THE wealthy owner of a Scottish estate has caused fury by wrongly suggesting crofters stole his gravel.
The Hon Alex Howard, heir apparent to the Baronetcy of Strathcona and Mount Royal, owns the Colonsay Estate as well as a home in Oxford.
The Gordonstoun-educated laird wrote an angry email to his local council which blamed locals for the disappearance of tonnes of gravel from a beach on his estate.
Mr Howard alleged that crofters had been removing estate property “for generations” and complained it was proving a “hard habit to break”.
The claim has infuriated residents who branded the comments “offensive” and said innocent people had been labelled as “thieves” and “peasants”.
A red-faced Mr Howard has since been forced to admit that the removal of gravel was the work of builders from the mainland – but he has not offered an apology to affronted locals.
The Colonsay Estate, which boasts “one the finest collection of rhododendrons in Scotland”, was passed to Mr Howard over 20 years ago by his father, Donald Euan Palmer Howard, the 4th Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, who still lives on the island.
The current row blew up after Argyll and Bute Council threatened to take legal action against Mr Howard over the state of the Rubh aird ala ais beach on his estate.
Councillors complained that the beach was full of large holes which left it looking like the Somme.
In an email released under Freedom of Information, Mr Howard explained that gravel was being removed without his permission.
He wrote: “A number of crofters have extensively developed their crofts and I seldom see gravel being imported onto the island.
“It is extremely difficult to police this activity and many of the crofters have their own tractors, trailer and excavators.
“It is impossible to prevent those that have little or no regard for the rights of property (unless it is their own!) especially as we have no Police presence on the island.”
Mr Howard added: “I have also explained to the crofters who have bought their crofts under the “right to buy” legislation in the 1980’s, that it is no longer acceptable for them to remove Estate property for their own use.
“As this practice has gone on for generations, it is quite a difficult “habit” to break for some of them!”
One islander, who wished to remain anonymous, said the comments were “very hurtful”.
The islander said: “For generations people have taken gravel from the beach. We usually have to pay Alex about £100 for 10 tonnes. The same amount would be £1000 to bring in on the ferry. Technically it is his – but the stones are actually washed up by the sea.
“For him to brand us as thieves in an official letter to the council is going back 200 years. Does he really think he is the laird and we are just the peasants?
“Many of our families have lived alongside him and his forebears for over a 100 years. People have grudged paying him for gravel over the years but it is much cheaper than importing it on the ferry.
“The system has worked well until some builders wrecked it by taking stones from really sensitive areas. But for him now to tell the world we are good for nothing thieves is very hurtful.”
Crofter Archie McConnell, who bought his property from the estate, also hit back at Mr Howard.
“People are totally annoyed about it,” he said. “It’s an absolute joke, I just don’t know what he is trying to do.
Another local crofter, Sheena Nisbet, who also owns her property, said: “I am very surprised that he would say that. As a crofter we pay for our gravel. It is arranged through the estate. As I understand, it was visiting workmen who took the gravel.”
Mr Howard said: “I accept that the person who took the gravel was a builder not from the island. However, they were working on a building that was being built on land that was just sold by a crofter.
“What’s said in the letter still stands. Many houses have been built on the island in the last 20 years, but no gravel has been brought in for them. They were able to buy their crofts under the right to buy and when they did we said that they wouldn’t be able to keep taking the estates land for their own use. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
“I didn’t mean to imply that people had broken the law.”
Mr Howard divides his time between the island and Oxford, where he lives with his Australian-born wife Jane.
Prince Andrew was one of Mr Howard’s contemporaries at Gordonstoun, and like the Royal, he is understood to have flown helicopters with the Royal Navy.
Last month it was reported Mr Howard had put the remote island’s only pub and hotel on the market for £545,000.
The laird co-owns The Colonsay Hotel with three friends and is understood to have bought it in 2005 for over £400,000.