Who owns the Cuillins?

Ever since John MacLeod of MacLeod put the Cuillins on the market in the hope of raising 10 million to fund the repair of Dunvegan Castle, controversy has raged. Environmental groups and Skye residents have accused the clan chief of holding the Scottish people to ransom and it has been suggested that he had no legal title to ownership of the world-famous mountain range and that the title should rest with the Crown. Last summer the Crown Estate Commissioners decided that a legal challenge to establish Crown ownership was unlikely to succeed. John MacLeod welcomed this announcement as confirming his family's title to the area. However, prominent mountaineer Alan Blackshaw believes the Crown Commissioners were wrong and the following article explains why. Whilst more research has been carried out since Alan Blackshaw wrote this paper, the general feeling is that a great deal more work still needs to be done before John MacLeod, or any other, can claim ownership of the Cuillins.

Thich Mist on the Couruisk Cuillins - Official

Alan Blackshaw discusses some possible reasons why, perhaps surprisingly, the Cuillins might still belong to the people.

When Mr John MacLeod of MacLeod announced his proposed sale of the Cuillins of Skye last March, the Western Isles MP, Calum MacDonald, protested that 'MacLeod should hang his head in shame for trying to exploit what God has given the people of Skye.'

Alasdair Morrison MSP, Minister for the Highlands, then challenged Mr MacLeod to produce title deeds proving he owns the Cuillins. The Crown Estate Commissioners have since advised the Government (Brian Wilson MP, Scotland Office) that Mr MacLeod does indeed have a good title to the whole of the Cuillins; and their Counsel's Opinion has been placed in Libraries in Skye to explain the reasons for this, now and for the future.

What boundaries for the Crown Charter to the Macleods?

The Crown Estate based this advice on the belief that 'the Cuillins lie within the Parish of Bracadale and within the areas generally known as Bracadale and Minginish', these all being descriptions which, so they say, 'go back to the Crown Charter of 4 April 1611' granting Skye territories to the MacLeods. But there is evidence from historical material not mentioned by the Crown Estate that this view may not be well-founded: in particular because, as explained below, the main part of the Cuillins now offered for sale - the Coruisk side - is not within either Bracadale or Minginish, and therefore not within the Crown Charter. Could this be a reason why the MacLeods have never, in all their long history - or so it would seem from the research which I carried out for the Ramblers' Association Scotland - in fact established any title deeds even mentioning the Cuillin hills? And why even now no registered title deeds to the Coruisk side of the Cuillins have been produced?

Bracadale Parish?

The Crown Estate's reference above to the Parish of Bracadale including the Cuillins must be treated with care, as regards the 1611 Charter (which did not mention it).

Firstly, because the Parish may not even have existed at that time. The first evidence of a Parish Minister at Bracadale, according to the Church of Scotland, was not until 3 years later, in 1614.

Secondly, in 1749 the then Parish Minister said that 'My Parish is 14 miles in length', some 6 miles less (if the 'miles' are the same) than the present length of 20 miles - suggesting that the eastern boundary of the Parish at that time would not have gone beyond Glen Brittle.

Finally, even as late as 1842, the Topographical, Statistical and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland, was saying: "There are no remarkable mountains within the Parish; but a considerable ridge of very high and lofty hills runs betwixt this Parish and the Parish of Strath. They are commonly called the Culinn or Coolin hills - a name conjectured by some to be derived from the famous Cuchulinn, so often mentioned in Ossian 's poems.' This was based on a similar statement in the First Statistical Account of 1797, written by the Bracadale Minister of the time.

Or Bracadale district?

Care is also needed with the Crown Estate belief that the Cuillins lie within the area 'generally known as Bracadale', mentioned in the 1611 Charter.

On 31 October 1843, when the then MacLeod of MacLeod mortgaged his Estate to the North British Insurance Company, the deed precisely defined 'the lands of Bracadale' as comprehending 24 settlements.

However, these were all around Lochs Bracadale and Harport, many miles to the north of the Cuillins, the nearest being Drynoch , some 5 miles west of Sligachan.

The lands of Minginish

The mortgage deed of 1843 also defined the 'lands of Minginish', likewise relied upon in the Crown Opinion, as 'consisting of the following lands viz. Rhuidunan (now Rubh' an Dunain), 'Lisole, Bolenture' (now Bualintur), 'Achochand or Glenbrittle', all of these being lands in and around Glen Brittle .

