Scottish country estates: living the dream

The opportunity to acquire a Scottish sporting estate, somewhere that country sports writer Charlie Jacoby describes as "the best example of sub-Arctic wilderness in the world", is an event that may happen just once in a lifetime, if that.

For a start, there is a severely limited supply. Most are held by families and passed on from generation to generation. Estates are commonly transacted 'off market', through agents working with contacts who have made their buying intentions known, perhaps years earlier.

"People make a decision to buy one of these in their lifetime, so they want to get the right estate for the next four generations," says Jacoby. "You don't just wake up and think 'I'll buy one next year'. It may take 20 years. And you have to be very, very rich for all of those 20 years."

Exactly how rich is a good question. A modest sporting estate of say 1,000 acres in the Scottish lowlands of Galloway might cost as little as £750,000. For this, you might have some fishing, some pheasant and partridge shooting, along with the chance to fish and shoot on your neighbours' estates.

"To sustain the dream you're looking for, the minimum would be 8,000 acres, but 20,000 is a proper size," says Jacoby, who runs Land Gazette, with daily updates on issues for country landowners and agents. A 'proper' estate will cost between £3 and £5 million, with annual running costs probably well north of £100,000, depending on how many staff you employ. The amount of game on each estate contributes to its price, as Jacoby explains. "Broadly speaking, you will pay £3-5,000 per salmon over a five year average, £12-15,000 per stag and up to £1,200 per brace of grouse. So if the estate has five shoots a year with 200 grouse, 25 stags and 50 salmon, it soon racks up the price."

At the very height of Scottish sporting life are the great royal estates such as Balmoral, which, were it to come onto the market, would sell for perhaps £60 million for the house itself, £6 million for the 130,000 acres, a further £15 million for the fish on the river Dee, the stags and grouse, and then a further premium for the historical associations of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the current royal family.

Jacoby has himself experienced the Balmoral estate, which gave him a mildly perverse thrill: "You're aware that every stag you shoot will be one that Prince Charles's guests won't be shooting," he says. Balmoral is, he says, "the pinnacle of perfection" when compared to almost any other estate. "The hills at Balmoral look as though they were designed by Landseer, the ferns have a sparkly crystal edge, the weeds are bright emerald green. It's nothing like the grey of the Cairngorms."

Along with the tales of royalty and landed aristocracy comes a wealth of sporting anecdote. A former Duke of Westminster, knowing that the best fishing on one of his lochs was in a strong north-easterly gale, would require eight ghillies to row his boat to keep it steady enough for him to fish. Scottish country sportsmen dream of achieving a 'McNab' – catching a salmon, shooting a brace of grouse and stalking a stag in the same day. "And if you sleep with the housekeeper it's a Royal McNab," says Jacoby.

Besides getting to know the Scottish land and sporting agents such as George Goldsmith in Edinburgh, Andrew Wylie at Savills in Brechin or Robert Rattray of CKD Galbraith in Perth, aspiring estate owners need to keep their ears pricked for signs that estates could be coming up for sale. "If you see an estate selling off bits of land, it means their investment is not going well and they may consider selling the whole thing," says Jacoby.

Otherwise, you need to spend your time shooting with the sons of the Scottish gentry in England and finding out about their school friends, he recommends. "You want to look for the son of an estate owner who has no interest in hunting shooting and fishing," he says. "Or if you're interested in Cortachy Castle, which is owned by the Earl of Airlie, you could consider marrying one of his daughters."

Land agent George Goldsmith in Edinburgh, who owns www.sportingestates.com, confirms that demand for Scottish sporting estates is well in excess of demand, although there are generally one or two available for the right price. He has seen values rise by as much as 70 per cent in the past couple of years, with British, European and American buyers competing for the best locations.

He cites one estate with 20,000 acres in the Highlands, including salmon fishing, stalking, 'walked-up' and driven shooting, with a likely price tag of £4-5 million. Many owners let their estates by the week, charging anything up to £20,000 for the privilege, but few make any real return on their initial investment. "It's a lifestyle thing," says Goldsmith. "You don't run a sporting estate as a business."

Images of billionaire Russian businessmen buying up swathes of Scotland are wide of the mark, according to Goldsmith, although one Russian steel magnate, Vladimir Lisin, bought Aberuchill Castle Estate in 2005 for £6.8 million, a mere drop in his £5.4 billion ocean. The estate includes a white-turreted, baronial-style main residence with 13 en-suite bedrooms, around a dozen estate houses and cottages and a relatively modest 3,300 acres of land.

Enthusiasm for Scottish sporting estates appears to come in waves, from different nations. In the 1990s many buyers were from Hong Kong. Then came the Dutch, personified by philanthropist Paul van Vlissingen, then the Russians. "The Danes are now very keen," according to Goldsmith.

The passion for an estate really takes hold when you're up in the Highlands, says Goldsmith. "You're walking the hills and you think 'God I want to own a chunk of this, and roam free'. That's the dream side of it. Then you just need to get to the position where you can afford it."

  • By David Nicholson
    22 January 2010
Exactly how rich is a good question. A modest sporting estate of say 1,000 acres in the Scottish lowlands of Galloway might cost as little as £750,000.