The stereotypical view of a Highland sporting estate owned by a disinterested, absentee landlord has been challenged by a new report suggesting that family owned rural seats are making substantial contributions to the wider community.
A study of 23 family estates across Scotland found landowners were engaging with the community via activities ranging from farming, forestry, country sports and lets to quarrying, tourist accommodation, equestrian pursuits and green energy.
Landed families recognised the businesses run from their estates were interdependent with communities as they sought to diversify their income streams, according to the research by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).
The report, funded but not commissioned by the Scottish Government, said the majority of landowners involved felt they had a duty to support local rural development.
The report comes at a critical time in the long-running land reform debate. Land reform campaigners have long argued that stewardship of the Scottish countryside should be extended beyond the landed classes.
The Scottish Government has established a Land Reform Review Group to look at increasing community ownership.
The report found evidence of family estates supporting local communities by providing affordable housing and employment and investing in their local areas. Estates were working with partners to contribute to local development plans and some targeted letting of properties to families with children or gifted land for recreational use.
Rather than wishing to be seen as “paternalistic”, many estate owners viewed this kind of community engagement as part of their long-term rationale for supporting sustainable rural communities, the report said.
“The most important thing we observed was the diversity of estates, which was at odds with the image of the Highland estate with hunting and shooting and an absentee landlord,” said Sarah Skerratt, one of the report’s authors and the Director of the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC.
“For the majority of estates, agriculture was still the main income stream, but we also saw some estates with hotels, bed & breakfasts and some have a school or village pub.”
She added: “A lot of them talked about their burden of responsibility and that they didn’t want to be the people that lose the land.”
Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, said: “It is clear from the findings that estates make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part. The evidence demonstrates a clear link between the vibrancy and strength of rural Scottish communities and the decision making on local estates.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “This research uses a very small sample size and is based solely on the views of family estate owners and should not be considered representative of all estates.”
She added: “Community land ownership is key to building independent, resilient rural communities and building community confidence, promoting growth and enabling communities to realise their aspirations.”
Case study: ‘If we work with the community they will have pride in estate’
The 600-acre Craufurdland Estate and its 12th-century castle in Ayrshire have been in Simon Houison Craufurd’s family since 1245. As the 28th laird, he is a firm believer in working with the community. “If we try to work with the community, they will have a pride in the estate and it lets other people’s children enjoy it in the same way that I did as a child,” said Mr Houison Craufurd.
A local cycling club has helped develop a 9km mountain bike trail through the grounds, which is used by locals. Students at the nearby Kilmarnock College fish the trout fishery and built bridges on the estate with wood milled from the timber yard.
Youngsters at local primary schools come to the estate in pursuit of an outdoor education.
Engagement with the community has even extended to a long dead ancestor, whose ghostly going-ons helped raise money for a youth club, which hosted a paranormal night on the estate.