National Trust deemed ‘imperious’ for selling Scottish island

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been branded “imperious” for selling a west coast island entrusted to them by its late owner who once lived in a cave.

The Isle of Insh, one of the Slate Islands off the Argyll coast, was bequeathed to the trust by the island’s former owner, David Brearley, when he died in 2016.

Brearley reportedly live in a cave on the island for around 30 years.

NTS auctioned Insh with a guide price of £125,000 in 2019. A pending title deed application for Insh shows it was eventually sold for £353,000.

But local politicians, including Michael Russell MSP, slammed the trust’s decision, as it was apparently known locally that Brearley wanted Insh to stay natural. Russell argued that NTS should have consulted local people and allowed for the option of a community buyout.

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This story is part of our ongoing investigation into land ownership in Scotland.

In reply, NTS said that Brearley’s will was not specific about the island, and that the costs of looking after it were a factor in its decision to sell.

According to local knowledge, Brearley wanted the island to remain in a natural state. Russell, The Oban Times and a local Argyll resident, all said the former owner wanted Insh to “stay untouched as nature intended”.

Russell, the MSP for Argyll and Bute said: “I certainly don’t think private sale was the only answer.”

He argued that “given the wishes expressed by the previous owner, according to reports, it would have been right for the NTS to consult with local opinion and other national heritage and environment bodies before deciding to put it on the market.”

Russell added: “NTS has always been a bit imperious in its approach and it is unfortunate to see that tendency coming to the fore again.”

Scottish Greens Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie called it “disappointing that yet another part of the Highlands and Islands, which once housed two crofting families, will find itself in private ownership and in questionable use”.

He said: “The true value of land is not what a wealthy individual or property speculator will pay for it, it’s in its heritage and as part of the wider community. Too much of rural Scotland is given over to the would-be lairds who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”

However, NTS shared a copy of Brearley’s will with The Ferret – now a public document – which does not include any conditions for the island’s use. The trust said it had not received any other documentation specifying Brearley’s wishes.

NTS sold the 90-acre Isle of Insh via the Oban-based estate agent, Dawsons. “The unspoilt island is mainly covered in rough grass bordered by rocky outcrops and cliff faces with a natural cave and with the ruins of two croft cottages”, according to Dawsons’ property listing for Insh.

A pending title deed application obtained by The Ferret shows the island was bought for £353,000 by West Coast Heritage Limited. The company, which was incorporated in December 2019, focuses on “holiday centres and villages” and has a sole director, David Mackman.

On his LinkedIn page, Mackman was also listed as the founder of Carbon Zero Organic Seaweed. Carbon Zero’s website says it is a sustainable seaweed producer based on the Isle of Insh.

“The general plan for the island was to harvest seaweed, and make the island generally accessible in terms of rough pathways and [provide a] safe facility for boats to dock”, said a spokesperson for Mackman. “However, these plans have been shelved for the time being.”

The spokesperson added: “Regarding the public access, the island is extremely difficult to land on and therefore, we wouldn’t encourage members of the public to attempt such.”

According to the Mail Online, the sale of the island did not come with any approved planning permission. The Mail and other publications claimed that Brearley, the former owner, lived in a cave on the island between 1973 and 2003.

Insh is one of the Slate Islands, which, according to the Southern Hebrides website, are made up of Belnahua, Easdale, Fladda, Luing, Lunga, Seil, Shuna and Torsa.

Island sold by NTS after ‘careful assessment’

Paul Biggin / Insh Island / CC BY-SA 2.0

NTS told The Ferret: “A paper on the island and its heritage significance, as well as potential costs for care, were discussed and it was decided that it did not meet our criteria to take into care”. But it was “not possible to provide a copy of the paper”, a spokesperson for the trust said.

NTS added it had not yet received any proceeds from the sale, but promised the money would be used “for our charitable purposes of conserving and maintaining our properties and landscapes in order to ensure public access”.

It said that as the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 “gives public right of access (with exceptions) to most land in Scotland”, the public would still have access to the island.

“The Isle of Insh was gifted to the trust as part of a wider legacy which we are very grateful for”, said a spokesperson.

“There were no conditions attached and as such, following a careful assessment of its heritage value, the potential added value of trust ownership and the costs and benefits of that, we were content for the executors of the estate to dispose of the island.”

The spokesperson stressed that Insh had previously been in private ownership and “uninhabited for some years, so effectively that situation remains unchanged.”

They added: “The trust was approached by a private landowner with a premium offer, but our charity instead ensured that the property was openly and fairly marketed by the executors of the estate to allow everyone an opportunity to bid.”

NTS has reportedly faced financial difficulties in recent years. In August, NTS was given £3.8 million in support by the Scottish Government after losing nearly £30 million – half its expected income – due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

In May, the trust warned that its future was in doubt and would consider selling off non-heritage land and property, and making 429 staff redundant.

The trust had previously faced financial hardships and sold its former headquarters at Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square for £8.75 million in 2009.

Poll: Was the National Trust for Scotland right to sell off Insh to a private owner?

Isle of Insh pending title deed application

Header image © Copyright Alpin Stewart and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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