Insight: Should a Dane be the new power in rural Scotland?

The 2,506 ft Ben Loyal from the Kyle of Tongue in Sutherland. Picture: Michele Vacchiano
The 2,506 ft Ben Loyal from the Kyle of Tongue in Sutherland. Picture: Michele Vacchiano
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Outdoor writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish was walking in Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms recently when he came on the bothy, Ruigh Aiteachain. Located close to the spot where Sir Edwin Landseer painted his famous The Monarch Of The Glen, the stone building has long provided shelter for hillwalkers on wild highland days. Now it was full of builders. McNeish assumed the worst: that it was being converted into a holiday cottage. But the stalker with whom he was touring the estate reassured him the landowner, Anders Holch Povlsen, had no such intention. In fact, the stalker said, “the boss” had looked inside and, finding it cold and dank, decided it should be upgraded for hillwalkers of the future. “He was adamant he wanted it to be the kind of place he’d be happy to spend the night in,” says McNeish. “I thought that was fantastic.”

Anders Holch Povlsen poses something of a conundrum for Scotland’s land reform champions. For the past ten years, the billionaire Danish businessman – owner of the clothes and accessories company Bestseller – has been collecting Scottish estates as if they were malt whiskies: Glenfeshie, Kinloch, Gaick, Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, Lynaberack, Aldourie Castle; the list goes on. His most recent acquisitions – the Polla and Strathmore estates in Sutherland – mean he is just a few thousand acres short of stealing the title of the country’s biggest private landowner from the Duke of Buccleuch (who has 240,000 acres). And there is no indication Povlsen plans to stop any time soon.

Unlike some other landowners – such as MFI heir Paul Lister, who owns Alladale in Sutherland – Povlsen keeps a low profile. He hardly ever gives interviews or talks about his future plans. But we do know he is eligible for some EU subsidies and that the millions of pounds he pays in land tax go to Danish local authorities, not Scottish ones.

All this ought to make him a pariah; an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the current system. But Povlsen – a philanthropist – doesn’t fit the template of the rapacious landowner. Far from exploiting Glenfeshie for profit , he is investing in its regeneration; instead of ignoring the advice of the country’s environmentalists, he is realising their vision.

At 43,000-acre Glenfeshie – the first of his estates, bought in 2006 – he has reduced deer numbers to such a level the area has undergone a remarkable transformation. Around 1,200 acres of Caledonian pine forest have been brought back to life. Juniper, willow, alder and birch are all thriving and pine martens, black grouse and capercaillies are once again making appearances. “I remember the days of Glenfeshie when it was like walking through an old folks’ home – all these pine trees were just dying off and there was no progeny,” says McNeish. “There was nothing coming through. You go down there now and it’s fresh and vibrant.”

Povlsen appears to be taking this approach across all his estates. He wants to create high-end, nature-based experiences and is interested in the social as well as the ecological needs of the Highlands. And yet, despite all this, something rankles. Scotland’s wild places have been ravaged before and may be again. It is mere serendipity that Povlsen is well-intentioned.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable that anyone from anywhere can buy as much land as they like in Scotland,” says Scottish Green Party MSP and land reform campaigner Andy Wightman. “The fact Mr Povlsen appears to be doing the right thing and making welcome investments doesn’t justify a lottery in the land market.”

Povlsen – worth an estimated £5.8 billion – inherited Bestseller from his father Troels and mother Merete, who co-founded it in 1975. Bestseller employs more than 20,000 people and has at least 20 different brands, including Vero Moda, Mamalicious and Jack and Jones. In 2013, Povlsen bought a 10 per cent stake in the German internet clothes retailer Zalando, becoming the third largest shareholder. Bestseller already had a 27 per cent stake in ASOS.com, the largest UK internet-only fashion retailer.

Troels Povlsen has a long-standing interest in historic buildings. In 2006, he won a Georgian Group award for the restoration of 16 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, the former home of John Fisher, a British Admiral known for naval reform, and this year he offered to fund the Spitalfields Trust’s fight to save Norton Folgate from redevelopment. Troels also bought Constantinsborg, a neoclassical manor house south-west of Aarhus, where Anders, 43, his wife and four children now live.

Povlsen jnr appears to have inherited his father’s love of architecture; when designing a new Bestseller building in Aarhus, he was determined its facade should use the same stone as the city hall. When that proved impossible (the quarry was closed) he sourced limestone from Palermo and travelled to Sicily to ensure it would be an adequate substitute.

Memories of carefree childhood holidays in the Highlands may have inspired Povlsen’s foremost passion, the buying of Scottish estates, but it was meeting Glenfeshie manager Thomas MacDonell that was the catalyst for his programme of rewilding.

On arriving at the estate, so the story goes, Povlsen called the staff together to outline his plans: Glenfeshie would continue as a sporting estate, but the house would be turned into a conference centre. After the meeting, MacDonell asked him if he would come and see some of the small-scale regeneration work he was already undertaking, and a pioneering partnership was formed.

MacDonell’s own story is compelling. From nearby Kincraig, he was, for a time, a fencer, under contract to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). In the course of his work, he began to notice that the small areas he was fencing off were thriving because they were not being “browsed”. On one occasion, he stumbled on a deer that had starved to death because numbers were so high there was not enough food to go round.

