WITH more than 600 years of history behind it, Gordon Castle is like any Highlands estate in that it has plenty of stories to tell. Angus Gordon-Lennox is now looking to use that rich chronicle to write a new chapter in the financial annals of his ancestral home.
What began as a project to bolster the estate’s traditional businesses has grown into a multi-faceted operation including a range of products branded under the Gordon Castle name. Their motif – a single aureate “G” – was found in the castle in a prayer book from 1744.
Just two old businesses were not enough to keep the roof on and keep moving forward
It now features on everything from jam and gin to essential oils and luxury bathing accessories. The hook is that they all have a link back to the estate, which includes an eight-acre walled garden currently undergoing a £2 million restoration.
“It is a very ambitious project,” Gordon-Lennox admits. “We have probably bitten off more than we can chew, but we’ll see how we get on.”
Built in 1808, it originally served as the kitchen garden for the entire estate. It was later used for commercial growing of raspberries, but after this became unviable, the plot was given over to producing hay.
Throughout it all, more than 250 trees that formed part of the original garden continued to bear fruit ranging from apples and apricots to cherries, nectarines, pears and plums. Gordon-Lennox and his wife Zara have re-introduced sections for salads, vegetables and cut flowers, with a medicinal garden, perfume garden and hedge maze in the works.
The estate’s award-winning Castle Gordon Gin is made from botanicals grown in the garden, as are a range of luxury bath and beauty products. Cider, chutney and jams also originate from the plot, as do a variety of essential oils.
This breadth of activity stands in contrast to 2008, when Gordon-Lennox took over the running of the estate from his father. The main business was salmon fishing along the castle’s eight beats on the River Spey – one of the biggest stretches of privately-owned water in the country – plus a few holiday cottages for let.
“Just two old traditional businesses was not enough to keep the roof on and keep moving forward,” he says.
“The first thought I had was ‘Let’s build a brand and make products’, but products won’t sell these days unless they are unique and special. It was originally all about the products, but as we have gone along things have developed in different ways.”
From his former base in London, where he was a partner in Cazenove, Gordon-Lennox began his stewardship by organising the refurbishment of the castle and surrounding cottages. In addition to hosting fishing parties, the castle is also let out for weddings and other functions, including entertainment by the numerous whisky producers in the region.
Expansion stepped up a gear after 2010, when Gordon-Lennox returned to Scotland full-time following the acquisition of Cazenove by JP Morgan. From the family’s home built on the walled garden about 500 metres from the castle, he decided to set up the Gordon Castle Highland Games and Country Fair.
“Everyone thought I was completely mad, starting up a highland games, but every year we have had more and more people,” he says of the event, which attracted 10,000 visitors on its fifth anniversary in May.
“It’s more than just the heavy games – there’s the food, a concert stage, a craft tent and a country arena where there’s things like falconry and terrier racing. We’ve got a bit of everything jammed into two arenas on one day.” This was followed last summer by the opening of a restaurant and café, which sits alongside the walled garden creating a visitor destination that also reinforces the provenance of Gordon Castle’s products.
All together, the estate generates annual turnover of between £1m-£2m, though legally it operates as two separate businesses. The traditional operations of fishing, farming and holiday lets employs about 25 staff, while the newer activities associated with the garden have created 40 additional jobs.
There are plans for further products associated with the estate, including next month’s launch of a range of china by Halcyon Days. Designs include a pattern inspired by deer antlers that hung in the domed ceiling of the castle prior to its restoration.
It is the estate’s first licensing agreement, with Royal Warrant holder Halcyon Days responsible for distribution. Gordon-Lennox hopes to strike similar deals for fishing, luggage and clothing ranges based on the estate’s green, blue and yellow tartan.
Expansion has been financed by the estate, plus a small government grant towards the cost of restoring the walled garden. The traditional business is said to be profitable, while the newer division still requires heavy investment.
“It has been expensive, but one hopes there will be a return on capital in due course,” Gordon-Lennox says. “We have got to make it self-sufficient so it is not a burden for future generations.”
30 SECOND CV
Born: Oxford, 1964
Education: Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
Raised: I grew up all over the place as my father was a soldier
First job: Graduate trainee at Schroders
Ambition while at school: To succeed in anything I do
Car: It’s old. I hate cars. My car has done 160,000 miles
Preferred method of transport: Walking
Kindle or book? Book
Can’t live without: Family, challenges, and the next step
Favourite place: Perth, Australia
What makes you angry? People who don’t care
What inspires you? Many things, depending on the circumstances: enthusiasm, scenery, exuberance, can-do attitudes and unconventional thought
Best thing about your job: Making progress every day