Readers Digest, March 2008
FEW mornings dawn like this. With my fishing rod safely stowed, a hamper packed and my ready-to-wear designer kilt and jacket by my side, I'm every inch the monarch of the glen. As the car speeds along beneath the mountain peaks, I feel my heart beating just a little faster in anticipation of the day ahead.
It has taken more than four decades for this kind of inheritance to drop on my doorstep, and I'm hoping that my apparent good fortune isn't a complete illusion. In my hand I grip the papers that prove I have the right to be called Laird of Lochaber.
At Roy Bridge, a tiny village towards the west of the glen, I pull over to buy provisions at the local grocery store. And it's here that I receive my first big surprise of the day.
From behind the counter, the assistant eyes the documents in my hand. "Oh, have you bought a title as well?" she exclaims in a broad Lancashire accent. "Join the club. I'm Lady Barbara. 'Ow d'you do?"
Disappointingly, this is how it is among Scotland's recently ennobled classes. They're friendly, ubiquitous and rarely Scottish. In Lochaber alone, there are probably 5,000 newly created lords, lairds and ladies, though few apart from Lady Babs have actually moved here. Most of the titles are bought and sold on the internet auction site eBay, and many are sent out to America, Canada and Australia.
You might have heard of ruses like this. For a few quid a mystery seller with a grand-sounding name offers you the chance to buy a one-foot-square plot of land in a remote and romantic part of Scotland and with it the right to style yourself 'laird' or 'lady'.
There are some at Glencairn - a tiny croft by Lybster, in Caithness - and others at Kincavel on Ardnamurchan. You can even buy plots on the moon. Mostly they are billed as a bit of fun, 'the perfect gift' for a best man or a favourite uncle, a giggle for the woman you love when you make a lady of her at last.
It's true that these titles have been dismissed as 'meaningless' by the Court of Lord Lyon, the office which deals with heraldic matters and coats-of-arms in Scotland. And it was decided eight years ago that the sales of such miniature plots would not be recorded in the national register of Scotland.
But for many of the buyers, it is quite sufficient that 'laird' means 'landowner' in Scots, and they receive a certificate which purports to prove their ownership of a plot of land on a Highland estate. I am one of these willing investors, handing over £30 for a little parcel of land in the aptly named Laird's Wood. I've gone into this with my eyes wide open, even though I've had the 'reverse quantum' effect patiently explained to me by a gentleman at an estate agency specialising in land sales - that's the means by which the price of land increases when it's sold off in small parts. This seems a bit of fun, something to joke about around the dinner table.
Part of the appeal is based on my surname. My namesake, General Wade, came this way some 280 years ago, building a network of military roads and bridges which were designed to help pacify the Jacobite Highlands.
That heroic campaign was sufficient to get him name-checked in the national anthem ("God bless great Marshal Wade"). But Wade was to come unwittingly to the aid of the warlike Highland clans who, in 1745, formed up in orderly ranks behind Bonnie Prince Charlie and marched down the new highways which led towards England. My title deeds are supplied with the words: "In recognition of the roads built by your illustrious
But my one square foot of Lochaber boasts other, slightly more serious attractions. For starters, there is the impressively green message promoted on the seller's website, which tells me about tree-planting on the wider estate and an ambition to help rebuild the great Caledonian forest. That's the stuff to feed the eco-friendly tree-hugger in me.
Better still are those non-exclusive fishing rights to a one-mile beat along the north bank of the River Spean. "What will your friends say to that?" cajoles the blurb. "Next time you eat smoked salmon, you'll be able to wonder loudly if it came from your stretch of river on your estate in the Highlands."
A document labelled Your Fishing Rights, which I've been sent with my 'estate transfer pack' invites me to look at things another way. You can "fish when you like, as often as you like. You will always be welcome on your stretch of river". There's even a beguiling image of salmon which has been landed by an expert angler. I remain hopeful that I'm on to a bargain.
