Landlord is blocking the return of families

The crofting landlord of Great Bernera, Cyran de la Lanne Mirrlees, is at the centre of another bitter dispute by refusing to respond to a respected local figure who is seeking to exercise the right to buy his croft.

By Brian Wilson
Thursday, 21st July 2022, 1:51 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st July 2022, 4:32 pm
Neil James MacAulay in front of the house the estate tried to block.
Neil James MacAulay in front of the house the estate tried to block.

Mr Mirrlees, a 26 year-old student in Frankfurt, is the grandson of Robin de la Lanne Mirrlees, the former owner, and is never known to have visited Bernera since becoming owner. However, along with father, Patrick, he has run a campaign of obstruction from Germany.

In the current situation, the Mirrlees family are accused of blocking the return to Bernera of local families who, among them, have enough children to achieve the re-opening of Bernera School which is currently mothballed because there are no pupils.

Neil James Macaulay, a retired fisherman now working with Caledonian MacBrayne, has been trying to buy the family croft in Kirkibost for the past three years. Mr Macaulay’s wife, Joan, died after a short illness last year.

Their three daughters want to return to Bernera with their families and Neil James intends to feu them plots on the 20 acre croft so that they can build houses – the only realistic way for local people to return to their native island in face of the current housing market.

Neil James first ran into hostility from Mirrlees when he sought planning permission to build a house for himself and Joan on the croft. His mother continues to live in the family croft house.

The estate objected to planning permission for the house – which is now nearing completion – but this was thrown out by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Around the same time, Neil James notified the estate via their representatives in Stornoway, Ken Macdonald and Co., of his intention to buy the croft. Despite repeated attempts over the past two years to get a response from Mirrlees, none has been forthcoming.

Neil James said: “He won’t reply to any of the letters. He has figured out that by not doing anything, nothing happens.”

He is now prepared to take the case to the Scottish Land Court which has the power to intervene in right-to-buy cases failing agreement with the landlord.

Though the 1993 Act is not specific on the matter, there is precedent for a landlord’s refusal to communicate being treated in the same way as if the estate actively challenges a tenant’s “right to buy”.

It is understood there is at least one other similar case on Bernera now being taken to the Land Court.

Neil James said there should be a change in the law to put a time limit on landlords’ delaying tactics. “If there is a right to buy then it should not be necessary to go to the Land Court to enforce that right because a guy in German refuses to respond.

"There should be a time limit at which point the application automatically goes through”.

One of the Macaulays’ daughters, Jacqueline who is a nurse, has moved back to Lewis in anticipation of returning to Kirkibost, but is currently living in rented accommodation in Tong. Two other daughters – Amanda and Caroline – are in Glasgow and also wish to return with their families.

Among them, they have five children of primary school age – enough to allow the school to re-open. There are others, says Neil, in the same situation.

“There could be more than enough children to re-open the school but we can’t do it because of this guy who knows nothing and cares nothing about Bernera," he said.

“People are moving here and they are all nice people but they are mostly elderly. That is why we need families who want to live here.

"The only way to do that is to get sites feued so they can get mortgages and build for themselves. That is what the crofting system is supposed to do – allow it to be handed down from one generation to the next”.

He said that he had managed to speak to Mairi Gougeon, the rural affairs minister, who had told him to “just get on to the Crofting Commission, but it’s nothing to do with the Crofting Commission”.

The Mirrlees family also continue to block efforts by the community to buy the island which have been going on for the past decade. The community have pleaded with the Scottish Government for help, but have been told to use existing legislation.

It was the subject of a recent parliamentary debate at Holyrood but Neil James described it as “window-dressing” as it failed to address the basic issue on Bernera, which is the power of the landlord to block or delay development including normal crofting transactions.

This week, the Gazette e-mailed Cyran de la Lanne Mirrlees in Frankfurt to ask if by not responding it is is his intention to obstruct the right-to-buy application and if “in the light of the circumstances, are you prepared to respond to Mr Macaulay's attempt to exercise his legal right to buy?”.

A reply had not been received at time of going to press.

Earlier this year the Gazette highlighted another case of obstruction by the Mirrlees family when they prevented the sale of a house owned by Reverend Iain Murdo MacDonald being completed, to the great distress of the buyer.

It is understood that following the publicity this case has now been resolved without the payment demanded by the estate for “access” being paid.

There are known to be numerous other crofting and housing related transactions on Bernera being held up for prolonged periods due to the estate’s intransigence and refusal to respond to communications.