Respects paid to Mohamed Al Fayed in the shadows of the castle he owned for 50 years

Former Harrods owner Mr Al Fayed, who owned a large estate in the Highlands, has died aged 94. (Photo: Daniel Hambury)
Former Harrods owner Mr Al Fayed, who owned a large estate in the Highlands, has died aged 94. (Photo: Daniel Hambury)

Former Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed has been remembered as a “respected” figure in the Highland community where he owned a castle and land for more than 50 years.

Mr Al Fayed, who has died peacefully aged 94, bought derelict Balnagown Castle in Easter Ross in 1972 and went on to restore the pile and make it a family home, along with his wife Heini, with the billionaire going on to support a number of local causes and organisations.

Today, the bass drum of the Royal Burgh of Tain Pipe Band features the Harrods’ crest after Mr Al Fayed stepped in to buy new kilts and equipment for the muscians, some who were flown down to the London department store to perform and invited into the castle to play on occasion. Meanwhile, at Tain Museum, Mr Al Fayed helped to secure a rare piece of Tain silver for its collection after making a low-key financial contribution several years ago.

Councillor Alasdair Rhind, a Highland Independent member for Tain and Easter Ross said: "He was very supportive of the local community, particularly the Royal Burgh of Tain Pipe Band.

“He was well respected in the community here. Just this morning, someone said that Balnagown wouldn’t be what it is today if he hadn’t done all that he had to preserve the place.

"He was always found to be supportive of his staff and he was respected by them. When you are dealing with people who work for you, that is a nice testimony to have.”

Mr Al Fayed bought Balnagown Castle in 1972 after he caught sight of the pile, the ancient seat of Clan Ross, by chance. Then, it was in a state of decay with its previous owner Lady Ross, the former American secretary to Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown, struggling with its upkeep following her husband’s death.

Over the decades, Mr Al Fayed went on to expand Balnagown, adding Invercassley and Duchally near Rosehall in Sutherland with Mr Al-Fayed describing the 39,000-acre estate as the “most beautiful place in the Highlands". He also claimed he would move to Scotland permanently if it became an independent country.

Among his properties was Invercassley Stores at Rosehall where he happily posed for photographs in 1996 with manager Sheila Noble, who joked that the “till had gone into shock” when Mr Al-Fayed spent £33 on bacon, sausage and fresh mushrooms at the store later dubbed the ‘Harrods of the North’.

Councillor Derek Louden, SNP member for Tain and Easter Ross, said the Al Fayed family had started to open up Balnagown to the public in recent times, with the St Duthac Book and Arts Festival holding some events on the estate earlier this summer.

He added that respect for Mr Al Fayed grew locally around the campaign against a new £43m incinerator planned for Invergordon, which led the businessman to launch several court actions against the development which was approved by a Scottish Government planning reporter following a public inquiry.

In 2014, the decision to let the incinerator go ahead was quashed at the Court of Session following a challenge by Mr Al Fayed and Highland Council.

Councillor Louden added: “I think it is fair to say that there isn’t an incinerator in Invergordon and that certainly his opposition didn’t do the campaign any harm. His view was that if you are going to build something like that, the sensible place to build it would be where the waste was created. Certainly, in Invergordon, it was something that he was quite popular for.

"I can’t speak for how people found him in Sutherland where he also owned land but he was highly regarded here .”

Mr Al Fayed, who was the owner and chairman of Fulham Football Club for 16 years, died on Wednesday and has been interred at Barrow Green Court, his 17th Century country pile in Surrey. His son, Dodi, was re-interred on the estate two months after the fatal crash that killed him and Princess Diana in August 1997.

Broadcaster Piers Morgan described Mr Al Fayed as “an extraordinary tour de force” who had struggled to get over the death of his "beloved” son.

Morgan added: “Mohamed wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and he was a flawed, complex character, but I liked him.”

Mr Al Fayed repeatedly claimed his son and the late princess were murdered in a plot by the British establishment but he was forced to reluctantly concede defeat after a high-profile six-month inquest in 2007 and 2008.

The jury returned unlawful killing verdicts on both Diana and Dodi, but pinned the blame on the drink-driving of their chauffeur Henri Paul, who also died in the crash and was employed by the Paris Ritz hotel. Mr Al Fayed had purchased the hotel in 1979.

Michael Cole, a former journalist who worked as director of public affairs for Harrods, told Times Radio on Saturday: “He actually died on Wednesday, which is the day before the 26th anniversary of the terrible death of his son… and he was entombed next to his son in a mausoleum yesterday.

“A lot of people who work for him and his customers and the fans of his football club got to know the real Mohammed and he was a very open hearted and very kind and very generous person in more ways than I (could) probably number.

“He did more good in the world than all his critics roll together and I’m very sorry that he’s dead because he was a life enhancing figure and he tremendously supported this country. He believed in it. He brought a lot of wealth here and he worked tirelessly for it.”

Asked about reports that Mr Al Fayed could be temperamental and misogynistic, Mr Cole added: "I can tell you that I never heard him raise his voice and I’ve never heard him use profane language… No, I think (he wasn’t a misogynist)

“The fact is that if you talk to the people who actually knew him, who worked for him, who were his customers, they have a completely different view from people who sit in ivory towers and take pot-shots at him.

“He was, of course, larger than life… he did it with great deal of style, a great deal of humour. He was not self-important. He didn’t fit into the British establishment.

“And I think some people could never forgive an Egyptian for having bought their favourite store in Brompton Road, Harrods.”