There were another 21 other small settlements to the west and north, but with no mention of the Cuillins or of anything on their Coruisk side.

Each of these lands would have been a combination of plots of arable with associated, but not unlimited, moor or hill grazing. While the insurance company would naturally have been cautious to take as collateral only land to which there was a clear title, was there not a mutual interest in naming as much land as possible, where the title could be relied upon?

Were the Coruisk Cuillins omitted from the list because they were not thought of? Or not thought of as part of Minginish? Or not thought of as a bankable proposition, with a clear title for sale in the event of mortgage default?

The Ordnance Survey view of Minginish

There is support for view that the Coruisk Cuillins lie outside Minginish in the early 6-inch Ordnance surveys (e.g. Second Edition 1903, surveyed in 1873-75, revised in 1901), which were authoritative at that time for these purposes.

These showed Minginisit as being only on the moorland at the north end of Glen Brittle and to the north and west of the northern Cuillins (Sgurr Thuilm, Bruach na Frithe and Sgurr nan Gillean) and not further to the south-east . This was significantly further north and west than on the present OS 1:50,000 map South Skye. The present 1:25,000 map The Cuillin is better, with Minginish clearly in Glen Brittle.

Note especially that the 6-inch OS Sheets 39, 44 and 45, which covered upper Glen Sligachan and the Coruisk side of the Cuillins, showed none of this land as being in Minginish: neither on the Cuillin Ridge; nor in upper Glen Sligachan; nor in Harta Corrie; nor at Loch Coruisk.

The agonies of Glen Brittle

Finally, this was a time when Royal Charters were interpreted narrowly; and the then general concern at the sad state of affairs in Glen Brittle, under MacLeod control, may have emphasised this.

The emigration from there to Canada and the US had started around 1772, but conditions had worsened in the early 1800s, when Glen Brittle was the first farm in Skye to introduce large-scale sheep-farming, to the detriment of the local people.

Between 1792 and 1851 the population of Bracadale Parish declined from 2250 to 1597 (and to 908 by 1892), with very severe destitution. Each of 'the lands of Minginish' specified above was said to have been 'cleared' around the time of the 1843 deed.

Since the then MacLeod of MacLeod relied on his Royal Charter as authority for his land management policies, there may have been no great sympathy for any idea of interpreting it more liberally than was strictly required.

The relevance today

As the present title deeds are still based on the 1843 definitions, it seems highly relevant that in the 1843 deed neither the insurance company nor the Macleods, for whatever reason, made any mention of the Cuillins, or saw the MacLeod Estate as extending to their Coruisk side.

Might any MacLeod 'ownership' of the Coruisk side of the Cuillins have been seen at that time more as a personal, customary. Clan right, or other bona fide possession, quite adequate for grazing, stalking and fishing, perhaps on a non-exclusive basis, but something less than would technically have been required for a valid sale, or acceptance for the Register of Sasines?

If so, might the possibility still remain that the formal title to the Coruisk side of the Cuillins rests with the Crown on behalf of the people, subject to whatever are the MacLeod rights of grazing, stalking, fishing etc, and the customary rights and freedoms of public access?

In that case, would MacLeod Estates need a new Crown grant of the Coruisk lands beyond the Minginish boundary before they could validly sell them? A sale without valid title of ownership might be challenged for up to 10 or 20 years afterwards.

Meanwhile, some further explanation of how the original Crown ownership of the Coruisk Cuillins is supposed to have been lost to MacLeod Estates would surely be needed, if public funds were to be used to buy it back.


News Roundup

International Year of Mountains

2002 has been designated International Year of Mountains. Its origins lie in the Rio Earth Summit, specifically in the mountain chapter of Agenda 21, which identified the mountain environment and its peoples as a priority for global action, of comparable importance to tropical rainforests and climate change. Up till now, Scotland has had little involvement in this agenda but IYM 2002 offers us an opportunity to remedy the situation. A proposal has been submitted to SNH with the support of a number of non-governmental agencies, including NEMT, to seek funding for a Project Officer who could work full-time on a programme of well-publicised events involving non-governmental and governmental agencies as well as partners from the private sector. It is hoped that IYM 2002 will act as a catalyst for long-term awareness raising and action. The objectives of IYM events will be:
  1. to raise public awareness of Scotland's mountains, their importance and role, in both ecological and human terms, and the need to protect their special characteristics.
  2. to celebrate the special values and promote debate about the future of Scotland's mountains, including sustainable land use.
  3. to increase awareness, among public agencies and government departments with an interest in mountains, of issues relating to sustainable mountain use and development and thus to promote change towards more sustainable use.
  4. to promote links between non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government agencies and the private sector with an interest in mountains in order to facilitate more 'joined up thinking' and action in relation to sustainable mountain use and development.
NEMT intends to play an active role in IYM at a local and national level. Further information will be made available in due course but anyone with ideas for suitable events should contact their nearest General Council member.

