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John MacLeod of MacLeod

29th chief of MacLeod

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 barrenness."

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 nation.

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 drink Martinis."

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, hands.

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 actor.

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 Vancouver MacLeods.

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 chief.

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 57 seconds).

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 Dunvegan.

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.

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