Sunday 25 September 2016

The aristocrat who inspired Fleming's James Bond – and a £500,000 row over his islands

Residents in the Outer Hebrides battle for islands owned by the estate of a dashing Scottish laird on whom Bond's character was loosely based

Published 07/12/2015 | 10:33

Count Robin de la Lanne Mirlees, seen here with with Princess Margarethe of Wurttemberg, was laird of the Hebridean island Great Bernera
Count Robin de la Lanne Mirlees, seen here with with Princess Margarethe of Wurttemberg, was laird of the Hebridean island Great Bernera
Patrick de la Lanne Photo: Youtube

A dashing Scottish aristocrat who spoke several languages and had a penchant for wooing beautiful women, there were obvious parallels between Count Robin de la Lanne Mirlees and his fictional contemporary, James Bond.

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So many, in fact, that Ian Fleming used the French-born laird as the basis for Bond in the film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Now Scottish islands owned by the late Count Robin are at the centre of an extraordinary £500,000 buy-out row.

He died in 2012 as laird of Hebridean island Great Bernera and its uninhabited smaller neighbour, Little Bernera.

Locals have attempted to purchase both islands after the National Trust for Scotland refused the smaller, Little Bernera because of upkeep costs - despite Count Robin leaving it to the charity in his will.

But over the past two years, the 250 or so inhabitants of Great Bernera have been unable to reach a deal with his estate.

Patrick de la Lanne Photo: Youtube
Patrick de la Lanne Photo: Youtube

Patrick de la LannePatrick de la Lanne  Photo: Youtube

It is believed the count's son, Patrick de la Lanne – who is a lawyer and the former mayor of the German city of Delmenhorst – has obtained a private valuation that the picturesque isle is worth around £500,000.

The islanders say it there is no evidence that Little Bernera is worth that much.

They say Mr de la Lanne's figure is "hundreds of thousands of pounds" above the official valuation, and have moved to block anybody else buying their isle.

They quote figures from district valuer indicating Little Bernera, which is all crofting land, is only worth £20,000, and Great Bernera – mainly crofts – £50,000.

The count's estate was bequeathed to his grandson – Mr de la Lanne's son Cyran – and the family had indicated they were willing to sell to islanders on a first refusal basis. The old, run-down Great Bernera Lodge where the count lived is excluded from the sale.

Tom Macdonald, chairman of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust, said: "We have been unable to reach an agreement with the executor of the estate, Patrick de la Lanne – who is acting on behalf of his son.

"The problem has been the valuations – which we are happy with.

"He feels its worth more but is unable to present any evidence to us, including the valuation he has obtained.

"We want to purchase both islands – Little Bernera, though it is uninhabited, is crofting land and also has a graveyard of local people's ancestors. So it very much has an emotional attachment to the community."

Patrick de la Lanne is understood to have made an offer to locals that would allow him to sell it on the open market, with the community getting a percentage of the proceeds.

But the community group is lodging an application under part two of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which – if approved by ministers – gives communities a registered interest in the land and a right to buy when the owner decides to sell.

Frustrated by the impasse over reaching a deal, more than 50 islanders backed the move at a recent meeting.

Residents in the Outer Hebrides battle for islands owned by the estate of a dashing Scottish laird on whom Bond's character was loosely based Bernera Barracks  Photo: Ian Thraves / Alamy

Mr Macdonald said that if ministers registered their interest under the act it would effectively "block" the land being sold to any other party in the immediate period ahead. But he ruled out going down a hostile buy-out, forcing Mr de la Lanne to sell, under part three of the act.

"We want to reach an amicable agreement," he stressed.

John Gillies, practice manager at Ken Macdonald and Co – the Stornoway-based lawyers acting for the count's estate – said: "We have received notification of the community's intention to register under part two of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

"Negotiations are continuing and we also hope for an amicable settlement but it is fair to say that the two valuations are far apart at this stage."

In June, the Great Bernera Community Development Trust received £100,000 to purchase the 2,260 hectares of the Great Bernera Estate including 69 crofts around the townships of Kirkibost, Tobson, Hacklete, Breaclete and Croir.

Back in March, the local community voted overwhelmingly to buy the islands.

The estate is of historical interest due to the Bernera Riot of 1874 when crofters resisted increased rents and evictions. This led to a court case which resulted in what is understood to be the first victory for crofters and paved the way for land reform in Scotland.

As well as contributing to the costs of buying the land, the Scottish Land Fund award will also pay for the part-time posts of commercial manager and administrative officer.

Great Bernera – which is connected to Lewis by a bridge over the Atlantic – and Little Bernera belonged to Count Robin for 50 years.

The count, a former Queen's herald, died in 2012, aged 87.

He bought Great Bernera and its surrounding little islands in 1962 despite never seeing it.

Also known as Prince of Coronata, Count Robin was a descendant of King Louis Philippe I of France and the godson of the late 11th Duke of Argyll.

He was said to be the inspiration for James Bond and that of a Royal servant in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. Author Ian Fleming, a friend of the count, dedicated On His Majesty's Secret Service to him.

It is said he was deeply involved in helping Fleming with Bond's escapades in the 1963 novel.

Bond’s cover as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray appears to have been based on the count, who was appointed by the Queen as heraldic researcher at the College of Arms in London, researching coats of arms.

He lived in Great Bernera after buying it and latterly moved into a warden-run community care unit.

In 1996, Count Robin sold £2 million of property, including a home in Holland Park, London, a flat in Switzerland and one of his Scottish islands, Kearstay to help pay his Lloyds' debts.

His family have since his death sold other property he owned, including a flat in Paris and run-down Inchdrewer Castle in Banff, which was bought last year – together with the title of Baron of Inchdrewer – by a Russian princess and former supermodel.

Former Versace model Olga Roh and her husband paid a reported £400,000 for the ruin and title.

Still to be disposed of from the count's estate are a £800,000 villa at Le Touquet in France and a Sicilian property and vineyard – as well as Great Bernera.

Despite his vast property empire, the count, who lived in a run-down croft house on Bernera, died with less than £6,000 in the bank – including £75 in premium bonds.

But after his death legal papers put the count's wealth at £1,301,478 – mainly property.

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