Cairngorms cSAC

Not an obscure musical instrument nor a now-forgotten children's game, cSAC is Eurospeak for a Candidate Special Area of Conservation. In January, Scottish Natural Heritage announced that the Scottish Ministers had decided to submit the Cairngorms to the European Commission as a cSAC. The cSAC includes seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest; Abernethy Forest, Cairngorms, Eastern Cairngorms, Glenmore Forest, Inchrory, North Rothiemurchus Pinewood and the Northern Corries. It contains a high diversity of habitats and species of European importance. These include high altitude plant communities, bog woodland, alpine and boreal heaths and, of course native Scots pine forests. The area is also important to the Scottish otter population, one of the most important in Europe. The area of the cSAC is likely to coincide to a considerable extent with that of the proposed Cairngorms National Park.

Glenfeshie Fencing Dispute Resolved

Three years ago, Danish businessman Klaus Helmersen bought the environmentally important Glenfeshie estate. Since then, considerable concern has been expressed by conservationists at his plan to tackle woodland regeneration by extensive use of deer fencing. Fears were expressed that the estate's proposal to raise 3.7km of 7ft-high fence at the Coille an Torr area would prove highly destructive to rare black cock and capercaillie. An agreement has now been reached between the estate, the Forestry Commission, the Deer Commission for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage which will bring in improved deer management and reduce the proposed fencing to a smaller area at the Queen's Nose. The agreement will also bring a Woodland Grant Scheme worth 150,000 in the first five years for the estate.

Deer Commission chairman Andrew Raven said that the agreement formalised a partnership committed to implementing sustainable management on Glenfeshie and suggested it could be a model for multi-use land management. RSPB director Nick Reiter described the agreement as "satisfactory".

Access Legislation for England & Wales

At the end of November, access took a step forward south of the border when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed. The British Mountaineering Council hailed it as "a landmark piece of legislation for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers". The BMC had devoted more than two years of lobbying effort to ensuring the passage of the legislation. Lord Greaves, one of the Bill's main supporters as it battled through the House of Lords, commented that "It is vital that the BMC and its members continue to be vigilant if the promise of access improvements and new access to land are to materialize in practice."

Crash Victims' Bodies Recovered from Liathach

At the end of February, members of Torridon and RAF Kinloss mountain rescue teams recovered the bodies of two men from high on Liathach. A mountain guide first spotted wreckage from the Cessna aircraft, which disappeared before Christmas on a flight from Inverness to Benbecula. Rescue teams then found further wreckage but were forced down by severe weather. Several days later they braved Category 5 avalanche conditions to return and recover the men's bodies.

The Nature of Scotland

At the beginning of March, the Scottish Executive published its proposals to improve the protection of designated wildlife sites (SSSIs) and combat wildlife crime. International wildlife crime is estimated to be worth some 2 billion a year, which makes it a criminal trade second only to drug trafficking. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 2001 has already introduced improved wildlife laws in England and Wales. Environment Minister Sam Galbraith launched a range of proposed measures under the title The Nature of Scotland. These include giving Scottish police the power of arrest in cases of suspected wildlife crime and allowing courts the discretion to impose jail sentences in such cases. Other proposals are aimed at encouraging farmers and other land managers to enter into conservation contracts based on payments for positive action to care for SSSIs. The proposals have been welcomed by RSPB and also, cautiously, by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

Renewable Energy Promise from Blair

Speaking to a recent WWF conference in London, the Prime Minister has committed the government to spending a further 100 million on redeveloping renewable energy technology in the UK. Mr Blair promised developments in solar, offshore wind and energy crops, saying the investment would be "a major investment in our future". He also spoke of improvements in marine conservation and called for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Will Campbell, 12 March, 2001


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