Sell a piece of Skye to fix a leaky castle

Offer: Clan chief John MacLeod provoked some outrage when he put the Black Cuillins mountains in Scotland up for sale to finance castle repairs.

April 02, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUNVEGAN, Scotland -- So, let's get this straight, John MacLeod of MacLeod.

You've got a centuries-old castle with a leaky flat roof. You want to sell a mountain range to finance repairs. And politicians and newspapers are tearing into your plans, labeling you greedy.

"It's something that breaks my bloody heart," says the 29th chief of Clan MacLeod, whose ancestry traces back to Norse kings.

On the wind-swept Isle of Skye, in the North Atlantic, with its undulating landscape, wet weather and hardy people, the proposed sale of one of Britain's most spectacular mountain ranges is stirring up a storm.

When MacLeod announced last month that he was putting up for sale the Black Cuillins on Skye, shock, amazement and outrage followed. How, some asked, could anyone put a price on 35 square miles of spectacular mountain range that have been a MacLeod stronghold for centuries?

Faced with a $10 million repair bill for his roof, plus holding a tourist and building development dream to create 120 local jobs, MacLeod showed that it could be done.

Offers in excess of 10 million British pounds (about $16 million) will be considered. The sale includes two salmon rivers, a sheep farm, cottages and campsite.

"I would be amazed if an individual offers it, but I know that amazement will quite likely happen," says MacLeod, a gray-haired 64-year-old with a toothy grin, rolling voice and fashion sense that favors kilts and dress shirts with cuff links.

To some in Scotland, the land sale smacks of unloading the family silver, whatever the reason or price.

"John MacLeod should hang his head in shame," Calum MacDonald, a member of Parliament from Scotland, told the local news media. "This just goes to show there is only one thing worse than a greedy foreign landlord, and that's a greedy Scottish landlord."

The Herald of Glasgow wrote, "The idea of the private ownership, never mind the sale, of the Cuillins, is offensive."

Among locals, who have known MacLeod for years and live on his land, the reaction is less heated.

"A lot of people were surprised he owned the Cuillins, me included," says Alasdair MacLean, who owns the Dunorin House Hotel, a few miles from the castle. "I see the mountains every day. I never thought anyone owned them."

But this is all MacLeod country, where generations have followed the family motto, "Hold Fast."

`On their knees'

Dunvegan Castle, built on a rock overlooking a loch, with grand rooms, imposing towers and a dungeon, has been the seat of MacLeod chiefs for about 800 years.

"The clan system flourished in northwest Scotland," MacLeod says. "It was a traditional system of economics, politics and social justice. The tie was one of blood and race."

Presiding over the clans were the chiefs.

"They were everything," MacLeod says. "The justice, the general, the wise man who governed with a council of elders. If you got to be the chief, the people coming in to see you would be on their knees."

Now, more likely than not, the people who see MacLeod are tourists who wander through his home. About 145,000 people a year venture to this outpost at Britain's edge to marvel at relics and gain a sense of time and place inside a castle that for centuries has retained its family and roof.

"You are a symbol of something, a tie that is based on a shared experience of blood," MacLeod says of his modern role as clan chief.

He writes that the home has survived "the extremes of feast and famine, the intermittent periods of warring with neighboring clans, and the immense changes of social, political and economic life through which the Western Highlands and the island have passed."

As MacLeod notes, it's tough to hang on to a piece of this rock. In family history, the potato famine of 1847-1851 is referred to as a "last major difficulty" that compelled the 25th chief to leave the castle and move to London where he was "obliged" to work as a clerk. It wasn't until 1929 that another chief, the 27th, was able to live in the castle and later, open the doors to the public.

MacLeod inherited clan lands from his grandmother, who he says was "a kind of universal granny," and "televisual." MacLeod has his grandmother's flair in front of the camera. Educated at Eton, schooled in music and possessing a fine voice, he says he would have enjoyed a career in music.

"Since I was 3 or 4, I was programmed for this place," he says of the castle and lands.

But it is tough running a castle. Expensive, too.

"You need to marry serious money," says the twice-divorced MacLeod. "I've never managed to do that."

Castle tours

MacLeod unhooks a velvet rope and takes a visitor through the castle's private rooms, walking up creaking stairs and chilly hallways, noting signs of dampness and telling stories of having to supply house guests with umbrellas to cover their heads while they slept. Then he's up on the flat roof, which underwent its last major refurbishment in the late 1940s to early 1950s.

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