Last Saturday was a red letter day in the Lister social calendar – we were invited for drinks with the neighbours! Nothing exceptional there you might think, but in the social hierarchy of Scotland you’d be quite wrong.
Ruaraidh Williamson was born and brought up on the Alvie and Dalraddy Estate where his father is the Laird. In Scotland “Laird” is a title reserved for those who own large estates – considerable areas of land and property - and although some claim that it’s a corruption of the English term Lord, this isn’t generally true as the term Lord is associated with nobility and peerage, which the word Laird is not.
A Laird is not a title of the peerage, such as Duke or Earl, but rather a term of respect used by tenants with regard to the landowner who would traditionally have been responsible for their livelihood. In the 15th and 16th Centuries land was allocated to favoured individuals by the Crown and by the 17th Century the role of Laird of a Highland estate would generally have been held by the Chief of the local clan.
The aftermath of Culloden put an end to this system. Those Highland Chiefs who had come out in support of the Stewart line were stripped of their land and titles, many of them ending up in exile in France with their would-be King. Instead the land was allocated to those who had supported their Hanovarian King, many of them landowners from the south with no understanding of Highland culture and no sense of obligation to their community.
Through the 19th Century, with the advent of railways and leisure time, the value of these Highland Estates for sport was recognised. Vast swathes of some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world were managed for the purpose of providing entertainment for the landed gentry and their friends.
Scotland continues to have the most concentrated pattern of private ownership in the developed world, with just over 400 individuals accounting for half of all non-public land. Until recently there was no formal Land Register recording who owns the land in Scotland, consequently great tracts are owned by offshore companies with deeds tied up in so much red tape that it makes identifying the owner very difficult. Increasingly, as an Estate comes onto the market, it’s an overseas buyer who snaps it up. Land in Scotland is bought and sold, even in National Parks like the Cairngorms, without any scrutiny as to how the purchaser intends to manage the land or whether or not it's in the public interest.
A case and point being Kinrara - the Estate which lies adjacent to Alvie and Dalraddy and from which we bought our cottage in 2008. Kinrara Estate was bought by the Danish billionaire Anders Poulsen in 2018. He and his wife bought their first estate in Scotland at Glenfeshie in 2007, reputedly a business decision to avoid inheritance tax, the couple fell in love with Scotland and have gone on to acquire more than 220,000 acres, making them Scotland’s biggest private landowners.
Like most issues connected with land ownership in Scotland, Poulsen’s plans for his estates are highly contentious. His passion is for re-wilding – removing deer from the land and allowing the managed heather moors to regenerate to their natural state. Supporters claim that these plans will benefit conservation, outdoor recreation and the local economy while critics decry the large deer culls and claim that he is destroying a Highland way of life. Not surprisingly Land Reform is high up the agenda of the Scottish Government and there have been several laws passed in recent years giving tenants greater rights when it comes to buying the land and property they tenant and also empowering rural and urban communities to have a greater stake in the management and use of the land in their locality.
In this context Ruaraidh Williamson and his family are an endangered species - a Scottish family retaining their lands and running them in a sustainable fashion.
Alvie Estate has been in the ownership of the Williamson family since 1927 (they bought if from Lady Carnarvon shortly after the untimely death of her husband, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who broke into the Tutankhamun tombs in Egypt – both he and his son died within a year of each other - the Tutankhamun curse?). The neighbouring estate of Dalraddy was purchased in 1929 and they have been passed down the family line ever since.
One of the main reasons why these estates come on to the market with such regularity is the inheritance tax due on the death of the owner. To avoid this, land is put into Trust and Ruaraidh Williamson is the main beneficiary of the Alvie and Dalraddy Trust. If the family are to retain their Estate for future generations, the land not only needs to provide a net income for the owners but must also generate sufficient excess to pay the inheritance tax.
In common with most Scottish estates in the 21st Century, income is generated from a mixed bag of sources - tourist accommodation, farming (including farm subsidies from the Government and EU), forestry, field sports and capital growth on the land and properties. The Williamsons also work hard to provide employment opportunities for enterprising locals including stables, a quarry, kitchen gardens, quad bikes etc.
Like his father before him, Ruaraidh has pursued his own career and runs a highly successful business in the aeronautical industry with headquarters outside Edinburgh and his main base in North Carolina. Over the past year he’s been renovating and restoring Alvie Manse to its former glory - an early 19th Century, Category C Listed building which used to be home to the Minister of the adjoining Alvie Church before it was bought by the Estate in 1936.
In the time that we’ve been there the Manse has been home to a succession of tenants but since lockdown Ruaraidh and his young family have taken up residence and it’s been a pleasure to get to know him as he comes and goes on the track to the Church which passes our house and garden.
And so it was that we had the pleasure of enjoying an al-fresco drink with the Laird-to-be and his young family. Slainte mhath!