Madonna a lucky star for the trust's fortunes
MADONNA’S decision to marry in Scotland has been a critical factor in dragging the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) back from the brink of financial crisis.
The Scotsman has learned that the international pop star, children’s author, actress, and celebrity mother’s preference to tie the knot at Skibo Castle in the Highlands has started a trend which has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of the NTS.
At the annual meeting today, Dr Robin Pellew, the chief executive of Scotland’s second largest landowner, will today tell members and senior trust officials the charity is in the best financial shape it has been for the last five years, when spiralling debt took it to the verge of insolvency.
Declining membership of the trust and plummeting visitor numbers in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September have also been reversed, contributing to a substantial increase in revenue and a reduction in the charity’s debt.
In the five years leading up to 2001, visitor numbers at NTS properties fell by between 12 and 15 per cent, while the cost of maintenance and repair increased. This contributed to a deficit of some 2.5 million at the end of 2001.
However, last year the gap between its operating costs and income had been narrowed to 1.4 million, and this year it was 900,000.
Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s wedding at Skibo three years ago first alerted celebrities to the charms of a wedding in Scotland.
A growing list of stars followed suit, including the racing driver Dario Franchitti and his wife, film actress Ashley Judd, and more recently the fashion designer Stella McCartney and Alasdhair Willis on the Isle of Bute this August.
Now it seems that Scottish romanticism has influenced the general public’s choice of wedding locations, and the NTS makes approximately 500,000 a year in renting out castles and stately homes for parties, weddings and corporate events.
A spokesman for the General Register Office for Scotland said that in 2002 there were 29,826 marriages north of the Border. Of those, 8,874 - or 30 per cent - were marriages where both the bride and groom were neither born nor resident in Scotland.
VisitScotland, the domestic tourist board, said weddings were worth an estimated 18 million to the Scottish economy annually, and receives up to 30 inquiries a day from all over the world about Scottish weddings.
Dr Pellew told The Scotsman: "The deficit on the operating account has steadily declined in the last three years from 2.5 million to 1.4 million and will this year be at about 500,000. Next year we expect to be back in the black. This is the key figure and the one we look at much more critically.
"Members should feel encouraged that the trust is in good heart. One of the contributory factors has been the tendency for people wanting to get married in Scottish castles. Long may that ‘Madonna factor’ last."
Dr Pellew added: "We also continue to grow our membership and that is now up to about 268,000. Last year we closed at about 253,000, showing that we have grown at about 5 per cent, or 15,000 additional members this financial year.
"We have also turned around our decline in visitor numbers. For the last ten years, year on year, they have been falling. But in the 2002 season we turned it around with an increase of 9 per cent and this year it has increased by 6 per cent."
A spokesman for VisitScotland said: "Scotland is perceived as a romantic magical mystery destination for weddings, and that functions as a huge draw for people.
"Obviously the crowning glory was having Madonna choosing Scotland as a place to get married, and you can’t get better publicity than that.
"If the trend is also turning round and benefiting the fortunes of the NTS then that can only be a good thing."
The NTS now expects to be back in the black in the financial year of 2004-5, although many of its properties will continue to run at a deficit offset by other revenue incomes.
URQUHART Castle, one of Scotland’s most historic and picturesque properties, has been bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland, it emerged yesterday.
Although the castle is managed by Historic Scotland, it remained the property of Eila Chewett of Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire.
Mrs Chewett, whose late husband purchased the castle, which stands of the shores of Loch Ness, in the 1930s, died this year.
Although she was not a member of the NTS, she handed over ownership of the ruined castle and the associated landing pier.
The trust will enter discussions with Historic Scotland to ensure the integrity of the site is maintained. The castle will continue to open as usual.
Robin Pellew, NTS’s chief executive, said: "We are delighted to have been gifted this castle. We believe it demonstrates the trust people bestow upon us to take good care of historic buildings."
The history of Urquhart Castle is as chequered as it is ancient. Records of it first appeared around 1230, when Alexander II used it while crushing a revolt in Moray.
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