Britain’s biggest landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch, has been accused of a “land grab” after he sold off a bowling green and clubhouse that the local community thought belonged to them.

Angry villagers at Wanlockhead in southwest Scotland say that their assets have been stripped by an “absentee landowner”. The bowling green site was sold without consulting local people, they claim.

Buccleuch estate, however, insists that the green was its to sell after a lease to the local bowling club expired. The site will still benefit the community, it says.

Wanlockhead, 1,500 feet above sea level at the summit of a pass through the Lowther Hills in Dumfries and Galloway, is the highest village in Scotland. An old mining community, it sits amidst Buccleuch’s 90,000-acre Queensberry Estate.

Villagers were shocked to learn from a news release on 15 March that Buccleuch had sold the bowling green and clubhouse to the Wanlockhead mining museum trust. The trust, whose patron is the Duke of Buccleuch, paid just £1 for the property.

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The sale followed a dispute over keys for the clubhouse, which had been built by villagers in 1990 but ceased being used in 2011. Villagers have long regarded the property as common land.

The Wanlockhead village council called an emergency meeting last Monday, when the sale was furiously denounced. “Buccleuch is stripping Wanlockhead of another asset,” said Alanna Rogerson, a business owner and village council member.

“He is stripping us of our options and choices. Now, just like during the land grabs of old, we have had it taken away by Buccleuch, with very little warning, with very little consideration.”

Harry Pickburn, a local resident and historian, pointed out that hundreds of plots in the village had passed through generations of mining families without paperwork. “It seems that Buccleuch is now rushing to register ownership of that land around Wanlockhead without having told or checked first with the village,” he said.

“The village should have been consulted, plot by plot, and where there is any dispute or lack of clarity over ownership, the presumption should be that the land stays under village ownership and is not taken away by an absentee landowner.”

The sale of the bowling green is particularly sensitive because Wanlockhead has set up a community trust to buy land from Buccleuch under land reform legislation. The trust says it was not consulted about the sale.

The trust’s chair, Lincoln Richford, said: “The Wanlockhead Community Trust is disappointed that we were not contacted by Queensberry Estate as we are in the middle of discussions with them on land which includes this area.”

Villagers were backed by the Green MSP and land reform campaigner, Andy Wightman, who pointed out that land grabs were due to be investigated by the forthcoming Scottish Land Commission. “Across Scotland there are many areas of land that have historically been common land and which have no title,” he said.

“All too often, this land is the subject of land-grabbing by what are called ‘a non domino’ dispositions – effectively grabbing land, saying this is mine and recording a title to it.”

According to Buccleuch estate, however, a 21-year lease on the bowling green site ended in 2010, and the land and clubhouse reverted to the estate. “There was provision for the village council to have the lease assigned to it but that was not requested,” said a Buccleuch spokesman.

“The clubhouse has been in significant disrepair for a long time. We were therefore very pleased that the Wanlockhead Museum Trust engaged with the estate and has now purchased the site and the clubhouse for £1.”

The museum trust was planning to restore the clubhouse for use by visiting schoolchildren. “We are delighted that the bowling club site remains very much in the community’s hands and will be put to community use,” Buccleuch’s spokesman added.

“It is sad that some people may not feel the same way but it would have been quite wrong for us to deny a worthy cause the opportunity to take forward the use of the site and put it to good community use. Buccleuch has been promoting and facilitating this site for community use since 1932 and we have a long-standing commitment to engaging with the local community.”

The museum trust has suggested that it needed space to store its artefacts, and to enable researchers to study archive material. It was looking forward to working with the village council, it said when the sale was announced.

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Photo thanks to Wanlockhead villagers.

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 26 March 2017.