THE quiet revolution in land ownership continued to sweep across the Highlands and Islands yesterday when it was announced that Ian Macneil of Barra, whose family lines go back more than 1000 years on the island, had agreed to donate his crofting estate on Barra to the Scottish Executive.

However, if islanders want the 9000 acres, they are to be given the estate free of charge at a later date without having to seek any support from the Scottish Land Fund.

This has heartened those campaigning to secure more than half a million acres, or 77%, of the Western Isles in community ownership.

The Barra transfer will include adjacent foreshore as well as fishing and mineral rights.

When added to the existing crofting estates long owned by the Scottish Office/Scottish Executive on Barra and Vatersay, the combined publicly-owned estates will cover almost all the land on the two islands, which have a population of about 1300.

They will extend to 16,000 acres, with more than 440 croft tenancies and two working quarries.

Under the agreement, the 46th chief of the Clan MacNeil will donate the property to Scottish ministers, subject to their paying for the comparatively small cost of the transfer. The Scottish Executive environment and rural affairs department (Seerad) will manage the land until any community takeover.

About a year ago Mr Macneil approached Alasdair Morrison, the MSP for the Western Isles and his Westminster counterpart, Calum MacDonald MP, with the proposal that he transfer the croftlands to public ownership. Dialogue had continued with executive officials until yesterday, when the announcement was made through the columns of Barra's community newsletter Guth Bharraidh (the Voice of Barra). This was at the insistence of Mr Macneil, who wanted the islanders to be told first.

Now 74, the American law professor, who is an expert on contract law, had already offered to sell for a nominal sum his part of the island to the community as far back as 1981.

Yesterday, he explained his reasons for this latest initiative and stressed he was not turning his back on Barra, where he still has a house.

''Active personal management of a crofting estate is both challenging and rewarding. But it is also demanding and time-

consuming. Having put in almost 35 years at this job and beginning to slow down at 74, I decided it was time to retire.

''A transfer to Seerad will also open exciting opportunities for local community ownership and management, if appropriate democratic processes reveal that this is what the crofters and wider community of Barra and Vatersay want.

''Barra will remain home for us. The crofting estate is just one of our many contacts there. Among others are our ongoing connections with Kisimul Castle, our home in Garrygall and above all our friends and acquaintances in the island. We spend a great deal of time on Barra and continue to do so.

''Being relieved of the administration of the crofting estate will free up much time, making it possible to participate in Barra life in other ways which might be useful . . . Barra and its welfare are important to us and we anticipate continuing as active members of the


In particular, he would be working to achieve the long-term security of the island's air services.

Ross Finnie, rural development minister, said: ''We intend to manage this land with a view to its transfer, along with our own properties, to community ownership when the Barra and Vatersay islanders are ready to take control of the land management. We will encourage community participation in property management through an estate charter similar to those already adopted on other estates owned by ministers.''

Mr Morrison was delighted by the development. He said: ''Our agenda has always been to encourage fundamental change in the current pattern of land ownership and here we have a magnanimous gesture facilitating that very change, whether or not the islanders decide to progress to community ownership.

''Land reform has changed and is changing attitudes. The more land that goes from private to public or community ownership in the Western Isles, the better.

''We are now well on our way towards our goal of taking all croft land, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the Western Isles, into community/public ownership.''

Already in community ownership in the Western Isles are: the 69,400 acres of the Stornoway Trust, which was established in 1923 by deed of trust from Lord Leverhulme; the 1700 acres at Bhaltos on the west of Lewis; and the 55,000 acres of the North Harris estate.

The communities on the 93,000 acres of the South Uist estates are considering pursuing a buyout, as are those on the 26,000 acres of Park estate in the Lochs area of Lewis and those further north on the 60,000 acres of the Galson estate.

''If all these projects succeed, we will have secured about 320,000 of the 500,000-plus acres of croftland in the Western Isles,'' Mr Morrison said.

However, Jessie MacNeil, editor of Guth Bharraidh and a crofter and community development officer with Community Action Barra, said: ''We won't be moving to community ownership overnight.

''It is something there has already been a bit of discussion about, but it is not something the people here will be rushing into.

''It's very important that we get all the views of the crofters, all the community. But it is certainly something Macneil has triggered. Personally I feel this is a challenge for us - 'There's the land there, are you ready to take it on?' It is an open door for us to take control of the whole estate and not just Macneil's land.''