The bulk of Scotland’s agricultural and sporting estates share a characteristic with prime properties in London – an increasing reliance on international buyers who are attracted by a safe haven and a trophy possession. A generation ago it was unusual to attract an overseas buyer north of the border but now it is commonplace. So far this year, estate sellers have had inquiries from Germany, Belgium, Greece and Scandinavia, as well as interest from Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.
It takes few international deals to transform the Scottish estates market because even in a brisk year, such as this one, there are only 20-odd sales. According to Savills, there have been 14 sales completed so far. Some have been small estates (below £1m), but “one was bought for almost £20m and two between £8m and £10m,” says Savills’ Charles Dudgeon. In the first nine months of this year estate sales in Scotland totalled £68m, compared with £47m in the whole of 2012.
Growth in such a small market is hard to calculate, but agents say that many estates have appreciated 40 per cent since 2000. This year only about two-thirds of the usual number of estates have come up for sale because of “the three Ds – death, debt and divorce,” says Robert McCulloch of Strutt & Parker. The rest tend to be “vendors of advancing age choosing to sell because the next generation would rather inherit money than carry the responsibility of ongoing ownership”.
Indeed, the romance of owning a Scottish estate – typically an expanse of 1,000 to 10,000 acres in the mountainous north known as the Highlands – has to be tempered with practical considerations. Many estate owners prefer to arrive by helicopter because travelling by car can be difficult and slow, while winter temperatures can drop to -20C, and managing old outbuildings can be arduous.
As a result, Scottish estates are not as expensive as many other prized UK properties. For example, the 1,500-acre Invermarkie estate in Aberdeenshire, with a 5,000 sq ft period house and five cottages, is on sale for £4.77m with John Clegg & Co and CKD Galbraith. By contrast, property website primelocation.com lists more than 500 properties in London on sale at or above that price.
The most popular kind of estate for overseas buyers is one listed “with sport” – typically deer stalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing. These estates often have large houses which can be let out to individuals and for corporate events. Cluny estate at Laggan, 105 miles north of Edinburgh, has 10,143 acres including a deer forest, grouse moor, and facilities for pheasant shooting, duck flighting and, unusually, goat shooting. It also has a 19th-century castle and 10 additional houses. It is on sale for £7.5m through Smiths Gore and Savills.
Running such an estate is not cheap. The biggest costs are staff, insurance for sporting events, feed for farming, and utilities – especially heating large houses and outbuildings. “The running of an estate can cost from anything between £50,000 to up to £1m per year depending on what assets it’s got,” says Ran Morgan of Knight Frank. “A residential estate with an uncommercial farm and a pheasant shoot will cost around £150,000 a year. A serious three to five day grouse moor estate might cost well over a million to run each year.”
Nor is running a Scottish estate for the faint-hearted. Ten miles south of Aviemore, Alan MacPherson-Fletcher is selling the 7,500-acre Balavil estate, which his family has run for 230 years. Sports include deer stalking, grouse and pheasant shooting, and salmon and trout fishing. The main house has 10 rooms, let from £170 per person per night and eight cottages. It is on sale through Strutt & Parker for £7m.
MacPherson-Fletcher manages the estate with a full-time gamekeeper, a part-time housekeeper and seasonal help for outdoor activities, from heather burning to “beating” birds from bushes for shoots. “When I became involved 40 years ago the neighbours were English or Scots and all the estates had been in family ownership for a century or more,” he says. “Neighbouring estates now are owned by a Swede, an Iraqi, a Norwegian, a Swiss-Italian and a Dane.”
Since the estate went on sale in August it has been viewed by people from six European countries. “We run this partly as a business, partly for family,” he says. “But ownership has changed around me and many estates are now trophy properties. They may earn money but for many they’re primarily a ‘must have’ accessory.”
Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, an official residence of the British royal family for more than 160 years, is unusually large at 49,000 acres and is one of the few estates to offer formal training to new gamekeepers. One of its staff, Greg Sinclair, 18, has won the title of Scotland’s young gamekeeper of the year for his work with deer, grouse and on the estate’s salmon rivers. But while sporting estates are increasingly the preserve of wealthy individuals, the other half of the market – agricultural estates – have a harder edge.
“These are in great demand because by their nature they’re more commercial [than sporting estates],” says Ran Morgan, Knight Frank’s Scottish partner. Owners can earn money from woodland, by letting farmland to one or more tenants, and increasingly through sites being used for renewable energy projects such as solar farms or wind turbines. A typical example is the Killean estate, 170 miles west of Edinburgh, on sale for £7.5m. It has a Georgian house, three arts and crafts cottages and a new 10-cottage holiday letting complex, as well as a farm and 1,350 acres of commercial forest. There is also consent for a hydroelectric scheme and “significant opportunities for other renewable energy projects,” according to Smiths Gore.
There is substantial interest from overseas. Danes in particular are familiar with the kind of farming required in Scotland and land prices and farming regulations in Scandinavia make UK agriculture appear good value and less bureaucratic.
Still, all buyers in Scotland have two unusual issues to consider. The first is a referendum on independence from the UK in September next year. “It’s created uncertainty but the attitude from overseas buyers is that they don’t believe it [independence] will happen,” says John Coleman of Smiths Gore. Then, from April 2015, a Scottish land tax will be levied on property sales. Details have not yet been revealed but there are fears this might crush the estates market. “But it’s unlikely the very prime end of the estates market will be affected, just as super-prime London has adjusted [to the rise in UK stamp duty in 2012],” says Dudgeon of Savills.
They may be a 10-hour drive from one another but, when it comes to the high-end property market, the Highlands and London have more in common than meets the eye.
● UK employment legislation means that estate employees – and their pensions – may have to be transferred to the new owners
● Estates may have to pay river board fishing levies and accommodate sites of specific scientific interest, which could restrict activities
● As well as sporting, farming, woodland, lettings and renewables income, many estates receive EU farm subsidies and mineral rights
● Winter temperatures in the Highlands can fall to as low as -20C
What you can buy for . . .
£2.5m: A 600-acre mixed-farming estate with arable land, a large house, cottages to let and some renewable energy potential
£4m: A 1,500-acre estate with a five-bedroom manor house, outbuildings, and sporting and fishing rights
£7m: More than 2,000 acres with commercially operated sporting, farming and holiday letting, as well as a mile of coastline and extensive renewable energy potential