-natured folk who have created a
sociable community others would envy. The window of the estate office
last week was adorned with posters for an Easter bonnet competition, a
treasure hunt, and a ceilidh in the village hall. All of them will be
But something has gone from Knoydart which may never be recovered,
whatever new corporate strategy emerges for managing it. The young lad
from Lochaber who conveyed me back to Mallaig in a forestry launch knew
little of the history of the peninsula, and even less about the
boardroom battles over its future.
But glancing back at the properties of absentee owners along the
shore, he said: ''It's a shame tae see a' these nice houses empty.'' It
is a sentiment the Seven Men of Knoydart would share.