History repeating: the National Trust for Scotland

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is one of the largest landowners north of the border with 130 properties, including 26 castles, palaces and country houses, and over 78,000-acres. Yet like a feckless son who has inherited plenty but isn’t living up to his responsibilities and squandering his inheritance, so the NTS has been ignoring its duties and now has to face the financial reality of their mistakes – with possibly far-reaching consequences for its country houses.

For many landowners, the 1920s and 30s were a lavish time. Yet, often the land which provided the income was heavily mortgaged and although this could cover expenses it usually left little in reserve. Landowners were ranked according to their acres which led to many to over-extend themselves – leaving them vulnerable if a crisis arose. Although the First World War had had a devastating impact on the lives of many both in the big house and on the estate, for those who came through it must have seemed that life might be able to be resumed from before the war. However, life had changed and although some owners were able to see this and adapt, others refused to face financial facts leading to lavish and unsustainable overspending. This later manifested itself with the massive land and art sales of the 1930s as financial recklessness raced right up to the front door of the main house and forced out the owners.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was formed in 1931, over 30 years after its southern sibling.  It now runs 130 attractions which include some of the finest country houses in Scotland such as Haddo HouseCulzean Castle, and Pollok House.  However, in marked contrast to the National Trust for England and Wales, the NTS hit a £13m financial blackhole in 2009 which led to staff redundancies, the selling of their Edinburgh HQ, and worst of all, the mothballing of various properties.  A formal, independent review of the NTS has just been published which makes it clear that they had been living in much the same way as the country house owners of the early 20th-century and now largely faces the same choices they had.

Like those dissolute owners in the 1920s and 30s who initially refused to face reality, the NTS have finally admitted that they have been living beyond its means and would now require a significant cash injection to cover its debts. For the country house owner in the 1920s and 30s they could always hope to marry an American heiress – but with this option denied to the NTS they’ll have to beg from the public.

Interestingly the NTS has also admitted that just 12 of its 130 properties are fully endowed, leaving the other attractions to have to make up the shortfall. The southern National Trust have, since 1968, used a complex calculation known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which takes account of the probable cost of repairs and maintenance, likely revenues, wages costs etc to assess what level of endowment they would have to receive from the donor before they could agree to accept a house and has led to them rejecting many on that basis.

It seems that the NTS have abandoned this sound practice and over-extended themselves. It has also admitted it doesn’t even have a complete asset register of what properties it actually owns or a list of the necessary repairs to maintain the properties.  So like the owners of the houses who suddenly faced a dramatic downturn in the economy and their income, they are faced with some stark choices which the struggling owner in the 1930s would recognise well: sell or turn over some properties to other uses.

The owner in the 1930s also had the option to demolish or abandon a house and many hundreds were lost over the next couple of decades. Thankfully this option is not open to the NTS so what’s likely to happen? Unlike the National Trust for England and Wales, not all the Scottish properties are ‘inalienable’ meaning they could be sold.  The NTS have however said that no property of architectural significance would be – so we are unlikely to see Culzean Castle in the local estate agents window but some of the smaller country houses may be tenanted on a long term basis.  Some may also turned over to other organisations for community use – though this has a naturally detrimental impact on the fabric of the house through increased wear and tear.

The NTS has shown that, as usual, it’s the owner who’s the problem not the houses.  Even an organisation which has admittedly done much to preserve and protect country houses in Scotland over the last 80 years can become part of the problem.   Let’s hope that they take this opportunity to reform the ‘byzantine’ governance structure which has led them into this crisis and that it creates a leaner, more financially stable organisation better able to look after the country house treasures they have inherited.

More details: ‘NTS to be told: sell treasures or go bust‘ [The Scotsman]