I am in for a rude awakening when I walk to the Roy Bridge hotel. Here my lordly pretensions are punctured as soon as I show off my title documents to a group of hearty young fellows ensconced under the television set at the bar, keeping half an eye on the weigh-in at Newton Abbot.
The four of them rifle through my papers and gently mock my 12in plot, which they say I'll find on a much larger estate owned by Professor Peter Bevis. More worryingly, there's a prevailing scepticism about the quality of the fishing. The general opinion is that the Falls of Monessie, west of Roy Bridge, are so high they prevent salmon from moving upstream.
"If Peter said you'll catch fish there, he must have put tins of salmon all along the river," says a smiling, thin-faced man, who styles himself Lord Ronald. "He's a clever guy, you know. He made a small fortune out of the American marketing rights to Billy the Bass, the singing fish."
I must look baffled because Lord Ronald glances at a stuffed fish mounted on the wall. Then he nods at the barmaid, who obligingly reaches up and pushes a button. The song 'Take Me to the River' begins to play and the bass comes alive, writhing in time to the music.
"Of course, you might catch one of Billy's mates," Lord Ronald shouts above the din. As the bar dissolves in laughter, a shadow passes over my face. It's time to assert my authority. I step outside to the car park, don my lairdly attire and set off to claim my inheritance.
This, it quickly turns out, is easier said than done. Leaving my car on the verge at Laird's Wood, I stride off along the main road, following to the letter the instructions which came with the deeds supplied by Lochaber Highland Estates.
But after walking 500 yards I am faced with a persistent problem. The railway line which is running parallel to the road appears to make access to my land impossible. I scale walls. I climb trees. No obvious entrance presents itself. "Calm down," says the photographer who has come with me. "Let's go fishing."
It seems a good call and for a while my fortune seems to change for the better. After a slosh through a boggy strand of silver birch and a scramble down a craggy slope, we arrive in a gorge. The scene is improbably beautiful, the Ben Nevis range towering over a wooded glen on a breezy summer's day. Birds twitter and the sun glistens off the white rocks.
But the more we explore the ravine, the weaker seem the prospects for fishing. The water level is low and the river runs over the exposed bed in the narrowest of channels.
When at last we find a place where the waters have broadened out into a brackish pool, I cast a line and wait. "Tackling salmon requires stealth and the skill to outwit a natural creature, accustomed and attuned to its environment," it says in my transfer pack. Too true. It's becoming clear that Lord Ronald's doubts were justified. The nearest salmon is so attuned to its environment it's 20 miles downstream.
Standing by the water I take a bit of time out to consider what I know of Peter Bevis and his family, who live at Tulloch estate. Until 2001 he worked at the Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York, an Englishman abroad whose wife Helen was formerly a barrister with the Crown Prosecution Service. She was even chosen by the CPS to meet the Queen and take part in a mock trial so that Her Majesty could see how justice works in her courts. The elder of the couple's two daughters is Laura, "a nice wee thing", I've been told, who has just finished an accountancy degree at Glasgow University.
They seem a thoroughly professional and respectable family and appear to have the respect of all my new friends in the village. If I have cause to doubt the value of my investment, I'm certain they will be able to explain themselves. After a fruitless hour or so by the river, I'm beginning to think I deserve that Explanation.
When I drive up to the lodge where the Bevis family live, there are signs of prosperous life. An estate car and a rather tasty Audi sports job sit on the gravel drive. Lights glisten though the window of a beautiful Victorian stone-built country house, and when I ring the bell the sound echoes through an ample hall. The newest Laird of Lochaber is not overly impressed, though. I can't find my family plot. And the fishing's rubbish.
The young woman who opens the door is disarming. This is Laura Bevis and although she is obviously nervous about being confronted, her straightforward answers take me by surprise. And she's even too polite to mention I've forgotten to wear my sporran. Laura is happy to listen to my questions, she says, as she pulls on a pair of wellies. "And I'll show you where your plot is. But you could have found it yourself. There is a map reference, you know."
