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15 May 2020

Looking after Scotland under lockdown

A view of Brodie Castle in the background, with a grassy bank covered in daffodils in the foreground. A long stone wall runs beside a path that leads to the castle.
Brodie Castle & Estate
Our properties may not have been open to visitors, but our vital work has continued through the coronavirus crisis.

You might have thought that tiny Fair Isle, sitting between Orkney and Shetland, would be too far away to feel the effects of the coronavirus emergency. The most remote community in the UK, after all, can only be reached by boat or plane, and it could be said that self-isolation is not exactly a new concept for those who live there. But, as the lockdown came into force, it quickly became a priority to ensure the supply of food to the 55-strong population. And, as Fair Isle is one of the 11 populated islands in our care, the National Trust for Scotland was immediately involved.

‘We are responsible for the airstrip and aerodrome on Fair Isle,’ explains Clea Warner, the Trust’s General Manager for the Highlands and Islands. ‘With the island quarantined and no one going in or out unless absolutely necessary, we’ve had to do our bit to help keep these lifeline services going, as they’re the only way of getting food and supplies in.’

A man unloads supplies from the back of a small white van. It is parked on the tarmac area of a port, with a boat docked in the background.
Offloading essential supplies

It’s a similar situation in the Inner Hebrides, where Canna, to the south-west of Skye, is also looked after by the Trust. We’re responsible for the harbour there (we employ the harbour­master), and maintaining supplies for the small community of 16 people has been vital work.

A man dressed in a high-vis coat looks through binoculars out to sea. He stands on a concrete pier. A chapel can be seen on the headland on the opposite side of the bay.
The harbourmaster checks for floating debris before the ferry comes in.

New skills

When the country went into lockdown in March, the decision was made to close all of our properties to protect visitors, staff and volunteers. At many places, pressing pause meant planned activities had to be put on hold. At others, though, simply shutting up shop wasn’t an option. The doors might be closed, but an extraordinary amount of work has been going on behind the scenes – and, with a large number of Trust staff furloughed, managers have had to develop new skills.

Iconic Highland sites such as Culloden, Glenfinnan Monument and Glencoe NNR usually attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and so Clea knows how important these new skills are. ‘We’re doing all kinds of weird and wonderful things,’ she says. ‘At Culloden, the Operations Manager and the Engagement Manager have been making sure the property’s Highland and Shetland cows are being fed and watered. Looking after our heritage has to continue during the lockdown, and our conservation grazing heroes are getting stuck into the new birch and willow growth. Our property manager at Kintail, meanwhile, has been out exercising the retired stalking ponies who live there.’

One of the biggest attractions in the grounds at Brodie Castle is the annual blooming of the National Daffodil Collection. But just because there are no visitors doesn’t mean the flowers have been forgotten: Clea’s team are busy looking after the sunburst of yellow blooms, and gardeners have turned into photographers, capturing images of the carpet of spring flowers to share on social media.

A close-up of a daffodil bed with the new visitor centre just seen in the background. These daffodils have pale yellow petals with bright yellow trumpets!
Daffodils in full bloom at Brodie Castle

Keeping gardens beautiful

With a large number of formal gardens under his remit, Ian McLelland, General Manager for the South and West, has also been keeping the Trust’s gardeners busy. ‘If you have a woodland garden, it doesn’t matter if you leave it for a while – it can get away with being a bit wilder. But if you have manicured lawns and greenhouses, you have to keep on top of them,’ he explains. ‘They’d be spoiled for years if our gardeners didn’t keep on working.’

The rhododendron collections at Arduaine, Brodick and Crarae go back more than a century and are among the region’s most prized plants. They need tending, as do the glasshouses at Culzean where fruit is grown.

Over on Arran at Brodick Castle are tender plants such as Echium candicans from Madeira, as well as specimens of Rhododendron giganteum collected by the celebrated Scottish botanist George Forrest and Rhododendron magnificum collected by Frank Kingdon-Ward. Greenbank Garden, in Glasgow, meanwhile, is home to a Plant Heritage National Collection of bergenias.

