The landlord who made the case for land reform in Scotland – Brian Wilson

Keith Schellenberg, who once owned Eigg, helped make people see the need for land reform through his disastrous stewardship of the island, writes Brian Wilson.

Residents of Eigg celebrate the tenth anniversary of its community buyout (Picture: Jane Barlow)
Residents of Eigg celebrate the tenth anniversary of its community buyout (Picture: Jane Barlow)

Keith Schellenberg’s death at the age of 91 revived a few memories. We first met in 1975 when he had just bought the island of Eigg.

Its history of ownership was so capricious that the Highlands and Islands Development Board was preparing to buy Eigg. Schellenberg told me he had intervened to prevent it falling into public ownership – an odd motivation for a former Liberal candidate.

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His 20-year stewardship was predictably disastrous and was laid bare through an unsuccessful libel action against the Guardian newspaper.

Keith Schellenberg with his dog Horace outside his home on Eigg in July 1992. (Picture: Denis Straughan)

By then, in a final act of spite, he had sold Eigg to an equally unsuitable odd-ball, an artist called Maruma.

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All this led to Eigg acquiring symbolic significance far out of proportion to its size. When moves began for a community buy-out, there was widespread support to draw on and the money was raised, mainly from one anonymous source.

The handover took place in June 1997, days after the election. I had been invited as a supporter but turned up as a minister, able to announce a new land unit at Highland and Islands Enterprise, backed with funds to facilitate future buy-outs.

The marquee for this great event was on ground Schellenberg had used as a tennis court, prompting me to declare the outcome as “game, set and match to the population of Eigg”.

There followed a steady flow of community buy-outs, mainly in the Western Isles, before land reform was returned to the back-burner of Scottish politics while we drone endlessly on about the constitution instead.

However, the best epitaph for Keith Schellenberg is that, for a time, he personified the case for Scottish land reform, even if it was the diametric opposite of his intentions.