ONE of Scotland's largest heritage bodies is facing a £53 million black hole in its budget – amid a warning that smaller organisations face a “second cliff edge” this winter.

Historic Environment Scotland told Holyrood’s culture committee that the impact of Covid-19 has hampered around 85 per cent of its non-government funding, with visitor number plummeting.

Officials from the National Lottery also told the committee that “we are facing some very, very difficult times” for small independent heritage organisations.

Alex Paterson, chief executive of HES, said: “We estimate that 85 per cent of our non-government funding has been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, largely related to the implications of visitors to sites and largely related to international visitors.

“So that’s created a hole of £53 million in our budget for the year – quite significant and quite challenging.”

Last week, the Scottish Government announced £23 million in funding for HES to support the reopening of its sites.

Mr Paterson added: “We are comfortable and we are fine with the arrangements we have in place for 2020/21.

“But we are clearly already giving serious thought to how do budgets and sources of income look for 2021/22 and thereafter - of course an awful lot of that is predicated on how we think the visitor economy might recover in the next 12 months.”

Caroline Clark, director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Scotland, warned the committee over a “deep concern” of the financial stability of Scotland’s independent heritage assets.

She said: “As an emergency response, we’ve spent over £6 million supporting the sector.

“I have a deep concern that now that we’ve drawn our funding to an end – that completed close on July 31, in four months or less time, there will then be another cliff edge which the smaller, independent, community heritage organisations from across Scotland will have to face in the winter season when their visitor numbers would already be low.”

She added: “There’s a real second cliff-edge approaching us which we will collectively need to think about how to solve.

“We are facing some very, very difficult times for the smaller, independent heritage organisations up and down the length of the country where the resource we have been able to put forward will come to an end at a time when their visitor numbers would be at their lowest anyway.”

In her written submission to MSPs, Ms Clark, pointed to an estimated funding gap for Scotland's independent heritage of up to £29 million for the remainder of the financial year.

She warned that many are “falling through the cracks” of the government funding made available.

She added: “The gap is absolutely up to date – those are the latest figures.

“The parts of the sector we deal with, the independent heritage and cultural organisations across the country, we have been providing the ongoing emergency support for that.

“That sector, the community heritage centres, the historic sites, assets and houses around the country – they are not particularly catered for by the latest package of funding.”

Giles Ingram, chief executive of the Abbotsford Trust, which looks after the home of Sir Walter Scott, said his organisation is “anticipating a very, very challenging year ahead in 2021” and is “dependent on commercial revenue”.

The Abbotsford Trust has predicted that as much as £400,000 could be lost through visitor income this year.

Mr Ingram said: “Our revenues, even in a normal year, not a coronavirus-affected year, drop off a cliff from December and then start to pick up again in March.

“That’s normally when we would tap into free cash reserves in order to continue to meet our operating costs and pay our salaries.

“Dependent on how 2021 transpires, whether international visits start to pick up again – we're expecting group travel visits to remain very largely suppressed all the way through next year, no matter what happens.”

The National Trust for Scotland has bene propped up with £3.8 million from the Scottish Government, which has saved almost 200 jobs.

In a submission to MSPs, the organisation said “the impact of the Covid crisis has hit the trust very hard”.

The trust has also warned that “uncertainty remains a challenge”.

It added: “Whilst we have factored in a general downturn to the economy and feel more confident that we can weather local lockdowns we will require the tourist and visitor economy to revert to much more normal operation from spring 2021.”

Philip Long, chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland, said: “The trust was facing a severe crisis.

“Early in the crisis, we identified that it may be possible to re-open around 27 properties and we’ve been able to increase that significantly to around about 33 properties.

“From an original at risk position to roles of 429, with the support that we’ve received from government, with the support that we’ve received from people across the country and internationally into our fundraising campaign – and through the actions that we’ve taken, we’ve been able to reduce redundancies now to 226, of which 180 are compulsory.

“Of course, we regret the loss of any of our staff but that is the reality of our position and it is a more positive one than was the situation.”

But Mr Long warned that "we're not out of this crisis" and stressed that "there's been a very real human cost".

He added: "We need to continue to be agile in our response so our planning will need to remain relatively short-term."