Joe Gibbs on some of the surprising turns of events when Dutch investors crossed the North Sea to make their fortunes in the Highlands.
In the late 1970s, the Scottish Highlands were a pleasant hunting ground for marauding Dutch land raiders. It was as if the Vikings were back, even though it was now their neighbors the Frisians. The acquisition of European land was deemed less free and easy and, as the Netherlands is the fifth most densely populated country in Europe, almost twice the density of Britain, the Highlands must have seemed a tempting prospect.
My family’s Highland estate – at the time a 5,000 acre farm of arable hills and lowlands – was purchased by a Dutch syndicate under the guise of continuing to run it as a complete entity. But no sooner was the ink dry than the partners split the property into a mass of lots and my heartbroken grandmother found herself telling a loyal workforce it was goodbye to their jobs and homes. The sum of the parts was far greater than the whole, and Dutch merchant audacity reaped a substantial profit. caveat seller.
Johannes Hellinga, who died before Christmas, was the most colorful of these buccaneers and the one who – exceptionally – remained to make his living in Scotland. He opened his account in the Highlands in 1976 when he bought the Kindeace Estate near Tain, later selling much of it to the Forestry Commission. His acquisition of the Waternish estate in Skye followed, on which he claimed a six-figure profit after reselling plots to his countrymen.
“Hellinga bought 17 bottles of whiskey and it was drinks all around… the people of Skye have fond memories of him. The owner’s memory was less happy when the check was refused. »
His death notice recalled “his exceptional benevolence to his tenants of the Waternish estate, as proprietor, for permitting them to purchase their firm land at the price of fivepence per acre.” (It was hardly a great benevolence as the croft lands were largely worthless to anyone other than the occupier, but certainly almost all the crofters accepted his offer.)
Celebrating another land deal at a Skye pub, Hellinga bought 17 bottles of whiskey and it was drinks all around for the boys that night. Unsurprisingly, the people of Skye have fond memories of him. The owner’s memory was less happy when the check was refused.
The transactions were often financed by bank loans. An Inverness bank manager who refused him funds later discovered the Dutchman had wooed his 16-year-old daughter and nabbed her at Gretna Green, there to marry her. The story does not tell if her new stepfather reconsidered the loan.
During a six-day trial in Tain, Hellinga was charged with threatening to shoot a police officer and assaulting an animal cruelty inspector. A psychiatrist described him in court as a “modern-day swordsman and powerhouse”. A sympathetic sheriff felt that the 100 days he had been in custody was enough, and Hellinga appeared to hand out festive gifts to surprised onlookers. Nicknamed ‘Handsome Hellinga’ – or ‘the Flying Dutchman’ – he claimed in 2000 to be worth just £2,500.
As the Highlands say vaarwel to a dutch guy, he bids velkommen to a very different type of Dane. Billionaire clothing tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen recently became Scotland’s biggest landowner, with around 220,000 acres to his name. However, as a fan of the patient enterprise of rewilding, he emphasizes the agglomeration of estates and their longer-term maintenance.
Ten years after the sale of our land, I began the business of buying it back piecemeal. Ironically, if buyers hadn’t made it into so many parts, we might never have been able to afford to reassemble the core we have today. It took eight different transactions over a decade to put the puzzle together. In its end, indeed, was its beginning.
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