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Agenda: Landed estates are a great asset to Scotland's fragile rural economy

Back in 1997, I sold a business and bought a dream.

That dream was 9000 acres of wild hills and glens west of Fort William. Having made money in Hong Kong, I was excited and proud to be the owner of my own deer forest.

In 2003 I sold it and I haven't regretted doing so; not much, anyway. As they say in the boating world, the two best days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.

What I hadn't grasped was the cost, bureaucracy, administration and time involved.

At least £40,000 of outgoings a year on salaries, vehicles, property costs and so on, as well as endless form-filling for Scottish Natural Heritage, the Deer Commission, Sepa and so on.

If you extrapolate this across the Highlands, many tens of millions of pounds are being spent on employment and local services by "golden geese", the wealthy business people who made their money elsewhere and are ploughing it into the Scottish rural economy. These "golden geese" can do as I do and rent their fishing and shooting rights for surprisingly little and instead invest their capital in London or Geneva.

The Scottish Government's Land Fund may cough up a couple of million pounds and gift the estate to the local community but this doesn't help with the ongoing costs. Will it ensure year-round employment on the estate? I doubt it.

Urs Schwarzenbach, a Swiss billionaire, has bought 40,000 acres near Dalwhinnie. His dozen stalkers, shepherds and other estate workers live in state-of-the art houses.

He buys his vehicles in Inverness and uses Scottish contractors to build his lodges. He has restored miles of footpaths the public can use. What a wonderful asset he is to that fragile rural economy. He must lose money each year, having invested £20m on building works. He deserves a knighthood for services to rural Scotland.

I also wonder what Central-Belt urbanites would think about the public subsidy if they knew the cost to the taxpayer. Community buyouts effectively take millions of pounds from the people of Bellshill and Kirkcaldy, instead of the millions of rich landowners, to subsidise those in the rural communities.

It would be better if this money could be spent on housing stock, care homes, schools and hospitals in our cities they may argue.

The lovely Isle of Eigg is one of my favourite places. The community buyout has resulted in a population explosion, with both returning young and settlers seeking the good life.

But, with the grants they have received, each family could have been given a Land Rover for use on the island and a Ferrari for when they get off the ferry in Mallaig.

Knoydart peninsula, too, has thrived under community ownership but at a similarly huge cost to other taxpayers. The problem with grants is that they are narrowly directed at community buyout areas.

If you were an islander on Muck, Raasay or Eriskay you might love the cash to be distributed more equitably.

The vast majority of estates are fantastic local employers that welcome walkers on to their hills, and that take their role as guardians of the land seriously. Anyone who knows the Camerons of Locheil or the Grants of Rothiemurchus will know what fantastic assets they are to their locality.

If they were commercially minded, they would sell up and head off to where all the other "golden geese" go when they feel they have been plucked.

I don't know what the conclusion of the Land Reform review will be, but I doubt that, even if it recommended the status quo, the Scottish Government would accept it. It is more likely that ministers would cherry-pick the bits they want and ignore the rest.

My Highland neighbours are not yearning to take on the responsibility and financial headache of loss-making hill land. But something tells me this is not what our Central Belt MSPs will choose to hear.

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Finance

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