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Clear as mud When the Burnett family was ordered to leave the land it had farmed for almost half a century, a shudder went through the Highlands. Yet the family and the entire community have been left in limbo ever since . . .

At the beginning of last month, the Golspie-based Northern Times carried two main stories on its front page.

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The first bore the headline ''Clearances centre would bring tourists flocking to Sutherland.'' It told how plans to erect a hill-top memorial above Helmsdale to the victims of the Highland Clearances were progressing with an application for planning consent and the appointment of a project officer. Behind the idea was the Helmsdale-born mining millionaire and prominent Scottish Nationalist, Dennis Macleod. He had first suggested the project about six years ago. It was during the height of the heated debate over an application to demolish the statue to the First Duke of Sutherland, ''The Mannie'', who sits above Golspie and Dunrobin Castle on the top of Ben Bhraggie, outraging many who still see his stoney presence as an insult to the memory of those brutally cleared from Sutherland by the Duke's family and their employees. The juxtaposition of the two memorials above their respective east Sutherland villages will carry its own powerful symbolism, just as did the juxtaposition of the two stories in the NT as no less an organ than Private Eye, not normally burdened by news from Sutherland, has already observed. This because the second story had announced: ''Angry farmers vow to back evicted family.'' ''Determined Sutherland farmers have gone into fighting mode to stop Skibo Ltd, managers of the exclusive Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle from evicting young tenant farmer Graham Burnett, his wife and three small sons, to make way for a second championship golf course for the use of their well-heeled members. ''Mr Burnett was last week served an eviction notice by sheriff officers and given 12 months notice to quit the 374-acre Pulrossie Farm, sited in spectacular countryside at Whiteface which his family have farmed for the past 40 years.'' The move by tycoon Peter De Savary's exclusive club whose membership is by invitation, has stunned the already troubled farming community in Sutherland, who, while not having the same legal protection as their crofting neighbours were all confident that the days of summary eviction had long gone. The Chairman of the Sutherland branch of the National Farmers' Union Angus McCall, himself a tenant farmer, told a meeting in Lairg: ''I never thought that I would ever chair a meeting where we would be talking about the clearing of a tenant farmer off his land. It has never happened in my lifetime. I do not think it has happened in this century that an unwilling tenant has been cleared off his land. It is the most serious thing to affect the Highlands of Scotland this century and sets a precedent that is of vital concern to all tenant farmers. ''Sutherland is a very fragile economic farming community. There are very few of us and we are very interdependent. It is up to us to stick together and to assert ourselves as part of the economic life of the community.'' Such determination extends to the greater Sutherland community. A petition which has already attracted thousands of signatures is to be presented to the Scottish Parliament's Petitions Committee. Local meat wholesaler Stuart Grant has decided to stop supplying Skibo as a gesture of support for the Burnett family. Meanwhile, the local branch of the SNP has written to its most celebrated member, Sean Connery, to ask him to intervene. Branch secretary Sheena Yeats explains: ''We're not sure if Sean Connery is a member of Skibo or not. But the general belief is that he is, and we have written to ask him to raise the issue with Skibo from within. We have simply pointed out that this new golf course for members would be at the expense of the Burnett family's home and livelihood, and asked him to make his views known to the Carnegie Club. ''Even if Sean Connery is not a member, it's likely he knows people who are, and we would hope he will raise the issue with them. We are certainly hopeful of receiving a response.'' Sitting around the kitchen table at Pulrossie, heads are still being shaken in utter disbelief that this could be happening in the year 2000 and in Sutherland, the very county where Patrick Sellar and James Loch went about their business 200 years earlier. It is not the agents of Dunrobin who are responsible today, but Section 22.(2), (b) Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991. Under its terms, if a landlord wants to resume a portion of a tenented farm, he could be challenged immediately on the grounds that the remaining farm would no longer be viable. But if the landlord wants to take over the whole of the farm for non-agricultural purposes and is granted planning permission he can do so without fear of a challenge.

