THE first steps have been taken in a deal which could see a clan chief gift the famous Cuillin mountains to the nation if his historic castle is repaired.
John MacLeod of MacLeod caused a furore three years ago when he put the Black Cuillin range in Skye on the market for 10 million to pay for repairs to Dunvegan Castle, his clan’s seat for more than 800 years.
Despite continuing claims that a wealthy American was to buy the mountains, a sale was never completed. Last year a deal was brokered by public agencies and conservation bodies which could see Mr MacLeod hand over ownership of the castle to a trust, which would pay about 10 million for the repairs.
In turn, Mr MacLeod, whose family would continue to live in part of the castle, would hand over the range to be managed by community and conservation interests.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will assess the cost of repairs. The agency has commissioned Edinburgh-based architects Simpson & Brown to undertake the work, following a competitive tender. Findings are expected by the end of June.
A HIE spokesman said: "A study is under way to establish the extent of repairs and refurbishment needed for Dunvegan Castle and to prepare fully costed options. The study will also look at options for upgrading the castle’s visitor centre.
"Establishing the costs of the repairs is the essential first step to achieve restoration of the castle. Once these costs are known, it is proposed that ownership of the castle would be transferred to a charitable trust which could then seek funding."
If the deal is eventually completed, it would put the entire Cuillin range in public or charitable hands. The John Muir Trust already owns parts of the Cuillin, while other neighbouring land belongs to the Scottish Executive’s agricultural department and to Forest Enterprise.
The gift of the central part of the range would create an area similar to a national park, although different from British-style parks - which remain in a variety of private ownership - and more like those in the United States and Canada, which belong to the nation.
When announced last year the plan was welcomed by a range of politicians, including Jack McConnell, the First Minister, and conservation bodies.
John Farquhar Munro, Skye’s MSP, said: "This is a sensible proposal and one that will be of benefit not only to the people of Skye but to the nation at large who have a keen interest in the ancestral history of the Highlands and Islands and I am sure will come in large numbers to see the renovated castle and support its maintenance in the future."
But councillor Drew Millar said it was ridiculous that a private concern had to rely on public money to survive. "Given the number of visitors that have gone through the castle gates and paid money I’m surprised the castle’s finances are in such a sorry state and it has to rely on hand-outs to exist," he said.
Mr MacLeod, 68, the 29th chief of Clan MacLeod, who is involved in talks with HIE, the Highland Council and the John Muir Trust over the deal, has said he would be delighted if the Cuillin and the castle can be transformed into national assets. He said although he would be giving up ownership of the castle, it was "a price worth paying" for having it saved.
The clan chief was met with widespread contempt when he put the range on the market in March 2000 - a decision that he said was the most difficult he had ever made. As well as repairing the castle, he planned to use the money to develop the gardens and create a quality 60-80-bedroom hotel and leisure complex for the 145,000 visitors to Dunvegan each year.
It was questioned whether the clan chief actually owned the mountains to sell.