Oh, Brothers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1997

Oh, Brothers

When trouble came to the happy but peculiar Isle of Sark, it took the form of twins
By Richard Todd

Although, as it turned out, there are far better reasons for going to the Isle of Sark, I admit that the Barclays' brand-new castle first drew me there. Sark, a three-mile-long but nonetheless formidable island, a high tableland surrounded by impressive cliffs, lies about 20 miles off the coast of Normandy. In 15 centuries of recorded history, it has known some hard times, including a brush with the Nazis in World War II. But for most of the past 400 years, since it was secured by the English in 1565, it seems to have been a place of remarkable tranquillity. It has in any case never known an invader quite like the Barclay brothers.

David and Frederick Barclay, 62-year-old identical twins, started their working lives as housepainters in England, amassed a fortune in real estate, and now own, among other things, the Barclay hotel group and several newspapers, including the European and the Scotsman. They also hold a minority interest in the American firm that controls the National Enquirer. Taken together, as they usually are, they become the 14th-richest person in Britain, with a net worth of more than a billion dollars. Like a lot of press lords, even those with partial ownership of the National Enquirer, the Barclays avoid publicity. It's known that they both have wives and four grown children among them; and they have an official photograph, which reveals chiefly that they part their hair on opposite sides and otherwise are indistinguishable. But they routinely hide their faces in public to avoid being photographed.

In 1993, for ÷2.3 million, the Barclays bought a Sark landholding, the 160-acre, treeless, but majestic island called Brecqhou (pronounced BRECK-oo), separated from Sark proper by a narrow and treacherous channel. The twins let it be known that they intended to build a grand castle on Brecqhou, and they have done so, spending upward of ÷25 million on a turreted Gothic structure with 100-foot-high granite walls, the largest castle built in the twentieth century. It has not been popular on Sark, as any visitor soon discovers. Round-the-clock construction is said to have polluted the pristine skies of the island, which has nary a streetlight, with a sodium glow. And size is its main architectural achievement; from the air it has been mistaken for a prison, and indeed the construction crew is said to have called it Alcatraz. One islander said of the brothers, "They have the taste of Saddam Hussein."

But far worse, in the eyes of the Sarkese, was the Barclays' next move. The brothers, who fly to Brecqhou from London by helicopter (they spent Christmas there en famille), have sued for independence from the larger island. The residents of Sark resent this challenge to the integrity of their island, and they wonder what the brothers are really up to. "I think they're going to build a casino," some say. Others answer, "No, they want to sell it to an Arab or an American. Who else could buy it?" "No, it's all a tax fiddle."

The Barclays for their part maintain that they object to the legal restrictions imposed on their island as a landholding of Sark. These indeed prevent them from selling the isle to a noncitizen of Britain. But in particular, the brothers say, they seek to divide their estate equally among their four heirs, something they cannot do now. On Sark, primogeniture applies: The firstborn male, if there is one, receives everything. Women can inherit only if they have no brothers. These centuries-old laws, the Barclays claim, are "archaic." And they have vowed, in carefully veiled legal language, to overthrow them.

One takes a deep breath before trying to describe the uniqueness of the Isle of Sark, which in many ways still lives in the sixteenth century, though as I was to discover, it has made some happy accommodations with the twentieth. Its laws are not a bad place to start. All the Channel Islands, of which Sark is one, maintain an independent status within the United Kingdom. But Sark enjoys a special relationship with the Crown. It continues essentially under the Norman laws that governed it 400 years ago.

Sark, in fact, is the last remaining feudal state in the Western world. It is a fief, whose lord, or seigneur, owes fealty directly to the queen and to the queen alone. Some of the island's laws, such as primogeniture and the prohibition of divorce, can seem medieval to outsiders. "And yes, yes," women will say impatiently, "it's true that husbands can beat their wives as long as they use a stick no bigger than your finger." But there seems to be no unusual incidence of domestic abuse among Sark's 570 permanent residents, if there is any at all, and little discontent. The Sarkese are universally pleased about the things their system of government has spared them. For instance, Sark has never seen fit to allow automobiles on the island. It also lacks an income tax.

I began to understand
why the Barclay twins so upset the people of Sark. They feared-
rightly-the loss of what you might call the benefits of the feudal way of life.