It is hard to find anyone who knew of this statutory provision, and it is even more difficult to find anything in the Scottish Executive's current land reform proposals which would change it. Sutherland County Committee, without mentioning the plight of the Burnett family, which was not a planning consideration, had obligingly granted Mr De Savary planning permission for his new #4m 18-hole golf course just days before the sheriff's officers made their way up to Pulrossie. Committee chairman Francis Keith, however, did tell Skibo: ''I think you are being too greedy. You could have been more discerning and selected less land.'' But he said he would not move against the application because he didn't think he would get a seconder not least, presumably, because there was talk of up to 30 jobs being created. Skibo's representatives said the full acreage was required so they could ''shoehorn'' the course into the existing environment without spoiling it. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds objected because of the disturbance to greylag geese and nesting osprey, but the Scottish Executive's Rural Affairs Department had not tabled any objection. As a result of the meeting, the most Mr Burnett and his family can now expect is five times their annual rent of #6000, unless the eviction is stopped. Even in these days of agricultural distress, #30,000 is not a fortune for the 40 years of work Graham Burnett and his wife, and his father and mother before them, have put into Pulrossie. The Burnetts would receive compensation for any improvements they had made over these decades, but on the other hand would have to pay for any ''dilapidations'' over the same period. The sums could effectively cancel each other out. Now that Graham Burnett has served Skibo with notice that he intends to contest the notice to quit, all their hopes are pinned on an arbiter who may or may not be appointed by the Scottish Executive or, perhaps more promisingly, a reference to the Scottish Land Court. The coming days and weeks will decide which course is to be followed, if Mr De Savary proceeds - which is now far from certain. Throughout the whole saga, Skibo Ltd has insisted that Mr Burnett had agreed in principle to renounce his tenancy subject to appropriate compensation. This, combined with Mr Burnett's early refusal to make any public comment, had led to a misleading impression being given locally, as an editorial in the Northern Times observed: ''Mr Burnett's initial silence was no doubt the result of legal advice, and with his home and livelihood at stake he would naturally listen to his solicitor. We would hope he was well advised, but so far as public perception is concerned it has, frankly, done him no favours. There are still those who refuse to believe he is not about to emigrate to Canada on the proceeds of a generous pay-off from Skibo . . . '' Graham Burnett is now keen to set the record straight: ''The first approach I had from Skibo Ltd was back in October. It is true I said I would listen to what they had to say but I made it clear that I would need other land to farm on the estate, and compensation. The next thing we knew they had lodged a planning application for outline permission and then shortly afterwards the sheriff officers arrived with our notice to quit. ''There has been no other dialogue since October. I was subsequently invited to go down to London to meet Mr De Savary and his advisers, but it was made clear that I was to go alone without a lawyer or any other representative. I didn't think I should do that. ''I have since been told by a newspaper reporter that Mr De Savary has said that he will walk away from the proposal if he can't come to an agreement with me, but he hasn't said that to me. Again just last week he told another reporter he would move the golf course somewhere else on the estate and that I had wanted it on Pulrossie because I wanted compensation. ''That is not correct and as far as resolving the dispute by moving the golf course elsewhere, neither Mr De Savary nor his representatives have said anything to me or my lawyer. All we have heard is that we have got to get out within a year. ''Nothing has changed as far as we can see. Yet the public all seem convinced that it is over, that we are to be allowed to stay on Pulrossie, but we can't get hold of anyone to confirm that and now we hear that Mr De Savary's lawyer is away for a two week holiday.'' It has all been very confusing for the local community who, by and large, have held Skibo in high esteem since 1990 when Mr De Savary paid #5.4m for the castle where Andrew Carnegie entertained the likes of Edward V11, Rudyard Kipling, the Rockefellers, Edward Elgar, Lloyd George, Helen Keller, and Paderewski. But as the Northern Times made clear in its editorial, the balance of local opinion is clear: ''Whatever they [Skibo Ltd] thought had been agreed verbally with Mr Burnett last year, it should be abundantly clear to them now that they are proposing to evict a good tenant against his will... ''The Carnegie Club has done much for this area over the past few years and, we hope, will continue to thrive for many more to come. They have made a point of trying to foster good relations with the community and, in the main, have succeeded in doing so. If they still value their good name, they should quickly find somewhere else to build their new golf course.'' Which raises another important point. Why does it have to be built on Pulrossie? In 1994, Skibo applied for planning permission to build the 18-hole ''Parkland Course'' on a completely different part of the estate to the east. The plan was subsequently changed and fresh planning permission was granted for a nine-hole course, which was built but which left the balance of land still available for further development; and the Old Course in St Andrews, for example, only covers 100 acres. But in any event Pulrossie appears particularly unsuitable, and Angus McCall has written to Scottish Rural Affairs Minister Ross Finnie to that effect: ''Skibo Estate, home of the Carnegie Club, has in excess of 5000 acres of land in vacant possession which could accommodate a second golf course without the need to displace the tenant and his family. ''Pulrossie is unsuitable ground on which to build a golf course. Being heavy wetland clay, its best use is as agricultural land. Moreover, it is an environmentally sensitive area. The land available to Skibo estate in vacant possession has better access, is ground more suited for a golf course and is in areas which would not cause Scottish Natural Heritage environmental concerns. ''The proposed golf development is speculative. There is no guarantee that a new course can attract championship tournaments and the existing courses are under utilised. Moreover there are a plethora of golf courses in the area, and the Golf Strategy of the Scottish Executive and Highland Council is in danger of creating a seasonal mono-economy. ''The majority of the public in Sutherland do not wish to see another exclusive golf development which will have no real recreational value to the general public at the expense of an existing successful farm business which is an integral part of the local rural infrastructure.'' There is doubt whether Skibo would be able to attract the three to six international tournaments mentioned in planning the new venture. They point to Dornoch, one of the top courses in the land, being unable to secure that number of tournaments. Local speculation also holds that the whole scheme has as much to do with the fact that Pulrossie is the only tenented farm left on the entire 7000-acre Skibo Estate, as it has to the need for another golf course to add to the one 18-hole and one nine-hole courses already there. The Herald has made repeated attempts to get in touch with Mr De Savary and/or his representatives without success. Skibo refer all inquiries on the matter to Mr De Savary's private office in London where callers are greeted by an answering machine. When we went to press earlier this week there was still speculation that Mr De Savary would make a statement confirming that he would abandon the Pulrossie scheme, but Graham Burnett will only believe it when his eviction notice is actually withdrawn. He says: ''All of this confusion could have been avoided if they had simply replied to my letters.''

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