Born: 10 August,
1935, at Esslemont, Ellon, Aberdeenshire.
Died: 12 February, 2007, in London, aged 71.
John Macleod of
Macleod, the 29th chief of Clan MacLeod, who has died aged 71, found
himself beset by controversy when, in 2000, he announced that he
planned to sell the Black Cuillin mountains, part of his estate on
the Isle of Skye.
MacLeod needed to raise money to restore Dunvegan Castle, his
800-year-old family seat situated on an outcrop of black basalt. The
Cuillins, which cover some 35 square miles, are home to golden
eagles, white-tailed sea eagles, red deer and a number of rare
plants. Sir Walter Scott, in The Lord of the Isles, was moved to
write of them: "A scene so rude, so wild as this/Yet so sublime in
MacLeod was asking at least £10 million, which, after capital gains
tax, would leave him with the £6 million necessary to replace the
leaking copper roof that had been fitted 40 years earlier. He also
had plans to build an 80-bedroom hotel on the estate.
advertisementThere was widespread consternation, even though the
Crown Commissioners confirmed that, under a charter of 1611, the
MacLeods had "good title" to the mountains. The West Highland Press
accused him of "naked avarice". When he said that he would not
proceed with a sale if the government would agree to fund the
necessary repairs to his castle, he was accused of blackmailing the
MacLeod said in a statement: "The thought of the Cuillins on the
market causes me intense inner grief, and I deeply sympathise with
those members of the public who share that feeling." In more
exasperated vein, he remarked: "[People] are whingeing and whining
as if I'm going to pocket 10 million quid and run off to Bermuda to
The fact was that the castle - said to be Britain's oldest
continuously inhabited stronghold - was in mortal danger. The roof
was in such bad condition that buckets and basins lined the stone
corridors; guests, MacLeod insisted, sometimes had to put up
umbrellas in their bedrooms.
Organisations such as Historic Scotland had offered money, but
nothing like enough. After MacLeod declared his intention to sell,
the National Trust for Scotland investigated buying the Cuillins for
the nation, but agreement could not be reached. A deal with an
American tycoon fell through (he had reportedly offered £6 million),
and no further buyer could be found.
MacLeod took the Cuillins off the market in 2003, when there was a
suggestion that public bodies and conservation agencies would put up
£10 million for the repairs. MacLeod, meanwhile, would hand over
ownership of the castle to a trust, with his family continuing to
live in part of it; the mountains would be in public, or charitable,
This plan too came to nothing. Then, in January 2006, a consortium
put forward a £30 million project - to be partly funded by the
National Lottery - which would restore the castle and create a £4
million visitor centre; the Cuillins would be run as a kind of
"wilderness park"; and MacLeod would give up ownership of both the
castle and the mountains, though retaining a right of residence. The
bid for lottery funding was, however, turned down last April.
John MacLeod was born John Wolrige-Gordon on August 10 1935, the
second son of Captain Robert Wolrige-Gordon, MC. His (40 minutes
younger) twin brother, Patrick, was to become a Tory MP. The boys'
mother was the daughter of Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, the 28th
clan chief, who named John as her heir in 1951, when he changed his
name to MacLeod of MacLeod. The clan traces its origins to the 13th
century, when Leod, the son of a Norse king, gained possession of
much of Skye.
After Eton, John went to McGill University, Montreal, and the London
Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he was a contemporary of
Janet Suzman and Donald Sutherland; he then began a career as an
Dunvegan and its surrounding 30,000-acre estate were, however, to
become his life. To mark his 21st birthday there was a clan
gathering at Dunvegan attended by MacLeods from all over the world;
the Queen and Prince Philip also made an appearance. John and his
twin brother received gold watches from the United States MacLeods;
opal cufflinks from the Australian MacLeods; silver spoons from the
John took over at the castle when he was 30, Dame Flora continuing
to live as his tenant in the south wing for another 12 years; on her
death, in 1976 at the age of 98, he succeeded as the 29th clan
Money had long been a problem. According to historians, the decline
began with the 22nd chief, known as the Red Man, who was suspected
of murdering his wife and who had generated animosity by failing to
support the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The 25th chief was forced to
let out the castle and work in London as a clerk.
Dame Flora had had to sell off large tracts of the estate, and
MacLeod decided to open Dunvegan to the public, turning it into one
of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions. The castle boasts
many items of interest, including portraits by Raeburn and Zoffany,
Flora Macdonald's stays and Rory Mor's drinking horn, from which
each new MacLeod chieftain must quaff a litre of claret to prove his
manhood (when his turn came, John MacLeod managed it in one minute
In 1996, in an attempt to raise money, MacLeod demanded that two
crofters running a salmon-farming business paid for access to the
sea, invoking a 17th-century feudal law to claim ownership of the
foreshore. He wanted £1,000 a year for crossing the beach and £54
for every ton of salmon landed.
MacLeod was a genial man who was genuinely distressed by the
controversy which had surrounded him for the past seven years. His
great love was music: he had a fine singing voice which can be heard
on a CD of Scottish folk songs called MacLeod of Dunvegan, and each
year he held a chamber music festival in the drawing room at
He had been suffering from leukaemia, and died on Monday.
John MacLeod married first, in 1961 (dissolved 1971), Drusilla Shaw.
He married secondly, in 1973 (dissolved 1992), Melita Kolin, a
Bulgarian concert pianist, with whom he had a son and a daughter;
their son, Hugh Magnus MacLeod, succeeds as 30th clan chief. He had
another son by a brief relationship before his second marriage, and
is survived by his children and by his third wife, Ulrika.