The news that a millionaire absentee landlord is to close the island of Sanda to the public shows how little has changed in attitudes to land – and islands in particular – in the last 50 years.
Swiss property developer Michi Meier and partner Berni Civeleker bought the island, which is off the Mull of Kintyre, for £2.5million three years ago and turned the hotel into a restaurant. But the island’s water supply failed environmental tests and the restaurant has been closed. The island website now announces “we are closed for the public” and that apparently applies to the pier, making it difficult to land.
I think it is doubtful, following ‘right to roam legislation’ whether it is legally possible to close an island (Andy Wightman would be able to tell us), but it is certainly not enforceable since the owners only plan to be there from March to October.
Rum, Canna’s nearest neighbour, was a closed island until the Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) bought it from Lady Monica Bullough in 1957. That didn’t stop people going there.
In 1948 John Lorne Campbell was contacted by John Raven, a Cambridge classics don who was also a keen and knowledgeable botanist. Raven was investigating a suspicious series of remarkable findings of rare plants on Rum by John Heslop Harrison, a professor at Newcastle University. The problem was how to get to Rum with his two companions, since the island was closed to uninvited visitors.
John Campbell had a solution. He wrote to Raven: ‘If you wish to enter by the back door, this has been done, by campers who landed on the isle of Canna and then hired the boat of Mr Allan MacIsaac, crofter, to ferry them to Rum, where they remained unbeknown for several days and were ferried back again, getting the mailboat the next morning.’
Raven duly did this, staying on Rum undetected for long enough to unmask the fraud.
Lady Monica was famously imperious. Margaret Fay Shaw used to tell a story of the piano tuner who came to the Small Isles once a year to tune the three Steinways and one Bechstein the four islands boasted. When he landed on Rum and knocked on the front door of Kinloch Castle he was ordered by Lady Monica to present himself at the servant quarters round the back.
“Do you keep the piano in the servants quarters?”
“Of course not, it is in the front of the house.”
“Well when it is in the servants’ quarters I’ll enter by the back door. Until then, I’ll come in by the front.”