In time, MacDonell met naturalist Dick Balharry, who persuaded the Nature Conservancy Council to buy Creag Meagaidh, now one of nine national nature reserves in and around the Cairngorms National Park. Balharry worked tirelessly to control its deer in order to encourage the regeneration of native woodland and create the wooded mountain landscape reaching up from Loch Laggan.

By the time MacDonell was appointed factor at Glenfeshie, the forest – protected under EU law – was nearing extinction and the Deer Commission was demanding action. He culled 500 deer a year, three years in a row, but when he counted them there were still 500 too many.

Back then, MacDonell found himself in a difficult situation; he knew the deer numbers had to be brought down, but the culls were controversial and went against the objectives of the then owner, Flemming Skouboe, also a Dane.

When the pressure got too much for Skouboe, he sold up to Povlsen and a 250-year plan for Glenfeshie was born. “Povlsen gave me authority to address the deer issue once and for all, and for some time we had a shoot-on-sight policy which eventually got us down to around two animals per square kilometre,” MacDonell said in an interview with wildlife photographer Peter Cairns. Cairns owns and runs Scotland The Big Picture, which campaigns for rewilding.

MacDonell is now director of conservation at Wildland, the overarching company running all Povlsen’s estates. In pursuing their joint vision, the pair have faced fierce opposition; though rewilding is the zeitgeist, not everyone approves.

There are those, for example, who believe it puts nature before humans and will turn Glenfeshie into a “jungle”. But Povlsen insists in the long-term both the landscape and the locals will benefit.

As yet, the businessman does not appear to be making much money from his investment. “His take on it is that he runs a big business that extracts and pollutes and this is his way of putting something back, not only from an ecological point of view, but also socially,” says Cairns, who has done some work for him.

“His long-term plan is to tick many of those boxes which include local employment and young people in rural communities having the opportunity for a meaningful career. It’s not just about growing trees, it’s about a long-term sustainable nature-based economy.”

Povlsen visits Scotland once every six weeks and has already converted a farmhouse close to Glenfeshie into an upmarket four-bedroom hotel employing four or five people. He also has plans for a £100m luxury spa on the Ben Hope estate, is renovating buildings in Kinloch, Ben Hope and Ben Loyal, and has given £200,000 towards the renovation of Castle Varrich which overlooks the Kyle of Tongue.

Like Lister, he has mooted the idea of reintroducing lynx and wolves to the Highlands, and he is already creating a wilderness reserve for surviving lynx, bears and wolves in Romania’s Carpathian mountains.

“Povlsen is aware of the perception of him being a foreign landowner coming in with all his money and moving people off the land – the traditional clichés. He wants to reverse all that,” says Cairns.

“Most people here do like him. He integrates into the community and he has put money into the local economy in terms of supporting nursery groups. If you speak to the keepers they will still be suspicious, but generally he is earning a reputation for innovation and change that will be for the benefit of people rather than the detriment.”

So Povlsen appears to be doing Scotland a favour. MacDonell has said he is subsidising Glenfeshie to the tune of £1.6m a year. But given Scotland’s history of clearances and exploitation, should anyone – particularly someone based abroad – be allowed to buy up such large amounts of our countryside? Many land reform campaigners believe change is required to safeguard it from less benevolent forces.

“While Povlsen is benign and munificent, that’s down to his personal choices. So there is still a policy question as to whether or not people think it’s acceptable,” says Malcolm Combe, an Aberdeen University-based lawyer, who served on the Land Reform Review Group.

In its final report, the group called for a cap on the amount of land owned by a single person or entity, but the Scottish Government – always nervous about interfering in the private market – did not include the measure in its Land Reform Act 2016. The SNP is introducing a register of controlling interests, to increase transparency, which might make it easier to impose a cap in the future.

“There were also issues to do with the free movement of capital and restrictions of ownership in terms of the EU regulation of such things,” says Combe. Similar considerations may also have stopped the Scottish Government acting on another review group proposal: that it might be legally possible to prevent non-EU entities from owning land here.

Certainly, it seems unfair that millions Povlsen pays in land tax should help fund local services in Denmark, as opposed to Scotland. While Scottish businesses pay tax on the rental value of their premises, rural landowners here are exempt.

Wightman believes phasing in a tax over ten years would reduce the artificially inflated price of land, bringing it within the reach of buyers who are currently priced out of the market. Introducing such a tax would mean land costing £10m would be liable for £250,000 a year in rates. “If you are going to be liable for £250,000-a-year, you are not going to pay £10m for land,” Wightman says. “So that price is going to come down to around £2m because then you will be paying £50,000 a year.

“Bringing the price of land down means it doesn’t have a speculative value. People can’t just come in and buy it for £10m and walk away with a handsome profit.”

For McNeish the future lies not with Povlsen-style ownership, but in community buy-outs, where local people run hydro-electric power plants and wind farms. “I think there is room for a bit of everything: for rewilding, for sporting estates and most importantly for community ownership which – as Assynt and Eigg are demonstrating – can be very successful,” he says.

For the time being, Povlsen seems to have the best interests of Scottish communities at heart. And Glenfeshie continues to flourish. “The regeneration that has happened there has been nothing short of miraculous,” says McNeish. “As somebody who has lived here for 40 years, I would say it really is the jewel of the Cairngorms.”