Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Islanders buy out Attenborough estate

There is an expectant smile on the face of Deirdre Forsyth, returning officer, as she prepares to announce the result on this, the Isle of Bute’s day of destiny. “The votes for, 2,557,” she booms proudly. “The votes against, 177. Five papers were spoilt.”

The cheers ring out across Rothesay’s art deco Pavilion. An old man punches the air. This joy unbounded tell its own story: the biggest community land buyout in Scottish history has just moved inexorably forward, and by a massive majority. The grin on the face of the Rev Ian Currie — here to ensure fair play at the count — is as broad as the icy channel separating Bute from the mainland.

“This is an historic moment”, says John McGhee, the metropolitan QC who has chaired the buyout campaign. “In five years’ time we will all feel better about this place. When I am in London, and people say where are you going, and I reply ‘Bute’, they will say, ‘I know where that is’.”

The islanders now have effective control of Rhubodach Forest, a 1,700-acre estate that sweeps down from the summit of Buttock Hill in the north, to Shalunt Farm, on Bute’s east coast. For more than 20 years this estate has belonged to Lord and Lady Attenborough of Richmond-upon-Thames, and it was their decision to sell that prompted the campaign.

If the next stage of the purchase process seems onerous — the islanders have to raise £1.4million by the end of May to meet the price — the generous support of the Scottish government means there is little doubt they will achieve their goal.

For campaigners such as Christine McArthur, 45, a native Brandane (as they call the Bute islanders), and the gaggle of B&B owners and business people who have mucked in, the buyout represents much more than possession of acre upon acre of Sitka spruce, or even ownership of a site of special scientific interest that lies at the northern fringes of the estate. It is about “people having pride in the island, and putting it on the tourist map again”.

On Bute, this approach makes a kind of sense. There is talk of attracting “carbon-neutral tourists” to the island to enjoy Rhubodach, along with artists and wildlife lovers. The surrounding countryside is low-lying, and conquerable by bike or on foot; it is served by Scotland’s best ferry service and Wemyss Bay, the mainland port, is a short rail journey from Glasgow.

Then there are the faded charms of Rothesay itself. It was the 19th-century playground for Glasgow’s “tobacco lords”, the merchants who prospered from the British Empire. Afterwards its relative proximity to the city made it a bucket-and-spade resort. Both legacies live on, in the peeling Victorian promenade and the mouldering Georgian side streets, set off by brash seafront cafés. The Rhubadoch purchase can catalyse further regeneration here, or so the logic goes.

And all the while the Attenboroughs look on from their London home, even sending a message of support to the campaigners. They bought into Bute in 1988 when investment in forestry was promoted by government, to help to restore national timber reserves. Terry Wogan, the rock band Genesis and Steve Davis, the snooker player, were among hundreds who acquired Scottish estates, taking advantage of healthy tax incentives. Many of these buyers proved to be absentee landlords, but not the film director. Lord Attenborough bought a local farmhouse and has been a frequent visitor to Bute for 20 years.

Mrs McArthur’s family have come to know the director, who has been ill recently. “He loves it here because no one ever bothers him,” she says. “He was walking along with my Mum once when a cycle race went by, hundreds of them, from the mainland. One braked — they all almost fell off — and said, ‘Are you Richard Attenborough?’ Straight-faced, my Mum said: ‘Everyone always says that to him.’ They all got on their bikes and sped off round the corner. Lord Attenborough laughed, ‘You are wicked, Eliza.’”

From the beachside cottage that Mrs McArthur shares with her husband, Colin, a fisherman, the view is spectacular, across the perfect calm of St Ninian’s bay towards the sinuous spur of the Mull of Kintyre. “It’s almost Herbridean, we feel so cut off,” she says. “Lots of people make films here. Bute seems so far away, even though we’re so close to the mainland.”

On the window ledge, a greetings card from Lord and Lady Attenborough looks forward to their next visit, and a taste of the local catch. Little wonder they keep coming back.

Photo by kind permission of James Glossop. Read the story, and comments, at timesonline, Bute

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