The Scottish tourist board may be feeling slightly anxious at the moment. If you’re paid to publicise the attractions of a country, you could worry that the starring role your client has recently played in everything from Skyfall to Downton Abbey might have made you redundant. Nonetheless, these appearances will have certainly reinforced the charm of Scotland’s sporting estates.
In 2012, despite the constant undertow of debate about independence, this luxury commodity has held up remarkably well, and those hoping to pick up a bargain grouse moor or salmon reach have been sadly disappointed. “Prices are little changed since the 2007 peak. Last year there were some spectacularly strong deals made,” says Anna Henderson, director of rural property at Savills in Edinburgh.
Owning a Scottish sporting estate has long been a dream of those from around the world who share a passion for the rarefied form of sport it offers, with the British its biggest fans. Enthusiasts from Scandinavia, Belgium, Austria and the US – particularly those with a Campbell, Stewart or Macdonald on their family tree – are well represented in the market and, more recently, Russian, Middle Eastern and Chinese buyers also seem keen to don a field coat and shooting breeks.
So what is Scotland’s magic ingredient that holds such attraction? Quite simply, it has large, empty expanses of some of the world’s most breathtaking countryside.
“The Scottish sporting estate is a property asset class that’s just not found elsewhere,” says Simon Rettie, managing director of agents Rettie & Co. “You need a minimum amount of privacy for a viable grouse moor and, if you want to lay your hands on 500 to 500,000 uninhabited acres, there are few other places in northern Europe that are as easily accessible.”
Sporting estates, of course, vary considerably in size, price and location, starting from about £1m for somewhere remote with only the odd salmon or two, up to £30m or £40m for a large estate crowned by an architecturally significant house. The average purchase price, however, ranges between £5m and £10m.
“The ideal estate will provide some fishing, stalking and grouse shooting, have mature woodland and a good principal residence with accommodation for eight to 10 couples,” says Rettie. “Many buyers will also want to be within an hour of an international or private airport.”
One of the chief attractions about buying in Scotland is that rural isolation is entirely possible only a short distance from urban convenience. For example, Knight Frank will soon be marketing some 940 acres of the Spott Estate, a residential, agricultural and sporting property just 31 miles from Edinburgh city centre and a four-hour train journey from London (it has just sold 1,524 acres of the estate). The property is in two main lots, starting from £3m, and features a photogenic nine-bedroom mansion dating from 1640, a large farmhouse and in-hand farms. Each main lot comes with a magnificent high-bird partridge and pheasant shoot.
For some buyers, distance from the madding crowd is in itself the primary attraction, and for those who prefer their landscape wild and majestic, north-west Scotland and Perthshire, in central Scotland, provide some of the best sport and loveliest countryside. Knight Frank is selling a particularly appealing example of the genre, Auch and Invermearan, on the Argyll-Perthshire border (offers in excess of £8.4m). As well as 28,313 acres, a six-bedroom lodge, seven further houses, salmon fishing and deer stalking, the property bridges the accessibility gap with its own door-to-door train service – The Deer Stalker Express, a sleeper running from London Euston to the Bridge of Orchy station on the estate.
Buying such a property is a complex business and few purchasers undertake it without some preparation. “They’re savvy people, and they’re not buying on a whim,” says John Bound, a partner in Scottish agents CKD Galbraith. “They either already know a lot about it, or else they learn very quickly.”
The majority seek pre-purchase advice of the sort provided by Robert McCulloch, a buying agent for Strutt & Parker. “Most of the properties involve different types of real estate, so you would be asked to evaluate the main house, the sporting element, the farming and the forestry. Then there are other important considerations, such as shape. You have to make sure the estate’s not “untidy” – which gives a much greater area to service – and, crucially, that there isn’t a hole in the middle where land has been sold off.”
McCulloch will also advise on how to improve the house and its outbuildings and how to make the land more productive, as well as flagging up any potential political or planning issues.
Not all buyers of sporting estates approach their purchase from the same perspective, however. “Some are as interested in it as an investment as they are in the sport, particularly where farming and renewable energy are involved,” says Ran Morgan, head of Scotland Residential at Knight Frank. “Others see it as the equivalent of a yacht, visually appealing, but less commercial.”
For many the appearance and condition of the main house will always be a vital consideration. “The key question many buyers ask,” says Rettie, “is when does the house go from being an asset to being a liability?”
Those longing for traditional romance will certainly warm to the Scottish baronial splendours of Killean House in Argyll (offers in excess of £7.5m, through Smiths Gore). This beautifully presented 10-bedroom Grade B-listed mansion has recently been refurbished, but has lost none of its historic charm. Discreetly sheltered in a woodland garden with views over the sea to the islands beyond, it forms the core of a 3,684-acre estate, with pheasant and grouse shooting, deer stalking, loch and sea fishing and duck flighting.
Other buyers prefer minimal maintenance and, at Eilean Aigas (offers in excess of £15m, through Knight Frank), a 570-acre sporting estate near Beauly in the Highlands, the nine-bedroom house, which sits on a private river island, has been newly built in the traditional style.
Such estates are, unsurprisingly, gauged on the quality of their sport, and this aspect of the property is valued on the number of birds bagged, deer stalked or salmon netted. The majority of buyers will look for a range of sport to take them through the year, from grouse shooting starting on the Glorious 12th (of August), through pheasants and partridges, to deer stalking (October to March), and then on to salmon and trout fishing (between March and late September, depending on the region).
Scottish sporting estates have always been in short supply and some of the most magnificent have belonged to the country’s longest-established families for hundreds of years. The remainder change hands infrequently – on average every 16 years.
“Vendors often sell when they get too old and develop other interests, particularly if their children don’t want to take on the responsibility,” says Morgan.
Before the economic uncertainties of the past few years, many of the more significant estates never saw the glimmer of a “for sale” sign. “At the height of the market, half of Scottish estate deals were done privately,” says Henderson, “but, of the 15 estates sold in 2012, all but three went onto the open market.”
Owning this type of property involves high overheads, with staffing one of the costliest outlays. The head gamekeeper, responsible for managing the sport as well as maintaining aspects of the land and roads that make it possible, is the pivotal employee and, alongside a salary, will need to be furnished with accommodation and a car. The greater the volume of sport, the more keepers are required.
“If you are a fresh face, you have no idea how difficult, challenging and expensive running a sporting estate can be,” says Strutt & Parker estate manager Nigel Fraser. “The vast majority don’t make money. Most lose some money, some lose a lot of it. The majority of owners do it primarily for the pleasure.”
But a sporting estate can also have a financial upside. As well as an income from letting it out to other sporting enthusiasts, or exploiting the undoubtedly profitable potential of renewable energy, some estates have further commercial possibilities. The lovely 18th-century house on the Skeldon estate in Ayrshire, for example (offers in excess of £3m, through CKD Galbraith), whose design is attributed to the Adams brothers, does very well as a wedding venue.
For the moment, the possibility that Scotland may eventually become an independent country has certainly thrown up a big “Proceed with Caution” sign, particularly with vendors, and this uncertainty, along with other factors, has slowed the volume of sales from 22 in 2011 to just 15 in 2012. But, as Henderson points out: “The best quality estates are always likely to generate strong demand. Owning a fine Scottish sporting estate is often a lifetime aspiration.”