As we trudge across a damp paddock, the young lady of the manor tells me about the internet sales, which stand at 4,600 in the last year alone, a figure boosted by transactions on the Lochaber company's own website.
"Look at the feedback and you'll see it is 100 per cent positive," she says. "A lot of people like to buy a small estate - and when they get it they love it. You can't buy a piece of Scotland any other way without spending an awful lot of money."
This is affordable and fun, she adds with a smile. On cue, we have arrived close by grid reference NN327806. My square foot of land, my children's inheritance. It's a patch of boggy, greasy grass, dignified by a molehill. Is this how it started for the Duke of Westminster?
What about the fishing?, I ask. What about the plans to build up the forest? "He's away, but you can speak to my father," says Laura, and gives me a telephone number.
Now I will finally have a proper explanation, I think, or even a grovelling apology. But when Peter Bevis answers my call, he is every bit as plausible as his daughter, speaking softly but confidently, his voice friendly and ready to laugh. Only on the question of the quality of the fishing does he very briefly wobble.
"What I've been told by the locals is that Monessie Falls, when they're in spate, simply turn into rapids and fill up with water. If the salmon are running at the same time - I admit it's infrequent - they can come up. If I saw a fisherman with one hanging on the end of his line I would be startled, but I would be thrilled. I even considered offering a prize for the first one caught."
And so it goes. He shrugs off any suggestion that he avoids British tax - "the business is registered in the Channel Islands because that's where the family's from" - and defends his organisation, the Scottish Woodland Alliance, whose website is linked to Lochaber Highland Estates and encourages its readers to invest in trees at Laird's Wood. He intends to register the alliance as a charity, he explains, to help fund even more tree-planting in Scotland.
He even accepts that it would "probably be a reasonable thing to say" that the public were funding his estate. "When we came to Lochaber about six years ago, we imagined that we would make money from farming and be able to plant a forest. It was intriguing to discover that there wasn't any money in farming. I was earning a salary in Inverness, but it doesn't plant many trees. We planted as many as we could afford and we got permission to plant another 20 hectares from the Forestry
Commission, but we had no funds to do it."
He adds, "We do intend to plough the money back into the estate and in Scotland in general. I don't intend to be buried with it."
And it turns out that, yes, he did sell Billy the Bass. Well, his wife did. They were in New York. Helen was having trouble getting a work permit when she became friendly with a guy in Manhattan who was selling the joke fish in his store. She offered to sell as many Billys as she could on eBay and the storeowner agreed.
"It was quite exciting," muses Professor Bevis. "They did go well. But I am really a zoologist who has spent most of his life working in the pharmaceuticals industry. I'm neither a property speculator nor a fish salesman."
Perhaps not. But his estate probably has made in excess of £100,000 by selling these tiny plots of land, which is an excellent result for him. For this follower of General George Wade, the outcome is not so good. All I've got is a molehill and a bit of greasy grass, dignified by some silly documentation. Not forgetting the right to stand by a quiet stretch of river and dangle my rod for as long as I like in search of the ever-elusive salmon.
Lord Ronald is still holding court when I return in my civvies to the Roy Bridge hotel seeking solace. The conversation is genial. There are rueful remarks about the condition of my estate, and a discussion about incomers to the area. Apropos of nothing, I suggest that Bevis is a pretty uncommon name in these parts.
"Don't hear it very often, do you?" agrees one of Lord Ronald's Merry Men.
"Usually in association with Butthead," says a second.
"Only one Butthead in this transaction, eh?" suggests a third.
"And it's not the guy selling the land," concludes Lord Ronald himself.
For the second time today, the bar dissolves in a gale of laughter. As Billy the Bass strikes up another chorus of 'Take Me to the River', Michael, the 5001st laird, walks through the door and out of Lochaber forever. Noblesse oblige and all that.