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

Britain.

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

ownership.''

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

influential friends.

''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

quickly.''

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

loch.

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

and eviction.

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

attempt.

''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

young people.''

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

care.

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

heaven.''

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

well attended.

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.