Being lord of this happy place seems, on the face of it, not a bad deal. You live in the Seigneurie, a sixteenth-century stone structure surrounded by formal gardens that, in Sark's temperate climate, yield roses until Christmastime. You, and you alone, can keep doves. You can banish any visitor you choose, a singularly attractive power on a small island, where things after all can get close. You can also choose your neighbors: The sale of long-term leases to any of the 40 large landholdings on the island, called tenements, cannot proceed without your approval. Moreover, when a sale does happen you collect a fee, a sort of buyer's premium, equal to one-thirteenth of the purchase price: your treizième. You also receive annual tithes from your tenants, who like vassals are generally landlords themselves and collect tithes from their tenants. Admittedly, though, as agrarian life recedes on the island, these fees have lost some of their punch.

"I still do collect tithes," the current seigneur, whose street name is Michael Beaumont, said recently. "I am entitled to a certain amount of wheat, in cabots [sheaves], from each tenant. We have the old deme cart in back. The cart was sent round at harvesttime, and every tenth cabot was the seigneur's. People pay in cash now, but I still collect a bit of wheat. I don't collect any chickens, though I could. I remember my grandmother getting chickens, and the problem was that the tenants would give her the scrawniest and toughest bird."

The seigneur has a mild laugh. A tall, slender man of 69 with a rather tentative step, he could scarcely be less imperious in voice or gesture. I met him in the kitchen of the Seigneurie, the only contemporary room in a house rich in Victorian furnishings and the room in which he and his wife, Diana, spend most of their time at home. He was wearing a green sweatshirt advertising the Galñpagos Islands, where they had had a holiday a few months before. Often mistaken for royalty, he points out that he is merely a lord of the manor: Lords "used to be two-a-penny," he says. "It's just that now I'm the only one left."

The seigneur was taking me through his personal history and the history of the island. He had been working in England as an aircraft engineer, he explained, when he inherited the place and the title in 1974 from his grandmother, Sibyl Hathaway, the famous Dame of Sark, who had governed the island for 47 years, outliving her son. (It was the Dame of Sark who inspired the 1974 stage play of that name, based on her plucky defiance of the Germans when they occupied the island during World War II.)

"I had never given (the inheritance) much of a thought," Beaumont says today. "When it came, it came; I didn't have much choice. I'm just glad it didn't happen sooner or I don't know what I would have done. But...there are worse places to inherit."

His fiefdom became rather less congenial last year, though. After agreeing to permit the sale of Brecqhou to David Barclay--who, as the elder twin, is the tenant of record--the seigneur saw the brothers turn on him and sue. Officially the Barclays were requesting the return of the treizième they had paid him at the time of the sale. But no one seems to think that the money, a not inconsiderable ÷180,000, is the point. The brothers, looking rather territorial themselves, claimed in their brief that Brecqhou should not be subject to the feudal laws of Sark. And they challenged the validity of those laws in general.

The seigneur plainly brings an air of British bafflement and forbearance to many life situations. "I don't know what their endgame is," he says. "They seem to want me to relinquish Sark's claim to Brecqhou, but I couldn't do that even if I wanted to, which I emphatically do not. I'm rather like piggy-in-the-middle."

Never in the past 400 years had the authority of the seigneur been so challenged from within. The Barclays threatened to take their suit to the European Court of Human Rights. The Crown, which stood to lose its last feudal state, joined the case on Sark's behalf, occasioning a flurry of stories in the mainland British press. The brothers then appealed to have the Crown removed as a respondent.

It all began to seem a tragedy, because the seigneur is a self-evidently reasonable man, scarcely a tyrant despite his vested powers. At least one might have hoped that the Barclays would exhaust the legal options available in their new home. David, as a leaseholder, has a seat in Sark's ancient parliament, called Chief Pleas in anglicized French, where he might have worked within the system. The brothers could even, in extremis, have invoked their ancient right of Clameur de Haro, derived from the name of a former Duke of Normandy, in which an aggrieved party kneels down in front of two witnesses, recites the Lord's Prayer in French, and then cries, "Haro, Haro, Haro! A mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort." Immediate judicial action must follow.

I settled in for a few days on Sark. a little hotel called the Dixcart provided lodgings, a pub, a dining room, and a huge and ancient fireplace. "Dixcart" is pronounced DEE-car, with a heavy accent on the first syllable in that marvelous, imperial way the English have with French. Thus "seigneur" is SANE-yer, and the French names that abound on the island are similarly simplified: the HAM-ons and the PER-rïes.

The hotel sits on the edge of a footpath, just wide enough for a cart, and from here I set out walking each morning. This is the great thing about Sark--the walking. The island reminds you what a settled landscape can be like if it remains innocent of cars. We tend to walk in the city and in the wilderness, or in what might be called designated nature. Walking on Sark is different. You are a part of the middle landscape: You go down a footpath along the edge of a field, out onto a lane that takes you to a house where you're expected or to a pub or to a sudden ocean view. Surely if God had a plan for the scale of things, this would be it.

