“If you want to make a small fortune, start with a big one and buy a Highland estate,” says Allan MacPherson-Fletcher, the former Laird of Balavil. “It’s the fastest way to lose money.”
In the spring of 2015 Macpherson-Fletcher sold his property near Kingussie for about five million pounds ($6.3 million U.S) to Dutch entrepreneur Eric Heerema. (See “What Will Become of Scotland's Moors?” in the May issue of National Geographic.) Now the headaches of running a 7,000-acre property and maintaining an 18th-century stone manor are someone else’s problem.
An invasive species is spreading over the great Highland estates of Scotland: buyers from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Chile, and European countries like Sweden and Denmark, lured by the weakening British pound in the wake of Brexit and by the cachet of playing Lord of the Manor.
Scottish owners like Macpherson-Fletcher are more than happy to trade the high costs of maintaining an estate for the huge sums foreign buyers are willing to pay. It’s a case of cut and run.
The costs are hand-wringingly high, but Highland properties were never meant to make money, a London lobbyist commented at dinner one night. He had been staying at one of the lodges rented out by the Blair Athol estate to sportsmen who come for shooting and fishing. “They are a plaything—like a yacht or a Riviera villa,” he explained. And who better to add the 24-karat gold charm of a Scottish estate to his own charmed bracelet of possessions than a Middle Eastern sheik or Russian oligarch? Unlike Macpherson-Fletcher, the new owners from abroad make their money from other holdings; they don’t rely on the estate to live on.
"We're even showing Chinese people around farmland," Andrew Shirley, an estate agent with Knight Frank, told the Guardian in 2014. Rich buyers, he said, were "not going to be sitting on the tractors" but were buying farms for investment or as a "lifestyle estate."
From 2015 to 2016 foreign buyers snapped up half the 16 estates sold in Scotland, but the takeover has been in play for some time. According to the Scotsman, in 1975 Emirati businessman Mahdi al-Tajir bought Keir House with 15,000 acres near Stirling for two million pounds, around $18.6 million in today's prices. Mohamed Al Fayed—the former owner of Harrod’s—owns Balnagown Castle, 30 miles north of Inverness, which he bought in 1972. Scandinavia is well represented by Swedish philanthropist and publisher Sigrid Rausing and Danish retail magnate Anders Holch Povlsen. Both own massive Highland estates that are being managed from a conservation point of view.
“I am surrounded by billionaires,” Macpherson-Fletcher told a visitor one morning as he sat in the glass enclosed room attached to a former crofter’s cottage on a corner of the estate he had kept back after the sale for himself and his wife Marjorie. “The Danish are over here,” he said, pointing in one direction to a long horizon of spruce forest. “We have Arabs on this side, Swedish behind. On the other side of the Arabs are Swiss-Italian. Beyond them are the Egyptians.”
The gobbling up of estates seems to be regarded with pragmatic tolerance by many locals. “What does it matter where they’re from?” asks Ronnie Kippen, the head gamekeeper of the Garrows Estate in Perthshire. “They can’t take it [the land] home with them.”
“It’s not who owns it. It’s how they treat it,” says Roy Dennis, a conservationist and wildlife consultant hired by Rausing, owner of Coignafearn, a 40,000-acre estate in the Monadhliath Mountains. “I’m more angry about beautiful Scottish portraits getting off abroad.”
One well-heeled foreign buyer, Macpherson-Fletcher says, decided that the decor of the property he bought wasn’t Scottish enough, so he hired American designer Ralph Lauren to give it the tartan touch, with tartan silk on the walls, tartan patterned carpeting on the floors and paintings of Highland lairds in full kilt on the walls.
Then there’s the European owner who keeps his house staff on standby around the clock and the vases full of fresh flowers in case he decides to swoop in for a sudden visit by helicopter. Another, Macpherson-Fletcher says, spent half a million pounds ($620,000) to bury the unsightly electric lines running across the property.
Macpherson-Fletcher has no regrets. “We sort of knew our days were numbered. We made a decision that whatever happens we were going to have fun.” Besides, he points out, the changeover is good for the local tradesmen and economy at large.
“Take our plumber—he made so much money that he just built his second home in Florida. Of course,” he adds, “now we have trouble getting hold of him when we need him.”
Former National Geographic Editor at Large Cathy Newman tends a small patch of heather in her Washington, D.C. garden to remind her of the Scottish moors.