IN early June 2008, I spent an uncomfortable night in a damp, dingy, dark bedroom in Kinloch Castle on the Island of Rum. I was there as environment minister, trying to help Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – the public body that is now called NatureScot – tackle the massive drain on the public finances resulting from its ownership of the island and everything on it.

Rum, the 17th-largest island in Scotland, has been inhabited since pre-historic times. Owned by various Gaelic chieftains, it was eventually cleared of its indigenous population of more than 400 in the late 1820s. They were replaced by a single sheep farmer who quickly went bust.

Sold on as a “sporting estate”, it was eventually purchased in 1888 by a self-made cotton millionaire from Accrington in Lancashire, John Bullough, who proceeded to build himself a mausoleum in which he was interred in 1891. This was, however, not grand enough for his family, who had it demolished and replaced with a mock Greek temple.

That type of pompous and preposterous folly marked the ownership of Sir George Bullough, John Bullough’s son, who commissioned Kinloch Castle. No expense was spared, with an alligator pond, an aviary of exotic tropical birds (which died when the heating failed) and even an orchestrion – a massive German musical instrument, originally ordered by Queen Victoria for Balmoral. The ballroom has a musicians’ gallery which does not have a view of the room itself, apparently so that the behaviour of Sir George and his guests – freed of conventional restraints by distance and wealth – could not be seen by the servants. Those servants were paid extra for wearing kilts.

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Thousands of tons of Ayrshire topsoil was imported for the gardens and the whims of the owner even extended to the name of the place. Not wanting to be known as the “Laird of Rum”, he insisted that the spelling be changed to Rhum.

The Wall Street Crash diminished the Bullough family resources and Sir George’s widow eventually sold the island to the Nature Conservancy Council – SNH’s predecessor – in 1957. It remains the site of one of the world’s longest-running scientific studies which focuses on the island’s remarkable deer herd.

The Prince of Wales’s Regeneration Trust was interested in taking the building on after it won the Scottish heat in the 2003 BBC Restoration series but the public money required could not be found. However, when offered the opportunity, the island community – entirely employed by SNH at one time – decided it wished to buy that part of the island which was inhabited and, after some tremendous supportive work by Lesley Riddoch, the sale went through in 2009.

Kinloch Castle was not included as taking responsibility for the property would have crippled the small community. They have, however, been using the walled garden and some of the outbuildings (the young entrepreneurs who make Askival Rum are based in one of them) while NatureScot continued to try and work out a way forward for a structure that is, literally, falling down, its iron framework rotting behind the massive Annan sandstone-clad exterior.

However, a private sale at last seems to be in the offing. Jeremy Hosking, a multi-millionaire businessman who gave £1.7 million to the Vote Leave Brexit campaign, and who in addition to being a part owner of Crystal Palace FC has a passion for railways is – it is reported – in the final stages of negotiation to purchase Kinloch via a trust, much to the excitement of the Friends of Kinloch Castle – an enthusiastic and dedicated group of individuals who want to see the place restored to its former glory.

However, NatureScot does not appear to have yet received backing from the local community for the sale, in part because they have only just started to address that very important issue, even though virtually all of the island’s past difficulties were caused by remote external private-sector and public-body decision-making without local consultation.

Introducing an absentee laird – even with a locally employed presence – spending a fortune on what is apparently to be a luxury tourism venue, sounds to me like a recipe for reigniting many of those problems, not least because the sale may also apparently exclude from community use parts of the property they currently need.

Of course, NatureScot is to be commended for trying to balance the books given the pressures that exist as a result of our still being dependent upon Westminster for resources instead of using our own as we see fit.

But one of the hard-fought principles of the Land Reform Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2016 – and I know because I was on the bill committee – is that the right of property is not the only right to be taken into account. The sound of money must not drown out the voice of a community in deciding on the future of their own area.

So unless and until the community of Rum – not just NatureScot – has directly negotiated, received and accepted clear and legally binding guarantees from Hosking regarding how he intends to exercise his ownership, no sale should be completed.

And if the community decides such a sale is not appropriate or beneficial, then that should weigh decisively on the minds of the NatureScot board.

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There is an alternative. Last year, the Edinburgh University academic Dr Fraser MacDonald wrote an inspiring piece about Kinloch and the potential for what he called “curated decline”. His argument was that constantly finding money to restore buildings which were of doubtful value and little future utility was a failed policy. In addition, Kinloch represents all that was wrong with Highland landlordism.

Devising a creative way to allow it to disintegrate over time would not only make an innovative contribution to heritage policy, it would also stand as a reminder of the massive inequities in land ownership in Scotland which continue to this day.

Curated decline of that sort could also give the opportunity for more curated development of the existing island community.

Indeed, it could make Rum a place to visit not just to see how the labour of the many in the 19th-century cotton mills of Lancashire, and the forced displacement of historic Gaelic and Highland communities, underpinned the lifestyles of others – but also how Scotland is willing to confront that past by imagining and then delivering better places for people to take control of their own lives and futures.