Mystery over vineyard owned by Bond author’s friend

IT IS a plot twist worthy of the James Bond novels his life inspired. Agents acting for the estate of a Scottish aristocrat who died last year are embroiled in a legal wrangle after discovering a vineyard he owned in Sicily may have fallen in to the hands of organised criminals.

Count Robin de la Lanne Mirrlees left a £1.3 million legacy following his death on Lewis, aged 87, last June, 
including land in Scotland and Italy.

Relatives of the landowner, who was friends with the 007 author Ian Fleming and helped him conduct research for the 1963 novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, have been left “shocked” to find the ownership of a sprawling farm, near Palermo, has been passed to a third party without their knowledge.

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Now the aristocrat’s son Patrick, a lawyer, is pursuing the case in the hope that the family can regain control of the property.

A close friend of the family said: “How the title came to be transferred to another person is a bit of a mystery and it has come as a shock.

“The farm itself was all but destroyed in an earthquake, but it has substantial land and an active, working vineyard. The executor to the will is the count’s son and he is currently looking in to the situation. It is all a bit baffling.

“A report the family have seen said it would be difficult to get the property back because of the links to the Mafia in the area. There is a suspicion they are involved somewhere down the line in all of this. As a result, a lawyer on mainland Italy has been engaged.”

Mirrlees, who passed away in a Stornoway nursing home, was well known for talking avidly of his love for the farm. The property at La Vanaria was registered in Palermo and was originally bought by a trust run by Mirrlees and later transferred into his own name.

A lawyer acting for the count’s family confirmed the Sicilian property had been found to be in the name of a third party on the Mediterranean island.

He explained: “We have no idea how this has happened but the title deeds to a farm Count Robin de la Lanne Mirrlees owned in Sicily have been changed without our knowledge.”

The suave aristocrat is credited with playing a large role in the development of one of Fleming’s James Bond stories. The author was a friend of Mirrlees and he is believed to have been the main inspiration for a cover persona for the secret agent in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In the story – brought to the screen in 1969 when George Lazenby debuted as the spy – Bond’s cover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray was based on the count’s then position as heraldic researcher at the College of Arms in London.

His estate includes Inchdrewer Castle in Banff, which he bought in 1971, the 7,000-acre island of Great Bernera and its neighbouring Little Bernera in the Outer Hebrides.

As well as the farm in Sicily, the Oxford-educated socialite, who served in the Royal Artillery in India during the Second World War, also left behind a £600,000 villa in Le Touquet, France, and an apartment in Paris.

But the count’s wealth was hit hard during an insurance market crash in the early 1990s, forcing him to give up other properties, including his mansion in Holland Park in London.

His estate has been divided among his son, his grandson Cyran and two granddaughters, Marie Charlotte and Bereniece. Legal papers put the count’ wealth at £1,301,478.

Inchdrewer Castle, together with its barony title, is the first part of the estate being sold. The asking price is expected to be £300,000, as the building is in a fairly dilapidated state and will probably require around £700,000 of improvements to turn it into a modern home. Built by the Ogilvies of Dunlugas in 1550, it stands on a hillside with views over Banff bay and the surrounding countryside but has been uninhabited for most of the last century.

Mirrlees bought it and set about restoring its exterior after decades of neglect. But though its structure was made weatherproof, the interior of the castle was never touched and the condition of its many rooms remain unknown.

Despite his wealth, Mirrlees shunned high society preferring to live out his final years on the remote Great Bernera, which he had owned since the 1960s. In 1975, he was recognised by the Lord Lyon King of Arms as Baron of Inchdrewer and Laird of Bernera