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