by Iain Maciver
The people of Great Bernera are to launch a bold bid to halt an uninhabited island loved by the royal family as a secret picnic spot being handed to the National Trust for Scotland in an aristocrat’s will.
Although uninhabited, Little Bernera is just a few yards across a narrow channel from its bigger neighbour Great Bernera, where Count Robin Mirrlees lived for 40 years as laird until his death in June at the age of 87.
Now islanders have decided they want to own both islands themselves and will use Scottish right-to-buy legislation to block the transfer of 250-acre Little Bernera, which he once thought of leaving to Prince Harry to the trust and also to force the Count’s family in Germany to sell them Great Bernera.Although the bequest to the trust was only announced last week, the 230 islanders have been planning for many years what to do when the Count passed away. They will now move to take ownership of 7,000-acre Great Bernera, Little Bernera and Kearstay, a small island which in the 1980s when the Count owned it issued its own postage stamps.
Little Bernera, known for its unspoilt but hard-to-reach beach, also has a ruined historic chapel and a disused graveyard. It quickly became a firm favourite out-of-the-way picnic spot for the Royal Family when the royal yacht Britannia used to take them on an annual Western Isles cruise. Along with Sandray, off Vatersay, it was a place where the royals were left in peace to have fun on their own. They are thought to have picnicked there at least four times.
Count Robin once flew back from London to welcome them after being tipped off they were to spend an afternoon there but arrived to see Britannia disappearing round a headland.Count Mirrlees, a descendant of King Louis Philippe I of France and godson of the 11th Duke of Argyll, was a hugely popular laird of Great Bernera. He bought the 7,000-acre island in 1962 without even visiting. He had seen a newspaper advert about the sale.Mirrlees later told how he became involved in helping James Bond author Ian Fleming to write his 1963 novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the tale, Bond’s cover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray was based on the count as he was a researcher at the College of Arms.George Lazenby made his only appearance as Bond in the 1969 film as Sir Hilary who bore the title of Sable Basilisk Pursuivant, a reference to Robin Mirrlees’s own title of Rouge Dragon Pursuivant.
Over the years, the Count, a former playboy who dated the most beautiful women of the day, became somewhat eccentric. Although he hosted a visit by Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Great Bernera in the 1980s, he began to dislike Charles whom he famously called ‘an absolute disgrace’ in 2003, apparently for his treatment of Diana. However, he became impressed by the younger royals and thought Prince Harry, who he considered not stuffy, had a common touch. Perhaps like himself.
Six years ago, with his own estranged son Patrick refusing to answer his letters, he said in a local radio interview: “I am going to leave Little Bernera to Prince Harry. Harry will know it well from their many family picnics there. If he doesn’t want it, fine, but he can have it if he wants it. “The new Great Bernera Development Trust’s spokesman confirmed: “This is the first of many steps towards a buyout and we’re pleased to see it happen.”
All the islands the locals want including Kearstay are used for sheep grazing as well as having facilities for fishing and fish-farming. It was sold by the Count in the 1990s to an Australian concern and is now owned by a Fife optician.
Great Bernera hit the headlines in recent years as former chancellor Alistair Darling converted a blackhouse at the village of Breaclete and spends holidays there.
When he said he would leave Little Bernera to Prince Harry, the Count’s health was failing and may not have actually got round to sending the letter.
Miguel Head, press secretary for Prince Harry, has searched records at Clarence House in the last few days but has been unable to find an offer of a bequest from Count Robin. He said: “None of us have any recollection of this offer having been made. There is no record of it that we could find.”
Bernera resident Norman A Macdonald, a budding windfarm developer, battled Historic Scotland and other bodies to get consent for his plans and is firmly opposed to NTS being in control having studied how they handled other acquisitions.He said: “However much we all liked the Count when he was alive, he did us no favours by leaving Little Bernera to the National Trust for Scotland. I would have rather he had left it to Prince Harry. He would have been easier to deal with. Our ancestors are buried on Little Bernera there and the remains of their houses are there. My own great great grandfather is at rest there. The villages of Hacklete and Breaclete still put sheep there.”
There was amazement and not a little joy at the National Trust for Scotland when details of the Count’s bequest were confirmed. They praised the Count’s bequest saying it appeared “to be an extraordinary act of generosity from a man who led an extraordinary life.” After the legalities were sorted, they were poised to start assessing the ecology and landscape to see how it could be best conserved for the nation.
However, after being told a few days ago that the islanders of Great Bernera were planning to raise funds to buy the island, a NTS spokeswoman insisted it would “not be appropriate” to make any comment.
Initially, Count Mirrlees told friends that he planned to leave Great Bernera to Patrick de la Lanne, 50, his son from a relationship with German duchess Margarethe of Württemberg. Patrick, now the mayor of Delmenhort – a town of 74,000 people near Bremen in north Germany, cut off all contact with his father – although he flew to the island to attend his funeral in June. Patrick has three children and the Count also recently indicated he may leave the island to one of them who visited him frequently on Great Bernera.
Stornoway solicitor Ken Macdonald, who has been dealing with Count Mirrlees’s affairs, is away and not available to comment on the beneficiaries of the will.