Paul van Vlissingen

Businessman, laird, conservationist and philanthropist

Born: 21 March, 1941, in Utrecht.

Died: 21 August, 2006, in Langbroek, the Netherlands, aged 65.

PAUL van Vlissingen was one of Scotland's wealthiest men, its biggest foreign landowner and arguably its most-progressive laird. He was a pioneer in allowing ramblers and mountaineers access to his land, an active conservationist both here and abroad, and a major financial and moral supporter of the survival and study of the Gaelic language and culture.

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Just last week, he had announced a further donation of 100,000 to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, adding to the 150,000 he had previously put up.

The Dutchman, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 65, was the Laird of Letterewe, an 81,000-acre estate above Poolewe in Wester Ross, which he bought from the Whitbread brewery family in 1977 and where he loved nothing better than to ride his pony for days on end, camping out in the wild, taking pictures and writing poetry. He had first fallen in love with Scotland as an infant, when his family fled the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Years later, when he spotted Letterewe, he went on a weeks-long pub crawl of the entire area around the estate, asking locals what they thought of the property and how they would like to see it run. Their encouragement led him to buy it without even seeing inside the perimeter.

Throughout his life, he became known for his respectful treatment of his staff and of local residents, often inviting them for dinner or to his frequent shooting weekends at Letterewe or his other beloved home, Conholt Park, near Andover on the border between Hampshire and Wiltshire.

The Dutchman was a keen hunter and fisherman, and was believed to be the first laird to insist on a voluntary policy of catch-and-return by those allowed to fish on the estate. Every salmon caught is supposed to be set free. The idea, aimed at stopping the decline in salmon stocks, was controversial at first but has since spread.

One of his latest proposals was to re-introduce wolves and lynx to his estate, which, he said, would help cull the growing red deer population but also serve as a tourist attraction. "Scotland is losing tourism business to the outside world," he said. "Scotland has to create more excitement than a monster in Loch Ness."

Despite his breakthrough agreement to allow ramblers and hillclimbers access to his estate, not everyone loved him. There were regular reports of brusque confrontations with gamekeepers, and anti-hunting campaigners were highly critical of his financial support for the Countryside Alliance.

Van Vlissingen was perhaps best-known in recent years for his African Parks Foundation, a conservation project covering ten parks in seven African nations which he started after a discussion with Nelson Mandela in 1998. The idea was to run wild national-parklands-like businesses, using tourism income to fund the protection of their wildlife and animals, as well as to help poverty-stricken local residents. To him, these parks were "the museums of Africa, as important and valuable for our national heritage as the Rijksmuseum or the National Gallery".

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The parks were widely welcomed by conservationists but criticised by some because they involved the forced removal of many local residents.

Paul van Vlissingen was born in Utrecht in 1941. He studied economics at the University of Groningen before going into the family business, joining the board in 1974, taking over as chief executive in 1984, and eventually taking over as chairman from his brother in 1998, helping expand it into one of the largest family businesses in Europe.

He inherited his fortune, estimated at around 1.1 billion, from the 200-year-old family business, SHV Holdings, begun as a River Rhine coal-shipping company in the early 19th century. It is now one of the world's biggest scrap-metal recycling companies, owns Calor Gas and much of the Makro cash-and-carry wholesale chain, is involved in oil and gas exploration, and had sales last year of over 10 billion.

He ran the company until he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, given only months to live. He then toured his properties and projects, including a quick helicopter trip to Letterewe in June this year, to bid farewell to his staff before returning to his castle, Lunenburg, at Langbroek in his homeland.

He declined chemotherapy, saying it could only add months to his life and that he preferred the philosophy of native Americans, that death should be welcomed, not postponed. He said a dying person should discuss the joys of his past life with friends and family, then die "in silence, in a place of their own choosing, without fear of what lies ahead".

Paul van Vlissingen is survived by his former partner of many years, the art critic, historian, conservationist and pro-hunting activist Caroline Tisdall, who is still involved in many of their projects, by his later partner, Suzanne Wolff, and by two children from an earlier marriage in Holland.