A wealthy Highland landowner trying to block access to a path described as “historic and important” owns the land via an offshore tax haven firm, The Ferret can reveal.
One of Donald Houston’s firms is using a court action to try and remove public access rights from part of his estate in Ardnamurchan – a legal bid being fought by Highland Council and Ramblers Scotland.
The land encompassing the path is owned by Luna Limited, a company registered in the tax haven of the Bahamas.
Ardnamurchan Estate last year declined to comment on its relationship with the firm. But documents show that Houston owns Luna Limited via another of his companies.
His companies have received at least £4m in public subsidies.
There is no suggestion that Luna Limited has acted illegally, or has been used to avoid paying tax. However, the Tax Justice Network said Houston had “no legitimate business reason” for owning the land through a tax haven-based firm.
The estate argued that there was “no secrecy” surrounding Luna Limited’s ownership, which it said had been set up by a previous owner, does not trade and would not be liable for taxes regardless of where it is registered.
The state also refuted that the path was “historic or important” and said a wood yard at the start of the trail had existed for “more than 40 years” and was “exempt from the rights of Responsible Access”.
“All trading associated with its landholdings in the UK are done through a UK registered company whose tax affairs are, through statutory accounts, in the public domain and available from Companies House,” it stressed.
The Scottish Greens accused Houston of trying to restrict public access to land owned via a tax haven. Land reform campaigner Andy Wightman argued that no entities registered in “secrecy jurisdictions” should be allowed to own Scottish land and property.
Estate access dispute
In 2021, we reported that local residents, including Highland Council’s former leader, Michael Foxley, accused the estate of locking gates throughout a walking route from Glenborrodale to Acharacle.
They said the route featured on local maps, Google Maps and walking guides. The estate, which did not respond to previous requests to comment, disputed that the path was historic or well used by locals.
An estate spokesman told The Ferret that Foxley “is an Englishman who cannot know the history of the area because he doesn’t come from this area”.
The path includes “a working farm” that sometimes requires gates to be locked to contain animals, which is “specifically allowed for in the guidance and the [land reform] act itself,” the spokesman said.
“In the overwhelming majority of cases, where gates are locked for legitimate reasons, additional pedestrian gates have been installed immediately adjacent to them.”
Houston has tried to deter walkers from passing through his biomass wood chip yard where the route begins. He previously reported a local retired couple to the police for passing through. Police Scotland referred the case to the Procurator Fiscal, which declined to pursue the charges.
The estate claimed the yard “has been in existence for more than 40 years and was exempt from the rights of Responsible Access, under the relevant Section of the Land Reform Scotland Act, since the enactment of that legislation.”
They added: “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has formally notified the company that allowing the public unrestricted access would put the company and its directors in contravention of the Health and Safety at Work Act.”
An HSE spokesperson said: “HSE is aware of the ongoing issues regarding access to the woodyard on the Ardnamurchan Estate and is currently working with the estate to ensure the risk to the public is appropriately managed whilst the yard is in operation.”
A Highland Council spokesperson said: “As this matter is still subject of active legal proceedings it would not be appropriate to make comment at this time.”
The 2,179 acre Glenborrodale Deer Forest, which encompasses the wood yard and much of the disputed walking route, was bought by Luna Limited for £823,685 in 2000, according to a Registers of Scotland title deed.
The Bahamas company registry shows that Luna Limited was incorporated in 1992, but reveals little else.
However, documents from a company ultimately owned by Houston, show that Luna Limited is one of its subsidiaries. Gorteneorn, an Ardnamurchan-based forestry and real estate firm, owed Luna Limited £145,176, accounts filed on 31 December 2021 state.
Title deeds also state that Luna Limited owns two other properties, Glenbeg and Glenbeg Cottage, both in Ardnamurchan. The Scottish Assessors Association currently lists Houston’s estate as Glenbeg Cottage’s occupier.
Between 2017 and 2021, Houston’s estate claimed £81,850 in Covid-19 support grants and £2.23m in EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments, which are designed to help farmers make a reasonable living.
“Ardnamurchan Estates are a working farm employing a substantial proportion of the working population in this area,” said a spokesman. “We are a Scottish company paying UK and Scottish taxes. Why would we not seek support grants?”
Houston is the ultimate controlling party in Adelphi Distillery, according to its latest accounts. It was built with the help of a £1.7m Scottish Government grant. An estate spokesman said Houston was a minority shareholder.
In a 2012 letter to Highland Council about the distillery’s planning application, Houston said he was Luna Limited’s attorney.
“I am writing as the attorney for the owner of Glenbay Cottage and Glenbay House which are situated to the east of the above application site and which are used as holiday lettings,” he said. “The properties are owned by Luna Limited and managed by Ardnamurchan Estates.
“Although I am a director of Adelphi Distillery which is the applicant for the above planning application, the application site is in a different ownership. This is to confirm that Luna Ltd. is aware of the application.”
An estate spokesman said Luna Limited “has never sought, asked for, applied or obtained any public money.”
In November 2021, Ramblers Scotland was granted permission to join Highland Council in opposing a bid by Houston’s UK-registered logging firm, Woodland Renewables, to use section 28 of the land reform act to remove access rights through his woodyard.
The estate said that the firm “in effect, merely leases the ground from Luna Ltd.”
The Scottish Greens Highlands and Islands MSP, Ariane Burgess, said: “Using wealth to bully ordinary citizens enjoying their rights peacefully whilst benefiting from government funding is utter hypocrisy and I would reiterate my support for the Highland Council and Ramblers Scotland taking legal action to uphold this right.”
Tax havens and transparency
The Tax Justice Network’s CEO, Alex Cobham, said that “opaque ownership structures” like Luna Limited ”should be more tightly regulated or in some cases barred entirely.”
He added: “There is no legitimate business reason for secret ownership” and “only risk to the public good.”
An estate spokesman said: “The company advocates a regime of total transparency with regard to ultimate beneficial ownership and taxation matters.”
Luna Limited “is a historical throwback to two previous owners. It does not trade. There is and always has been total transparency in Mr Houston’s tax affairs and all UK taxes are paid.”
He added: “There are a substantial number of factual inaccuracies in the story. I suggest you check and recheck your sources.”
But land reform campaigner Andy Wightman warned the new laws will not apply to all Scotland-based entities, including Luna Limited.
Wightman previously highlighted that Glenborrodale Deer Forest was amongst the Scottish land and property where beneficial owners will not be required to register, as it is owned offshore and was acquired before December 2014.
Such firms will have to disclose details under the Scottish Register of Controlled Interests in Land by April 2023, Wightman told The Ferret.
He called the new economic crime bill “a welcome step forward”, but warned: “real reform will happen when no entities registered in secrecy jurisdictions are allowed to own land and property in Scotland in the first place.”
Agreeing with Wightman, the estate said: ”The ultimate beneficial ownership of significant land holdings should be transparent irrespective of the chain of ownership through bodies corporate, whether UK or overseas registered, or personally held through nominees”.