How would you run a modern country estate?

Running a country estate in modern Scotland is far removed from the old-fashioned view of Highland lairds surrounded by servants and living a life of luxury. Today business acumen and hard work are essential. Our reporter meets three landowners and finds out how they are diversifying to balance the books

Owner: Sir John Lister-Kaye

Estate: House of Aigas, near Beauly, Inverness-shire

• Naturalist Sir John Lister-Kaye runs a renowned field centre at his House of Aigas estate. Picture: Neil Hanna

SIR JOHN LISTER-KAYE took over the House of Aigas, nestled in the hills near Beauly, Inverness-shire, in 1976 and has overseen a transformation from near derelict building to impressive baronial pile.

Hide Ad

As well as serving as a family home it hosts the Aigas Field Centre, a respected wildlife education and study centre with supporters ranging from Prince Charles to Bill Oddie.

But for the baronet and his wife, Lady Lister-Kaye, the joy of pursuing an interest in the natural world while living amid Highland splendour comes with a large price tag, and a lot of hard work.

It costs 400,000 a year to run the house and estate, with its 25 houses, small stone quarry, forestry plantations and farm land, which is let, as well as the field study centre.

Sir John admits the amount of work surprises many people: "When field centre guests come and see what is involved in running an operation like this they are astonished because of the very, very long hours. I go to sleep at night with a telephone by the side of my bed and if that telephone rings during the night because the cattle have got out on the road or one of the tenants has a burst pipe I've got to get up and I've got to sort that, and that never goes away."

The House of Aigas with its baronial hall, library and formal gardens has been home for 64-year-old Sir John, his wife, and their seven children, who have also had to get used to the pros and cons of the lifestyle.

Sir John says: "One of the advantages of a house like this is that it is great fun to live in. If you have a birthday party, you can have a dance. As the children grew up they would come home from school or university with a gang of friends."

Hide Ad

But doesn't the workload impact adversely on family life? Sir John admits: "It does a bit but we have done it for so long and the family all know what is involved.

"One of my daughters and her husband came to work for me a few years ago and he came from a different background. I think he was genuinely astonished at just how many hours we all worked but he pitched and joined in with it. He used to admit that he found it a huge culture shock."

Hide Ad

And the big issue always in the foreground is how to pay for everything.

"It is capital intensive," says Sir John. "For every year we have to maintain roads that get washed out in the winter, as well as fences … and we have 25 houses."

The upkeep of the houses on the estate – important as accommodation for some of the 25 staff – costs 75,000 a year while the 11 vehicles needed to transport visitors and estate workers costs 2,500 a year, a figure that has risen with fuel prices. The estate's commercial rates alone amount to 13,000 a year. To cope with these bills, diversification is key, says Sir John. "We have spread our liability across a range of diverse activities. So when one fails, maybe the price of timber is poor, we have other things to rely on, such as the quarry or housing stock."

Although there is income from forestry, the quarry and rent, the field centre is the main revenue generator. "Without the field centre it would not be viable," says Sir John. "That has enabled us to employ people and enjoy a much healthier turnover than agriculture, forestry or sports could have possibly produced."

Despite the hard work, Sir John believes it is worth the effort. He says: "For us, to look over the fence at someone who has a nine-to-five job – going home at the end of the working day not having to worry about anything until they turn up for work the following morning – we view that as a huge privilege. We can't do that, ever, we can't take our eye off the ball."

Nevertheless he admits the challenge of making it all work is reward in itself. "It is like running any business, if you can create a happy team that is very rewarding. And if at the end of the year you can return a profit, that is very satisfying."

Sir John works with son Warwick and has no plans to stop.

Hide Ad

He says: "If you do something that you really enjoy, the idea of retiring is pretty alien."

Owner: Michael Bruce

Estate: Glen Tanar,

Royal Deeside

• Michael Bruce

MICHAEL Bruce looks after a vast amount of land. In 1986 he inherited the 25,000-acre Glen Tanar Estate and, with his wife Claire, oversees a plethora of activities from traditional sporting pursuits to wildlife tours and weddings.

Hide Ad

But that doesn't mean he lives the life of a laird who sits back and lets everyone else get on with the hard work. Far from it, he says, his role is that of a businessman.

He says: "I did a business studies degree and I need that to run this diversified business and I also need the support from the staff and consultants, and very much my wife, to run it."

Living in Glen Tanar House, Michael, Claire and their three children, Alasdair, Ella and Angus, have to rub along with what visitors want, especially when there is a wedding taking place.

Mr Bruce, 50, says: "We have a short passage that separates us from the guest accommodation. We are within five metres of each other.

"You can hardly turn your nose up at accepting the revenue. Business schools are full of sayings that you have to do what the customer wants. The customers, for a wedding, will want their party to go on until at least midnight. We are a family business, we live above the shop. You need to get away for holidays because otherwise you are living in the shop the whole time and that's no good. It makes you stale."

