As yet another Highland estate is sold off to an absentee landlord,

Margaret Vaughan considers the case for land ownership restrictions

AN heiress to the richest and most secretive family in Britain is

Scotland's latest absentee landlord. Lisbet Koerner, a Harvard professor

who, with her academic husband Joseph, lives in a splendid old colonial

home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Her new playground is 48,000 wild acres of the West Highlands, the

Corrour estate, a sporting paradise of stalking, trout fishing, and

grouse shooting, bought for #3m.

Lisbet, 35, is the eldest daughter of Hans Rausing, a Swedish-tax

exile who, with his brother Gans, heads the league of the super-rich

with a fortune estimated at #5.2 billion.

Prising out information about the family is about as easy as opening

one of the Tetrapak milk cartons on which the fortune was built. The

brothers have clung fiercely to privacy since joining their father's

company and launching the tetrahedron-shaped milk packages in 1952.

In the early eighties the brothers made their homes in Britain, it is

understood, to escape the taxation laws of their Scandinavian homeland.

Lisbet married her American husband Joseph, a fine art historian and

graduate of Harvard and Cambridge in 1988. They have two children,

Benjamin and Sigrid. In August her father sold the family business

interests to his brother. The sale put Lisbet, who had been mentioned as

a possible heir apparent to the company, firmly out of the picture. It

may, though, explain her decision to invest #3m in the remote acres of a

sporting estate which lies some 30 miles north of Fort William.

The softly-spoken, slightly lisping lecturer whose specialism is the

history of science, was maintaining the family tradition of discreet

silence after news of her purchase slipped out.

It seems unlikely that the isolated Corrour estate, reached by a

12-mile dirt road, has been bought as a commercial proposition. Locals

believe the couple and their two children plan to holiday there, leaving

the day-to-day management to the staff of four who maintain the estate.

''Well, I suppose it's better them than somebody wanting to destroy

the estate with a holiday development,'' was as much as any local would

say about the purchase.

But, then, Highlanders long ago became used to the insecurities of a

system of land tenure which allows anyone to purchase vast swathes of

the last wilderness acres. No other country in Europe allows the

free-market sale of land on such a scale.

Despite Michael Forsyth recently astounding crofters by calling on

lairds to follow the Government's example and hand over their land to

the people, many of the large Scottish estates remain the property of

absentee landlords. They range from Middle East oil sheiks to Pacific

Rim investors, Dutch and Danish companies to rock stars.

The Scottish Crofters Union, who broadly welcomed Mr Forsyth's

initiative, insist there remain real concerns in parts of the Highlands

and Islands about the ownership of land. Not least, perhaps, on Eigg

where islanders wait to learn their fate as their latest laird, the

German artist Maruma, is investigated by the public prosecutor's office

in Stuttgart over a #1.6m loan.

Last week, a 41,000-acre estate in the Cairngorms, Glenavon, was sold

to a Malaysian businessman. Near Stranraer, the Logan estate, which has

been in the same family for 700 years, has been sold to a London-based


Both Labour and the Scottish National Party want to see land reform.

They believe Scotland's archaic feudal system needs to be changed to

give security to local communities and protect the environment.

Rob Gibson, the SNP's land spokesman, said it proposed radical

policies which would seek to create widespread ownership of land and

coastal resources by resident populations: ''We would be prepared to

take powers to favour residents over absentees when property is sold.''

Labour MP and publisher of the radical West Highland Free Press, Brian

Wilson, has long campaigned for land reform. ''We need a Land Commission

to examine every proposed sale, with power to intervene where social or

environmental interests are involved.''

The Scottish Landowners' Federation, meanwhile, has welcomed the

inward investment which the new owners of the Corrour estate are making

in Scotland. They argue that the cost of buying and running such a vast

sporting estate is so high that the majority of Scots couldn't afford