Landowner loses cancer battle after one last trip to beloved estate

SCOTLAND'S richest foreign landowner, the Dutch businessman Paul van Vlissingen, has died after a battle with cancer.

Mr van Vlissingen, 65, who owned the 81,000-acre Letterewe Estate in Wester Ross, was an outspoken activist on the environment and management of wild-land use.

He was a well-respected landowner and credited with pioneering access agreements in Scotland with the Letterewe Accord in 1993, which established common ground and mutual interest between ramblers, mountaineers and landowners.

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He also took a strong interest in the development of Gaelic. Only last week, it was announced that he and his partner, Professor Caroline Tisdall, a writer and film-maker, had donated a further 100,000 to Sabhal Mr Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye.

The money, provided over three years, is in the form of the Letterewe scholarships and takes Mr van Vlissingen's total contribution to the college in recent years to 250,000.

The businessman, who died on Monday, visited Letterewe at least once a month and in June made a final trip to the estate, knowing he had only a short time left to live.

It is understood arrangements will be made to scatter some of his ashes at Letterewe.

Mr van Vlissingen, who was reputedly worth 1.1 billion, also owned nature reserves in England and the Netherlands, and founded the Africa Parks Foundation (APF) developing parks in the likes of Malawi, Zambia and Ethiopia.

The APF project started after a conversation with Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, and it is estimated Mr van Vlissingen spent more than 60 million of his fortune on the work.

After an earlier health scare 25 years ago, he started the Van Vlissingen Cancer Fund, which is one of the biggest of its type in the Netherlands.

Mr van Vlissingen was the youngest of three brothers, heirs to a family fortune amassed since the 17th century. He became president and non executive chairman of SHV Holland, which includes interests in oil, retailing, transport and financial services. It is best known for its Makro superstores, the European branches of which it sold in 1997, while retaining about 200 in Asia and South America.

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SHV, which is privately held by his family, employs more than 30,000 people and operates in over 25 countries.

Mr van Vlissingen's association with Letterewe started in 1978 and it is thought that he spent more than 2.5 million in managing the estate.

In 2002, he said wolves and lynx should be reintroduced to the Highlands as a tourist attraction and as part of the effort to manage Scotland's deer herd.

Dave Morris, director of the Ramblers Association Scotland, paid tribute to Mr van Vlissingen and said the discussions which led to the Letterewe Accord were a key building block for today's land reform legislation.

"He also sent a strong message to all other landowning interests in Scotland that they had to come out of their ancient ways and learn to have a positive dialogue with other interests, particularly the outdoor recreation groups," Mr Morris said. "His contribution is permanently embedded now in the whole way we look at land in Scotland."

In one of his last interviews, Mr van Vlissingen told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in January that he was not afraid to die. He said: "It's a philosophical notion to me - more mysterious than frightening."

He also revealed that, when he discovered his cancer was untreatable, he decided to stop going to hospital. "Chemotherapy would merely prolong my life by a couple of months," he said. "And what sort of life would that be?"

He also used the interview to make a plea to protect the environment. "Our planet is in a much sorrier state than it was when I was a child," he said. "The destruction cannot go on at this pace. My generation should be ashamed of the condition in which we are passing on our planet to future generations."

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Piet Klaver, the chairman of APF, said Mr van Vlissingen had lived a life full of creativity, providing leadership in the international business world and making a tireless commitment to the protection and conservation of nature and wildlife around the globe.

He added: "Paul was a philosopher and not afraid of death. For him, it was inextricably linked to nature. We should be sad at his going, but celebrate his extraordinary life and his friendship, as he would want us to."