It helps, of course, that temptation is banished here. Temptation is strong where cars are involved, as the presence of a few tractors on Sark demonstrates: Those entitled to them often drive into the village to go shopping.

In any event, I walked. I had been told that to better know the island I should see La Coupïe, Sark's most beautiful view, and also Elizabeth Perrïe, "beautiful Elizabeth," and that the one was on the way to the other. La Coupïe is also the entrance to Little Sark, a point of land connected to the greater island by a narrow isthmus--if, that is, an isthmus can describe a passage several hundred feet in the air. The waves are silent far below you as you gaze over the low stone retaining walls and out onto the Channel.

Elizabeth Perrïe, French of face and English of intonation, runs the elegant La Sablonnerie hotel. It sits adjacent to her father's farm, which provides the ingredients for much of the restaurant's menu. Setting out a tea featuring scones with Sark's bright yellow butter, she remarked that she was proof that, whatever the Barclays might claim, primogeniture needn't prevent younger sons or women with older brothers from owning property. The Perrïes own four tenements, virtually the whole of little Sark, and her father had had the foresight to transfer one to her.

She went on to explain a bit about Sark's system of raising revenue. Tourists, who appear here by the thousands in the summertime, pay the bulk of the bill, without ever knowing it, through a tax on ferry tickets and alcohol. The rest of the revenues, for relief of the poor and elderly, are raised by an annual assessment based on what an administrative committee of 12 thinks various people can afford to pay. "It's all very hush-hush," Elizabeth said. "People don't apply for relief; people see that other people are in need. It's a Robin Hood tax, isn't it?"--a Robin Hood tax made almost universally popular by the fact that not even the wealthiest, not even the Barclays, are asked to pay more than ÷3,000 a year.

My affection for feudalism was certainly growing.

Seldom in my walks, though, did I hear a friendly word about the Barclays. Comments were often scathing.

"We're a community of 500 happy people. Why should the rules be changed for two?"

"The buggers are paranoid. You know they have night-vision cameras trained on all the landing spots and a control room full of consoles."

"They could snuffle up the whole island."

I began to internalize the threat. Sark is one of those places toward which even casual visitors rapidly feel proprietary. One splendid wet afternoon I walked alone to the Gouillot Headland, from which one has a good view of Brecqhou and its castle. I found myself thinking that we live at an enlightened time, a historical moment when, in the West, nations turn to violence against one another only reluctantly. Still, I wondered whether the military option oughtn't to be pursued in the matter of Brecqhou. Sark holds the high ground. How easy it would be to catapult hot boulders down on the turrets and rain flaming arrows into the courtyard. Surprise would be everything: If the Barclays' helicopter became airborne, things could go badly... But these were the thoughts of an idle American.

You can spend a fair amount of time on Sark, rambling, talking, before the question asserts itself in your mind: What exactly goes on here? What sustains this place? Is it the dozen sheep over there? That quarter-acre of brussels sprouts? Well, no. Sark, it turns out, has a bit of a secret life.

I was sitting in the lounge of the Dixcart Hotel one afternoon at teatime and a fellow appeared in a black suit and glossy black shoes. He sat down. We were both reading in silence, but after a time I asked him, "What brings you to Sark?"

He looked at me for a long moment, long enough to ensure that I would ask no follow-up question, and said, "Business." Then he went back to his newspaper.

There is no outward sign of business on Sark, apart from the two groceries and the little shops on the village's main street. But there is indeed business on Sark. The local government's rather noble incuriosity about the affairs of the citizenry makes Sark a very comfortable place to be an entrepreneur. Companies do not pay taxes, nor are they required to register. Sark may be remote, but as a corporate address, it can hardly be beat.

Not a few people have found the way to have the best of both worlds: maintain a residence in London or Geneva or Des Moines and a business "headquarters" on Sark. One way to accomplish this is through the device known as nominee directorships. In these, Sark citizens are invited, for a fee, to serve as directors of far-off companies. The institution, which has come to be known as the Sark Lark, is reputed to be the largest source of income on the island.

In her little cottage just outside the village, one young woman with a liking for anonymity--"I have another business to run and I like to keep things separate"--explained how easy it is to lark. "They send you a document, and if you like what's being proposed, you sign."

"They will give you an idea of what they want you to do?" I asked.

"They will," she said.

"And you are inclined to agree with them?"

"You are."

For some corporate enterprises, nominee directors won't suffice; they require the security of an actual Sark address. This, too, can be arranged.