A view of the manicured lawn at Arduaine Garden, surrounded by pink flowering rhododendrons and lush green shrubs. A small greenhouse stands to the right of the image.
The rhododendrons are looking fantastic at several of our west coast gardens.

On hold

It’s not just gardens that have been affected by the closures. Work to rethatch the roof of Burns Cottage, where the poet was born in 1759, was within a week of being finished when the contractors had to down tools. ‘I saw the roof just before the shutdown,’ recalls Ian. ‘It was looking fabulous, but everyone had to leave the site.’

On the other side of the country, Stuart Maxwell, General Manager for Edinburgh and East, usually has 174 staff working for him. Now, there are just 10 people covering properties all the way from Killiecrankie to St Abb’s Head NNR – and that means they’ve had to learn to multi-task. Stuart himself has been on gardening duty and doing jobs the facilities team would normally have done, such as testing alarm systems. And that’s not all: ‘There was one day I was at the Newhailes community garden, pulling up rhubarb and leaving it out for local people to take. Then I went to Inveresk to water the plants. I also had to make a stop at the Georgian House – the moisture levels and temperature have to be monitored to keep its collections safe. There’s a problem room there, and I had to turn on a radiator to get the heat up.’

Thanks to a long spell of dry weather this spring, watering plants has been a key task for Stuart and his team. He’s grateful that Jim Jermyn, Head Gardener and Property Manager at Perth’s Branklyn Garden, lives on site and has been able to look after the place as well as share pictures of it on social media.

Keeping properties safe while taking the time to prepare for when the doors finally reopen has also been occupying Iain Hawkins, General Manager for the North-East. He has gardening teams hard at work across the various estates. Regular alarm and security checks are carried out by a skeleton staff. ‘A lot of our properties have a designed landscape – they’re deliberately made to feel natural – but they still need looking after,’ says Iain. ‘The gardening team have these grounds to care for as well as the plants in the walled gardens and the glasshouses. They really have their hands full at the moment.’

A man in a high-vis vest stands on a ladder by the thatched roof of Burns Cottage. He holds a large sheaf of straw under one arm.
Work is nearly complete on rethatching the roof of Burns Cottage.

Nature conservation

Occupying 50% of the Trust’s entire land holdings, and encompassing 15 Munros, heathered moorland, wetlands and Caledonian pine forest, Mar Lodge Estate NNR is one of the most important nature conservation landscapes in Britain. The wilderness is home to rare wildlife and there is an extensive ongoing programme of conservation work.

What concerns Operations Manager David Frew is the work that has been put on hold during lockdown. ‘Deer management, to allow the pinewood regeneration, is our single biggest task, and it goes on all year round,’ he says. ‘At the moment we can’t send our workers out; that’s because, no matter how careful we are, there’s always a risk when anyone goes on to the mountains. It’s about protecting the emergency services and not placing undue stress on them.’

The estate’s wildlife is unperturbed by the lack of visitors. ‘There are species that we know are around because we monitor them,’ he says. ‘But we’re noticing them much more at the moment. We have otters in all of the rivers here, for example. We had a major project last year to replace a large bridge on the estate. It’s near my house, and I was out for a walk one morning when I noticed otter spraint (dung) on the bridge.’

A view of a wide glen at Mar Lodge Estate, with a river winding its way through the centre. The surrounding hills are clad in heather and pine plantations.
Mar Lodge Estate

An uncertain future

The money raised from Trust membership is crucial to help fund our conservation work across the country. Regional managers are in no doubt that the support of our members will ensure that work continues – that footpaths are mended, and buildings and their contents are looked after for future generations to enjoy. But undoubtedly the biggest long-term risk, apart from damage to habitats, is the financial one. At a local level, Mar Lodge Estate depends on money generated through weddings and holiday lets to fund regeneration and conservation projects. More widely, the huge drop in income from months without visitors will be felt across everything we do.

Stuart Maxwell believes some of his sites in the east of Scotland might struggle to reopen after the lockdown is lifted, or may have to look at running with more volunteers. ‘Some don’t get a huge number of visitors, so even just a slight fall has an impact on money coming in,’ he says.

Working together to protect our national treasures, it is clear, has never mattered more.

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