Northeast Scotland, where the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen bookend the rural landscapes of the Cairngorms, Moray and Aberdeenshire, has a housing market that is diverse by any measure.
There are country estates with grand baronial houses and hundreds of acres of land; two-bedroom cottages in small fishing villages; and larger towns with clusters of older homes surrounded by blander properties built within the past 40 years. The urban sprawls of Inverness and Aberdeen boast local stone and granite properties but both have sharply contrasting grand and low-cost housing, sometimes in the same street.
At the northern tip of northeast Scotland are Moray Firth ports such as Nairn, Lossiemouth and Burghead, near the inland village of Duffus, which is dominated by the 150-acre estate of Gordonstoun. Set up in 1933, this is a co-educational private school for about 600 boarding and day pupils, aged 8 to 18, and is where several members of Britain’s royal family, including Prince Charles, studied.
Its influence on the housing market in this area is unusual. A typical school day – even for non-boarders – does not finish until 8pm, so parents wanting to live close to the school have a limited area in which to buy. Inverness is 40 miles west and Aberdeen 70 miles to the southeast; although some parents live in these cities, many instead buy property in rural Moray, a triangular region with the small town of Elgin as its administrative centre.
“We’re regularly contacted by buyers who are looking to relocate, specifically to be within a reasonable daily commute of Gordonstoun. They are from all parts of the UK and noticeably from international markets, particularly Europe, Russia and East Asia,” says Michael Jones of Knight Frank estate agency.
There are, however, few properties in the local Moray area above £500,000. Exceptions include a 16-bedroom country house near the town of Forres, on an estate in 185 acres of land and with its own loch, on sale through Strutt & Parker for £2.5m. Knight Frank is selling an 11-bedroom, 11-bathroom baronial mansion, with 10 acres of land, near Aberlour for £1.39m. Both estates are within about 30 minutes’ drive of Gordonstoun.
For those wanting an urban lifestyle but with easy access to the country, and Gordonstoun within an hour’s drive, Inverness is the obvious choice. Granted city status in 2000, this community of 60,000 residents is the gateway to the highlands – a vast mountain range extending south, west and north of Inverness.
Urban house prices in this part of the UK – Inverness is 560 miles north of London and 160 miles north of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh – are relatively low. An average detached house is £255,000, roughly unchanged over the past year but about 10 per cent below 2007 peak values. Large modern houses on the fringe of Inverness, often with about half an acre of land, are between £600,000 and £750,000. A four-storey, seven-bedroom Victorian villa close to the city centre, currently a bed-and-breakfast business, is on sale through the Scottish business sales agent CCL for £495,000.
Such prices offer good value to those moving from more expensive locations elsewhere in the UK, while proximity to Inverness airport and the hunting and stalking opportunities in the Highlands tend to attract overseas buyers. “The bulk of our interest is from southeast England and London. However, recent buyers have come from Bahrain, Luxembourg, Germany, Holland and Singapore,” says Kevin Maley of the Inverness branch of Strutt & Parker.
Inverness’s prices are modest by comparison with Aberdeen. The city has more than 220,000 inhabitants and many of Scotland’s highest-value houses. Within the city, the West End – a small matrix of streets of large terraced houses and detached villas – is regarded as the most desirable area, followed by Milltimber, a suburb six miles west of the city centre.
This newfound wealth is thanks to the arrival over the past four decades of more than 400 foreign-owned firms, many in the oil and gas industries, that have kept local employment and house prices unusually high. The city’s port services oil rigs off Scotland’s northeast coastline and it has the world’s busiest civilian heliport. Many of the children of oil and gas executives go to the International School of Aberdeen (formerly the American School in Aberdeen, established in 1972), which counts some 35 nationalities among its 350 students (from preschool to the age of 18).
“The Aberdeen market is buoyant because it’s oil-driven,” says Ruaraidh Ogilvie of Savills. “Its £1m-plus market improved last year and is holding its own this year, and we’re certainly ahead of where we were in 2007. Sales of £2m-plus properties are not uncommon in and around Aberdeen.”
The country market just outside the city is also high-priced by Scottish standards, with more than 10 £1m-plus country houses currently for sale. These include Breda House at Alford, a seven-bed mansion with 182 acres including fishing rights on the River Don, on sale through Rettie & Co for £2.25m. A six-bedroom early-20th-century house with a modest eight acres – but including private fishing on the River Ythan – is on sale through Simpson and Marwick for £1.65m.
Knight Frank and Savills say residential property prices in Aberdeen and around Gordonstoun fell by up to 25 per cent in 2008-09 but have recouped much of their value since. Scotland often suffers heavily in a recession because of its distance from wealth-generating London.
What may help northeast Scotland’s fortune, however, is its varied top-end property range and its popularity for those attracted by an unusual combination of outstanding countryside, the oil and gas industry and one of the country’s best-known schools.
• Homes above £1m and £2m purchased by individuals incur 5 per cent and 7 per cent stamp duty.
• Scottish property transactions often involve secret sealed-bids between rival buyers.
• Crime figures for northeast Scotland fell by about 5 per cent in 2011/12.
• Daytime temperatures are low by UK standards, averaging 1.5C in January and 19C in July.
What you can buy for ...
£500,000: A five-bedroom detached house with grounds
£1m: A country house and small estate, or Aberdeen townhouse
£5m: A large mansion with up to 1,000 acres – rarely on the market