National Trust for Scotland: trusting in change

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Recovering from a cash crisis, the National Trust for Scotland is looking for new ways to exploit its historic properties, work with other charities … and even bring itself into the 20th century

• The Highland Fling Bungee jump over the spectacular Killiecrankie gorge

IT WAS a bit of a step up from stage-diving when rock stars The View threw themselves into the Highland air above the spectacular Killiecrankie gorge. They were among the first to try out a bungee-jumping attraction which is hoped to be worth 7.5 million to the local economy in Perthshire – and Scotland's biggest conservation agency is banking on cashing in on a large slice of that cake.

The Highland Fling Bungee was unveiled at the National Trust for Scotland site just months after Go Ape opened a high-wire treetop course at another of its sites, 16th century Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire, complete with zip wires, rope ladders and Tarzan swings.

At nearby Fyvie Castle, staff are gearing up for the site's 800th anniversary, which will be marked by a lavish concert in its grounds, headlined by soul star Beverley Knight, before an anticipated 5000-strong crowd.

It all seems a far cry from the traditional image of the National Trust for Scotland, probably best known for its careful stewardship of country houses, manicured gardens and historic castles.

Elsewhere over the next few months, NTS will be playing host to the likes of the BBC TV show Flog It!, a jousting tournament, murder mystery nights and outdoor opera and theatre performances of The Taming of the Shrew, Sense and Sensibility and The Pirates of Penzance.

If officials at NTS, Scotland's biggest membership organisation, have their way this will only be the beginning. Highland Games events, horse-riding events and wildlife safaris will fast become the norm for a charity that two years ago appeared to facing an abyss.

NTS had a 13m hole in its finances, and hundreds of members joined a campaign aimed at halting the closure of nine threatened sites. The charity had proposed to axe 90 jobs to save cash, plans that were later dramatically scaled back after the body agreed to a root-and-branch internal review.

In a landmark annual general meeting in August, sweeping changes to the management structure of NTS were voted through and a slimmed-down board was created.

Since then the organisation, which had previously warned that it was living beyond its means and had taken too many responsibilities, has kept a relatively low profile under new chairman Sir Kenneth Calman.

However, this week NTS has gone public with the first details of a radical overhaul to make the organisation much more commercially minded, pledging to "sweat" its huge property portfolio to make them generate more income, and calling the myriad other heritage bodies in Scotland to a summit to discuss how they can join forces properly for the first time.

Generating greater income from its 130 flagship sites – which include the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Falkland Palace in Fife, Brodick Castle on Arran, and the islands of Canna and St Kilda – is a key priority.

NTS wants to explore creating a host of new carvavan and camping sites on its properties around the country, where they do not impact on historic buildings or protected landscape. Run-down buildings will be converted into new holiday homes, historic sites will become new corporate hospitality venues and NTS hopes to launch a string of renewable energy projects at its sites.

At the heart of a new five-year strategy for the charity, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, will be a fundemantal rethink of the heritage that NTS will be celebrating in future.

As well as its 130 flagship sites, NTS is also responsible for 200,000 acres of countryside, 46 of Scotland's Munros, seven nature reserves, 248 miles of coastline and 16 islands.

Narrowing its focus to "heritage of national significance" is aimed at allowing NTS to bring in outside help to run part of its portfolio, allow it to make purchases, and carry out major restoration programmes for the first time in years. The last major project NTS inherited was the plan to restore the birthplace of Robert Burns and the Burns museum in Alloway, Ayrshire.

The organisation has said it needs to address major "gaps" in its portfolio, as it holds nothing in its collections from the past 100 years, and little to celebrate Scottish Enlightenment figures.

Plans to celebrate the greatest Scots of the 20th century, secure the future of threatened cultural buildings and showcase the industrial heritage of the nation are all now on the cards.

Sir Kenneth says: "The unique selling point about NTS is our diversity, in the way that we can bring together Scotland's land, nature and culture with the story of the nation.

"No other heritage organisation does that but there are a lot of ways we could be working with bodies that overlap with us at the moment. We can have a powerful voice if we work together properly in future."

NTS has had well-publicised financial problems, many of which stem from the charity's long-standing stewardship of high-profile sites which cost a lot to maintain, but attract little or no public funding.

Pete Selman, director of property and visitor services at NTS, says: "Brodick Castle in Arran is a good example of where we would like things to change.

"It is costing us around 200,000 to run at the moment, without including the cost of carrying out any improvements at the site. We would hope other organisations would be interested in helping to run Brodick Castle and helping to promote it with other attractions and the landscape in the area.

"We don't actually own the David Livingston Centre in Blantyre, although we have a management agreement with the trust responsible for it. It nearly closed a couple of years ago but it would great if had a more stable future in time for the 200th anniversary of Livingstone's birth, in 2013."

Though NTS says it has taken on too many responsibilities over the years, it threw up a surprise earlier this week by revealing it was keen to take on new sites.

Contenders may include everything from historic farms, factories and industrial plants to giant cranes and even shipyards.

Although keen to stress it does not have a "shopping basket" of sites in mind, NTS is making it clear it wants to expand its portfolio to include cultural sites. Run-down former cinema buildings, neglected theatres and the birthplaces of celebrities are all clear contenders.

Selman says: "A big issue for NTS is that we've been saddled with all kinds of properties that have been left to us over the years. No other national heritage bodies existed when we were set up and we are responsible for a lot of things by accident.

"One of the big things we want to address is the fact that there is nothing in our collection after the Edwardian era.

"The industrial era in Scotland was hugely important, particularly for Glasgow, while in Edinburgh a lot more should be done to mark Enlightenment figures like David Hume and James Hutton."

Selman says NTS is embracing all kinds of events and activities for the first time, and looking at the widespread expansion of others that have been recently tried out.

"You only have to look at the events calendar on our website to see what's happening over the next few months.

"Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire is a good example, with the anniversary concert in August, which 5000 will be attending on the castle lawns.

"We've had events at Culzean in the past but that's the kind of thing we want to do a lot more of, along with things like Highland Games, the start and finish of cycle races, theatre on the lawn and even murder mystery nights."

NTS will also be looking to expand its network of holiday accommodation and facilities for corporate hospitality events. It already allows people to stay in some of its protected cottages, lodges, lighthouses and castles.

Terry Levinthal, director of conservation at NTS, says: "We believe there is latent potential in many of our sites and we are carrying out a review of all 130 of our main ones over the next year or so, looking at their heritage value, but also at properties that are underused or where opportunities may lie.

"In total, we are actually responsible for around 1300 buildings and structures around the country and many of them are not in any kind of use at all."