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The Hills Are Alive With the Hopes of the MacLeods

Scotland: Clan chief says he has to sell wild mountains on the Isle of Skye so that he can renovate his dilapidated castle. Conservationists, some neighbors, object.


DUNVEGAN CASTLE, Scotland — In the wild mountains of the Isle of Skye, the chief of Clan MacLeod is seeking his family's salvation.

He's doing it in the time-honored way of hard-pressed British aristocrats--by selling a family heirloom. In this case, the Black Cuillin mountains.

"We have been in this part of the world since the beginning of recorded time," said John MacLeod, 66, standing on the battlements of the castle owned by his family for 800 years. "It is dreadful, but there is nothing else I can do."

The castle, perched on a slab of rock on the edge of Loch Dunvegan, is the crux of his problem. It's so dilapidated that he is trying to sell the range of mountains for about $14.5 million to raise the money for urgent repairs.

The Black Cuillins, a rugged stretch of peaks, are considered among the most beautiful in Scotland and dominate the southwestern corner of Skye, an island just off the west coast of Scotland.

The price includes a hill farm, two salmon and sea trout rivers, 14 miles of coastline and a campsite for the climbers who practice on the Cuillins' sheer crags and cliffs.

MacLeod insists the sale is the only workable option for restoring the castle, which is itself a major tourist attraction and an important source of employment on the island.

The plan angers some locals and conservationists, who argue MacLeod shouldn't be able to sell the bleak crags and heath land.

"I think it is diabolical," said Jim McKechnie, who runs a youth hostel in the nearby fishing village of Portree. "The Cuillin Hills are the most eye-catching bit of the whole island. Nobody should be able to own something like that."

But after public complaints, a government commission confirmed that a charter of 1611 gave MacLeod's family title to the 35 square miles of wilderness.

MacLeod then offered not to sell the hills, if the government would pay for repairing his castle--and he was accused of blackmailing the nation.

An affable character with bouffant white hair, dressed in a tartan kilt and sheepskin jerkin, MacLeod insists he has explored all ideas for repairing the castle, and the sale is the only option.

An offer by the Historic Scotland preservation agency to provide $145,000 in grants over four years is not enough, he says. Without an immediate, huge cash injection, he says, the medieval castle would be covered in scaffolding for 10 years--spelling commercial doom for the tourist attraction.

"The one thing that the tourist market hates is scaffolding," MacLeod said. "The Cuillin Hills are unchanging and will remain freely accessible to all, but the other national treasure for which I am responsible, Dunvegan Castle, is not so durable. It is the castle's need for fundamental maintenance, which is the reason behind the sale."

The rooms open to the public are beautifully preserved. Walls are lined with imposing family portraits and glass cabinets display the MacLeod clan's heritage, including a horn from which new clan chieftains must drink almost two pints of claret in one go.

But behind the polished oak doors marked "private," the castle is crumbling. Paint and plaster flake from ceilings. The air is musty with rising damp. Walls are marred by holes where contractors have ripped out woodwork to test for dry rot.

"Fifteen years ago my guests had to put up umbrellas in their bedrooms as the roof was leaking so badly," MacLeod said. "The thought of the Cuillins on the market causes me intense inner grief, and I deeply sympathize with those members of the public who share that feeling. But I had to do something drastic."

Guy Galbraith of FPD Savills in Edinburgh, the sales agent, maintains that whoever buys the mountain range will have to preserve it. Rare Carabid beetles scuttle around the mountaintops, making the hills an officially designated "site of special scientific interest."

The public also has the right to roam freely in the hills.

"It is the sort of property that will be bought by an expat with philanthropic wishes, who wants to preserve a bit of Scotland," Galbraith said.

MacLeod hopes a buyer can be found soon, so he can start repairs.

"An American said to me once, 'You, sir, are living history,' said MacLeod with a wry smile. "It is an enormous privilege, but it can feel like a millstone."


Dunvegan Castle on the net:

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