Having a business outlook is essential, Mr Bruce says: "This estate is no different from any other business, yes we have a different asset profile but if I don't watch my cashflows like a hawk then we will come unstuck."

Hide Ad

For Mr Bruce, the idea of diversification is nothing new; it has been a vital part of his business for several years. "It is a diversifying business; it has a variety of enterprises, some of which do well when others aren't doing so well, which gives it stability."

In the early 1990s Glen Tanar started to develop away from the traditional sporting pursuits associated with Highland estates towards hosting weddings, conferences and seminars. Other activities were leased out, including stables offering riding holidays and a sawmill which now employs 35 people full-time.

Hide Ad

He says: "This estate, this family business, has been involved in tourism for over 100 years. We have let salmon fishing, accommodation and other sporting assets. Now, the percentage of our business which is involved in traditional pursuits is smaller and the percentage in general tourism activity higher."

To accommodate that change some assets once used primarily by the estate owner are now open to far more people. Mr Bruce says: "There has always been a stable here, when it started off it was pretty much for the sole use of the owners of the property. Now, it is a thriving business in its own right, leased out by the estate."

The estate, which has been in Mr Bruce's family since 1905, was once a community in itself but is now more integrated in the wider area. There are 30 people directly employed by it with another 20 working on a part-time or casual basis. In total, what with the sawmill, stables, forestry contractors and tenant farmers, the estate supports 135 jobs.

Mr Bruce says that studies have found that "in comparison to other types of business, estates are now more heavily and fully integrated into the local community". "You can't separate one bit of land from the other bits round about it," he says.

The growth of the nearby village of Aboyne has seen many communal activities move down the glen from the estate. Mr Bruce says: "Glen Tanar used to be a very inward-looking community; it had its own parties, whist drives etc. As Aboyne has grown, it has naturally reduced the activities in the glen."

However, despite its apparent 21st century business approach, the estate's traditional image is still a key attraction. Mr Bruce says: "There is a traditional veneer but that is part of the allure; we are branding ourselves on that."Owner: David Hendry

Estate: Cardney,


Hide Ad

• David Hendry and his partner Nancy Young did not buy the estate's castle when they purchased Cardney, near Dunkeld, in which they have invested 2.2m over the past three years. Picture: Ian Rutherford

DAVID Hendry is a wealthy man and he needs to be, his Perthshire estate loses 150,000 a year. And that's without counting in capital investment which has recently set him back more than 2 million.

Hide Ad

But his plans are for even more investment in a bid to put the estate on an even keel, making it a viable business which his daughter can take over and manage. The Cardney Estate near Dunkeld has changed considerably since the semi-retired owner of funeral services across Britain first arrived in the early 1990s.

In the past three years alone he has spent 2.2m on projects including renovating estate houses, buying a loch, building a bistro next to it and building a house for his daughter, as well as extending hill tracks and creating plantations.

The latest project is a bistro by Butterstone Loch, a large wooden building with a terrace and balcony. When the renovation of fishing boats for the popular fishing loch is factored in, the cost will exceed 500,000 and the spending hasn't stopped; next on his horizon are plans for a complex of chalets to attract holidaymakers who can also participate in shoots or join in outdoor activities including painting and photography.

Mr Hendry says: "The only way to turn it around is a number of different revenue streams."

After running it as tenant for about 15 years, he bought the estate outright in 2006, although he didn't want the "big house", instead taking a four-bedroom farmhouse which he shares with his fiance, Nancy Young. "I didn't buy the house because the running costs were prohibitive; what it would cost I could put into the estate."

Ten years ago the estate employed two people and the main income came from shooting and rents. Now there are seven full-time and a couple of part-time staff who still look after the traditional pursuits of an estate in Highland Perthshire – partridge and pheasant shoots as well as some roe and fallow deer stalking – but are looking to bring more visitors in with new ventures such as the bistro and chalets.

Hide Ad

He says: "The estate runs, or has run, under subsidy but with me being semi-retired I can't keep that up forever.

"My daughter would love to take over the estate and continue with it; the only way that is going to be possible is to invest what I have been lucky enough to make into making the estate viable, but it is a slow process.

Hide Ad

"Between operating costs and repairs it costs about 500,000 a year to run the estate, not including capital investment, and its revenues are about 350,000. So there is a gap."

But what do people think when he tells them of the huge amounts of money he puts into his 2,200-acres of Perthshire? He says: "Friends think it is madness. But in many ways it is a simple life, a horrendous amount of hours but hopefully we are working towards it being able to maintain itself, I don't think you can expect any better."

But he cautions that the life is not for everyone. "If you are seriously thinking about investing several million pounds into something, unless it is your passion, the last thing you would think about is this because the returns are small."

However, Nancy, who lived in Edinburgh before moving to Cardney last year, says she has adapted to the lifestyle very quickly. She says: "I used to go to bed at ten o'clock and switch off, now I'm lucky if I go to bed at one o'clock in the morning and I'm back up at six. Some days you get up and you think I can't do this and the next day you think this couldn't get any better. However, I think the good far outweighs the bad."