By Ian Fraser
Published: Sunday Herald
Date: 27 August 2006
VAN VLISSINGEN: FINAL ACT: Billionaire’s Tournaig purchase was ‘philanthropic’
PAUL van Vlissingen, the billionaire owner of the Letterewe Estate, was still actively enlarging his Highland property interests up until his death in his Dutch home, Lunenberg Castle, near Utrecht. Within the last few weeks, van Vlissingen – who died of pancreatic cancer on Monday – completed the purchase of the Ross-shire estate of Tournaig, which adjoins his existing 85,000-acre Letterewe Estate.
In an off-market transaction, the Dutch businessman and philanthropist bought the 6,874-acre estate, situated between Poolewe and Aultbea, from the executors of the late Sir John Horlick, an heir to the malted beverages family. “It was a philanthropic act intended to complete the jigsaw. It gives Letterewe additional sea frontage onto Loch Ewe, ownership of some of the head waters above Fionn Loch, as well as a much more accessible house than Letterewe itself,” said a source close to the deal.
“It seems Van Vlissingen was doing this for the sake of posterity and to make Letterewe more complete for future generations.” The enlarged Letterewe estate is to be inherited by van Vlissingen’s two daughters. His former partner, the former Guardian art critic Caroline Tisdall, last week said: “Letterewe will continue in the same tradition with the family, and the staff all know that. I will be spending a lot of time there.” The purchase of Tournaig will increase the size of Letterewe estate to more than 90,000 acres. Van Vlissingen had already enlarged Letterewe in the early 1990s with the addition of the Little Gruinard estate. The actual price of the purchase has not been disclosed. “He probably paid a premium to acquire it privately,” said a property source.
Van Vlissingen, who was 65 when he died, was a friend of the former UK poet laureate Ted Hughes and of several world leaders, including Nelson Mandela. He was not a stereotypical absentee Highland landlord. His ownership of Letterewe estate is widely regarded as having been innovative, open and inclusive. The Letterewe Accord, an agreement that gave ramblers freedom of access to his estate in exchange for a pledge to respect the land, predated the Scottish Parliament’s own right-to-roam legislation by more than a decade.
After investing £300,000 in a three year study of the biology of Letterewe’s red deer herd, Van Vlissingen sparked controversy in 2002 by calling for the re-introduction of wolves and lynx to Scotland. He saw this as a way of naturally controlling deer numbers, as well as boosting tourism. Van Vlissingen believed the traditional method of controlling red deer populations – culling by deer-stalking – had been proven to have failed.
Dave Morris, director of the Ramblers Association of Scotland, said: “He was a breath of fresh air to the debate over land ownership in Scotland. He was committed to stewardship of the land and dialogue with other interests.” The oil-and-gas billionaire devoted much of time toward the preservation of wildlife in Africa.
In 2003 he founded the African Parks Foundation which today manages more than two million hectares of publicly-owned, protected areas in six African countries. Van Vlissingen saw this as an attempt “give something back” after decades of environmental destruction, some of which he admitted had been caused by his own family-owned firm SHV holdings.
In April, van Vlissingen declared he had terminal pancreatic cancer and that he would not be having any chemotherapy. At the time he said: “In the Western world we mistakenly try to keep death at bay. I look to Native Americans instead. When they see their death approaching, they visit good friends and family to share happy memories and look back at the good things.”
Ten days ago it emerged that he and Tisdall were donating £100,000 to the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, taking their total contribution to £250,000