Ninian Crichton Stuart, the Hereditary Keeper of Falkland Palace in Scotland will be leading a debate “Succession: How can farmers and owners best let go and pass their land onto future generations?” at a farming festival called Go Falkland at Falkland Estate on July 1.
At the event, Ninian will discuss his plan to pass the estate to the community He talks in terms of “laying down the burden of ownership”, in a planned way.
Falkland’s gates are already open and accessible to all to walk, cycle or drive in, park and enjoy the beauty of the broadleaf woodland. That is in stark contrast to many of Scotland’s large estates – for example, Pippa Middleton’s father-in-law David Matthews bought the Glen Affric estate – 10,000 acres of one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland – and has recently blocked off a popular short trail around the loch that was accessible to less-fit people in a “mean-spirited” way.
There has been some limited land reform in Scotland. We have the right to roam on foot under certain circumstances (at Glen Affric new luxury housing dotted over the estate means that paths which overlook them can be blocked off). There are some areas where communities have been helped to buy the land they live on. But Scotland still has the most inequitable land ownership in the developed world. This month, the Scottish Government issued a consultation paper suggesting that a public interest principle should be applied when large estates change hands – should that be only when they are sold or should it include inheritance? Why are individuals still allowed to acquire huge tracts of Scotland as a birthright?
However, it must be acknowledged that public ownership is not an absolute guarantee of access – Pollok Park was preserved by the Maxwell family for 700 years. Just 30 years after they gave it to the city of Glasgow in 1966 to be kept as a public park in perpetuity, the City Fathers plowed the M77 through it, in the teeth of local opposition, demolishing seven miles of forest and cutting off access to the park from local housing schemes. (Watch the short film ‘Given to the People’ about the failed protest against it).
Back at Falkland, local resident Tara O’Leary is positive about the idea of the estate passing from the hands of one person to the community: “I would be in favour of a democratic trust being formed to take over part of the estate, perhaps the woodland. The move to community ownership is happening all over Scotland and this community has a lot of good people with relevant expertise.” For some, the prospect is exciting and can’t come soon enough. But others are nervous about how it will play out.
David MacDiarmid (SNP) who represents the Howe of Fife on Fife Council said: “To be honest, I would be keen for Ninan to keep doing it for as long as possible.” MacDiarmid has been working with Ninian since he took over 32 years ago and is aware of his hard work and commitment. A community body will inevitably contain different visions – at the moment there is one person at the helm. “Ninian is easy to deal with. He is a very gentle man. He always speaks softly and he tries to get agreement.
“Before Ninian took over there was a real feeling of them and us between the community and the estate. It isn’t like that now. Falkland Estate is open to us all to enjoy. But nobody pays to go in. It is not run as a money-making enterprise. They do make some money from the cafe, selling farm produce, weddings and so on. But Ninian and his staff have also worked very hard over the years to attract charitable funding and they have been very successful. There has been a lot of investment in the estate.” One example was a popular 19th-century path called Maspie Den – it collapsed and had to be closed off to walkers. The bill for repair was in the tens of thousands – but the estate managed to organise funding and repair.
There is also a long tradition here. Ninian is a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce. His ancestor, the third Marquess of Bute, acquired the home of his mentor Onesiphorous Tyndall-Bruce, a scion of a Bristol slave-owning family, almost 150 years ago. Once the hunting ground of the Scottish Royal family, Mary Queen of Scots and her ladies-in-waiting, the four Marys, would dress as men to ride out with birds of prey. More recently, scenes in the series ‘Outlander’ were filmed in the pretty conservation village.
There is a mossy chapel in the grounds, the solid stone walls topped by an empty rectangle that frames the sky. The Crichton Stuart family started to build it in the 1910s, after the death of Ninian, aged three, the heir. But a few years later, the child’s father and Keeper of the Palace, Captain Ninian Crichton-Stuart, also died, leading troops over the trenches in the Battle of Loos. The chapel was never finished and its roofless state is a memorial to World War One.
Our Ninian describes himself as having always been “deeply ambivalent about privilege”. After attending Ampleforth College, he ran away from his planned future to live and work with homeless people. After inheriting the estate from his father Major Michael Crichton Stuart – who was badly wounded in the Second World War – in 1991, Ninian opened the wrought iron gates at the entrance.
The 4,000-acre estate comprises woodland, farms and the A-listed Falkland House (it was at one time St Ninian’s, a Christian Brothers school for orphans which was the site of horrific sexual abuse) and in need of a multi-million pound roof repair. The Palace itself is looked after by the National Trust for Scotland. There is plenty of work for someone – or some people – to do here to maintain the estate. But it is never easy to let go and the details of how this will work are not at all clear.
Also on the podium at the event on July 1 will be Louise Armstrong of “Stewarding Loss”. She said: ‘For centuries succession through male bloodlines and family has been the norm. But as our world changes, the needs and realities of farms and farmers change and there are other options.” Stewarding Loss’ provides emotional support: “There are many legal and financial advisers in the field but emotional, narrative, human support is often absent in these tender times of transition.”
Another landowner, Priscilla Gordon Duff, will make the case for keeping land in the family – and describe how they are making that work at Drummuir Farm in Aberdeenshire.
Ninian is 66 and aspires to work a bit less and step back at some point. His two children can help with the transition but they don’t expect to inherit the role. However, they will still have a place here. Ninian is a founding member of the 1,000 Huts movement to create opportunities for Scottish city-dwellers to build but and bens – cabins for recreation – on long-term-leased countryside plots. Ninian has got planning permission for 15 huts and built the first one in a woodland glade, a place where he likes to take time to contemplate the future.
The “Succession” event is part of the programme at “Go Falkland” – a fringe event for ‘Groundswell’ the Hertfordshire-based regenerative agriculture festival – on July 1. Tickets for the day cost from £24 to £84. Camping tickets are available.
First published on the author’s Substack A letter from Scotland
Further reading: Is land restoration the next big swindle?, Andy Wightman, Stornoway Gazette; Land ownership inequalities in Scotland, Scottish Legal News; More questions than answers, Scottish Farmer