One morning I knocked on the door of a quiet cottage across the street from the village's nursery school. Nothing about the place suggested that it was a business, though I had been told an inventive bit of larking went on here. A charming woman named Samantha opened the door and took me in to see her boss, B. M. J. Cooper. Mr. Cooper, with limp gray hair and a craggy face, looked a bit like John Updike might if he had spent much of his life wreathed in the smoke of Silk Cut cigarettes.

"I don't really want to talk to you about my business," he said, pleasantly enough. "We don't generally talk about business on Sark."

He said, though, that he actually had several businesses. I became aware of sounds to my left and noticed a bank of answering machines on bookshelves. From time to time they would beep, thunk, whirr, go silent.

"Your business?" I asked.

Mr. Cooper, it turned out, provided "business services" for people who might like to live on Sark but were constrained to live elsewhere. The essential service he provided is what's known on the island as an accommodation address. Thanks to him, an entrepreneur anywhere in the world may receive and send mail through the Sark post office and have calls answered on Sark or routed onward. Mr. Cooper's clients all nominally live at his nicely named cottage, Casa Mia.

Many Sarkese who have no objection to the nominee directorships balk at accommodation addresses, and indeed, sometime soon Chief Pleas may move against them. But for the meantime, on this afternoon, the answering machines were beeping merrily.

What an industrious little island, I thought as I left. What a complexity of life behind those simple stone facades. It is as if the people of Sark have discovered alchemy. An island of Rumplestiltskins! They live in harmony with their glorious patch of earth, and they pollute neither the air nor the soil nor the view. The feudal order is maintained, and millions of pounds zing through the satellite dishes nourishing the little island, like the fog that settles on the seigneur's roses, a fine, soft, mist of money.

Now I began better to understand why the Barclay twins were so upsetting to the people of Sark. Anything that threatened the status quo on this happy island would be upsetting. I felt concerned myself. If the Barclays did manage to overthrow feudal oversight, what then? Might the whole edifice here crumble--and with it not only a lovely, centuries-old tradition, but as Mr. Cooper had said to me, "a very favorable environment for business"? What the Sarkese rightly fear is the loss of what you might call the benefits of the feudal way of life.

The time had come for a closer look at the redoubt of the brothers themselves. But getting there was a problem. Swimming the frigid Channel waters to Brecqhou was a dubious proposition. And landing on the island was not recommended in any case. The Barclays had warned the Sarkese that anyone attempting or abetting a trespass would be prosecuted--even though Sark itself, in its friendly enlightenment, does not forbid trespassing. And many of the villagers believed that the Barclays' security guards were armed.

Still, one gusty afternoon I persuaded a fisherman to take me out in his boat for the longish trip to Brecqhou from the harbor on Sark's east coast. As gray seas rolled across the Channel, piling up around the point, the boat slammed into them, making conversation impossible. Silently, I watched the castle grow larger on the horizon.

A lone figure in oilskins stood on the landing, and his tiny silhouette provided a sense of scale. The castle belongs to that category of things, like aircraft carriers, that are measured in football fields. I could see the helicopter resting on its elevator, which descends into a hangar blasted out of the stone. But the owners were not on the island, else their family banners would have been flying from the four turrets. (The banners show the Sark flag with the Barclay family crest, featuring two lookalike figures, embroidered in one corner.) The twins have appeared here only infrequently since the castle was completed, adding to their mysteriousness.

Up close, in the lee of the island, the place began to seem less forbidding. The wan afternoon light reflected from the windows, some 40-odd of them, stretching across the seaward facade. It looked suddenly like a human habitation. I take the point of those who say a softer Norman design would have been more appropriate to the region. But a Channel Islander would feel this sort of thing more acutely than I. It is, true enough, a generic castle. A dull castle. But by God, this is the largest castle built in the twentieth century, a record that seems safe for the remaining three years.

The truth is, I was softening on this enterprise. I could see how the Barclays, having come so far in life, might not want to defer to the lord of any manor, might want to be seigneurs of their own fief.

And I could see how you could call this castle home. If you were a bit jumpy about security, well, you'd be less jumpy behind those 100-foot granite walls, with some competent automatic-weapons guys in black anoraks stationed in bunkers on the moors. Here at last, with ten-foot logs crackling in the fireplaces, you might have a feeling denied to you elsewhere in the obeisant but menacing world, a feeling of coziness. It occurred to me that perhaps the Barclays had no secret plan, that what they wanted--isn't this what we all want?--was only a place of their own, a place as snug as Sark itself.

Richard Todd, a writer and book editor in western Massachusetts, teaches writing at Smith College.

Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!