Up to 100 people living in a remote area of the west coast are being threatened with eviction because they do not have planning permission for their makeshift homes.

The evictions, described as the worst since the Highland clearances two centuries ago, have provoked widespread anger and distress among residents. Unusually, they have won the backing of the local laird, who says they have nowhere else to go.

For at least the past 20 years, local people unable to find houses have been bringing in caravans and erecting huts near Ardfern on the Craignish peninsula in Argyll. There are some 60 such dwellings spread around the area, providing homes for families and local business people.

But now Argyll and Bute Council has served enforcement notices on more than 20 dwellings, giving the occupants three years to move out. A further 20 households have been told that they may be in breach of planning laws and 20 are still under investigation.

"It's tragic," said Colin Lindsay-MacDougall, the laird of Lunga estate, where about half of the "hutters" have set up home. "It will destroy local businesses and break up the community."

He condemned the council's actions as "pretty pathetic", arguing that people had been forced to establish their own homes because of a shortage of local housing. "Surely we can find a way for Scots to live in their own country?" he asked.

He pointed out that plans for 160 new houses on the peninsula at Craobh Haven had been abandoned after the developer had gone out of business.

There were 3400 people on the waiting list for houses in Argyll and Bute, he said."There is nowhere for them to go," Lindsay-MacDougall told the Sunday Herald. "This is the largest set of evictions since the clearances. It is strange that it should be happening under an SNP government."

Five of the "hutters" served with enforcement notices have appealed, and their cases were heard at a Scottish Executive inquiry in Ardfern last week. But none were willing to be quoted by name because of fears that they might be victimised.

"We've been living here peacefully for years, not causing anyone any harm," said one Ardfern resident. "We're active community members and hard workers and we pay our council tax just like anyone else."

The eviction threats were "an absolute travesty of justice", the resident added. "I'm very worried about what the future holds and very angry about the persecution of this community. Why make locals homeless? They certainly can't afford the luxury homes that are being built round here."

According to Argyll and Bute Council, the only "hutters" able to avoid eviction would be those who could prove prolonged residence. Caravans that had been in place for more than 10 years and structures that had been up for more than four years could be deemed to have planning approval.

But residents are understood to be having difficulty coming up with evidence that proves how long they have been there. They point out that few people have records of their council tax payments from years ago.

The chain of events which ended with the eviction threats began in 2005, after the council received complaints about a house that had been built on top of a hill. After an appeal before a Scottish Executive planning reporter, the council was required to assess the position of all dwellings in the area.

An Edinburgh environmental consultancy, Ironside Farrar, was commissioned to investigate and produced a 100-page report. It is the findings of this report that have prompted the council's legal action against residents.

Residents say that the house on the hill was an exception, as it was much more visible than others. Most of their homes are designed to blend into the landscape, and can't be seen from a distance.

Argyll and Bute Council, however, was unrepentant about the eviction notices it had issued. "There was no planning permission for any of these structures, and they were in places where we wouldn't normally have given planning permission," said a council spokeswoman.

The laird's wife, Sarah, was more sympathetic to the residents' plight. When asked whether she called them hutters or squatters, she replied: "I call them neighbours."