Obituary: Kenneth Moncreiff Stewart, last Laird of Coll, farmer

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BORN: 13 November, 1924, in London. Died: 18 August, 2012, in Selkirk, aged 87

FOR a little boy from London, the island of Coll, with its raw natural beauty, provided an idyllic playground which was to fire the nine-year-old’s later passion for farming.

As a youngster, the future 7th laird liked nothing better than helping out on farms, where everything was horsedrawn, learning the old agricultural methods and mixing with the mostly Gaelic-speaking men who worked the land.

Fast forward a decade and much of the Hebridean isle had become his, inherited after the deaths, within six months of each other, of his father and grandfather. But the childhood freedom of Coll gave way to a heavy burden: Coll Estate, comprising dozens of farms, crofts, cottages and a couple of castles, came with a sobering legacy of bankruptcy, double death duties and was entailed to his descendants.

Faced with such a challenging task, there was nothing the young laird could do but get on with it. Over the next 50 rollercoaster years, he transformed the fortunes of the estate, reviving its ancient Highland cattle fold, championing rare breeds and building up what was reputed to Scotland’s largest collection of the beasts, as well as helping to found the Luing Cattle Society. He was also a director of an auction mart and a supporter of the island community and neighbouring Tiree as a parish councillor.

It was a life of hard and relentless work: up at 6am to hand-milk cows and operating an agricultural business without the benefit of electricity until 1979.

And as he told author Mairi Hedderwick – creator of the Katie Morag children’s books and a resident of Coll who was once his family’s au pair: “I’d inherited the Laird thing. But I was just a farmer, really.”

The only child of Dorothy Gilroy and Lieutenant-Colonel Henry William Moncreiff Paul, who later replaced Paul with the surname Stewart, he was born in London. Christened Charles, though he was always known as Kenneth, he was a somewhat solitary child who wore a calliper for years to correct his right foot, which turned backwards.

Left with a nanny when his father became a military attaché in Bangkok in the 1930s, he spent holidays on Coll where his grandfather, a fearsome brigadier general, lived at the New Castle for most of the year.

The Coll Estate had been bought by the family in 1856 but the first time young Kenneth visited it was in 1933. He and his mother then moved permanently to live at the island’s Acha Schoolhouse while his father worked at the War Office.

Educated at various schools including Elmhurst, St Mary’s, Colchester and Durnford Prep, Dorset, he went on to Wellington School before going up to Cambridge to study agriculture during the Second World War.

He always returned home during the holidays and it was while cutting corn there, in 1942, that he learned he had become the new laird. He was 18.

His grandfather had died six months earlier and his father, who had been fighting in the Far East, was unaware of his inheritance. He had been captured in Hong Kong and died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

The new laird then discovered the estate’s dire financial situation but buckled down to the job. He knew he had to forget everything he had learned at Cambridge as those farming methods were irrelevant to Coll’s landscape. Having acquired his first cow, called Brownie, at the age of 13 – it cost his mother £16 – and learned to sow corn by hand, he threw himself into the challenge. But Coll’s was a dwindling community and post-war agriculture was tough. When he had first arrived the population was 300, by 1950 it was down to 129 as workers moved away

And he had no peers as other island lairds were mostly “summer lairds”, only materialising from London during the holidays. However by 1955 he had someone to share the burden – a young woman, Janet Wilson, who had been a regular summer visitor during his childhood.

They married in London but made their home on Coll Estate where they went on to have three daughters, Fiona, Fenella and Nicola. Mairi Hedderwick first met the couple when she became their au pair in 1959 and last year (2011) recorded his life in The Last Laird of Coll.

During the 1950s and with the estate still running at a loss, a brave decision was made, at great expense, to break the entail dictating it must be passed from father to son or male cousin. This paved the way for the selling off of Stewart land and sparked sales of farms, houses, cottages and ruins.

Down the years the laird tried various other money-making schemes but suffered a number of farming disasters: arable experiments failed, as did the production of flower bulbs. However he became a successful cattle farmer after his first purchase of a pedigree bull sparked an obsession with bloodlines.

When 14,000 acres were sold in 1965 he was able to focus on sheep, cows and breeding programmes and, in the 1970s, was an early member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, having 55 of the 72 breeds then registered. He judged sheep at the Highland Show and was the first chairman of the Hebridean Sheep Society.

He was also a director of Corson’s Mart in Oban for 20 years, until 1988. But the following year he was debilitated by a stroke, losing the use of his left arm and leg. Reluctantly, in 1991, the decision was made to sell the remainder of the estate and retire to the Borders where he continued to raise rare sheep near Selkirk. He returned only twice to Coll but shared a lifetime’s reminiscences with Hedderwick, confiding: “The older people on Coll told me many times about the Brahan Seer’s prediction that the last Laird of Coll would be called Coinneach – Kenneth… Apparently he had said the last Laird would be lame and have no male children. Well, that’s true.”

He is survived by wife Janet, three daughters and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on Coll this month.

ALISON SHAW