Climate-savvy millionaires are buying up huge areas of the Scottish Highlands and transforming how it is managed. These "green lairds," many of them from overseas, are rekindling debates about who owns Scotland’s land and what they're doing with it
By ANDREW R.C. MARSHALL
Climate-savvy millionaires are buying up huge areas of the Scottish Highlands and transforming how it is managed. These "green lairds," many of them from overseas, are rekindling debates about who owns Scotland’s land and what they’re doing with it.
By ANDREW R.C. MARSHALL in KILDRUMMY, SCOTLAND Photographs by RUSSELL CHEYNE
Filed: January 27, 2022, 9 a.m. GMT
The main road into Kildrummy, a 5,500-acre estate on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, runs past a ruined castle and across a scaffold-clad bridge to an unloved building that the new American owners, Camille and Christopher Bently, call the manor. It was built in 1901 to accommodate shooting parties held by Colonel James “Soapy” Ogston, who made his fortune from a soap factory in nearby Aberdeen.
The Bentlys are restoring the manor as their home. Beyond an entrance hall bristling with deer antlers is a gloomy interior with a grand stairway and extravagantly flowered wallpaper, time-dimmed and peeling. Camille Bently brings out the estate’s old game books, handwritten records of the thousands of grouse, deer, pheasant and duck that were once shot at Kildrummy each year. The game books also note the hunters’ names and the conditions for each day’s shoot. Camille reads one entry – “Birds did not want to fly today” – and snorts: “No shit.”
Camille and Christopher, a multimillionaire property developer from California, bought Kildrummy in 2020 for £11 million, or about $15 million. The estate has dense timber forests, wind-raked moors, a botanical garden and that atmospheric castle. It also has a history that the Bentlys, both avid conservationists, are determined to forget.
Wealthy people have long come to Kildrummy to shoot grouse and other game, an elite pastime that involves intense management of the land. Heather-clad moors are partially burned to improve breeding conditions for the grouse, whose predators are trapped, poisoned and killed. In 2015, a Kildrummy gamekeeper was jailed for four months after he was secretly filmed battering a rare hawk to death.
The Bentlys have banned trapping and sport shooting at Kildrummy and aim to turn the estate into a semi-wilderness where dwindling species are revived and protected. “There’s been too long a history of abuse on this land,” Christopher says. “It’s just got to stop.”
The Bentlys join the growing ranks of so-called “green lairds” – climate-savvy millionaires and billionaires who are transforming how the Scottish Highlands are managed and valued. Traditional hunting estates such as Kildrummy that once changed hands largely on the value of their “bag counts” – the amount of game bagged each year – are increasingly coveted for their “natural capital”: the value of assets such as forests that absorb carbon or habitats that sustain biodiversity.
Galbraith, a leading Scottish property agent, said the value of some hill ground in Scotland has doubled in recent years, driven by a surge in interest from private and corporate investors looking to meet their climate commitments by planting forests or reviving biodiversity.
The political climate is also changing for the old estates. The Scottish government said last year that grouse shooting and muirburn – the practice of burning heather to encourage new shoots that provide nutrition for the grouse and insects for their chicks – will soon only be permitted under licenses, and that burning on carbon-rich peatland will be banned outright. Muirburn has transformed the Highlands; viewed from above, they are tiger-striped with burnt areas.
Amid a fervor for Scottish independence, the rise of the green lairds has revived debates about who owns Scotland’s land and what they’re doing with it. Campaigners say fewer than 500 people own more than half of Scotland’s private land, and many of them are foreigners.
The UK’s largest private landowner is Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who owns the global clothing chain Bestseller – and 221,000 acres of Scotland. An additional 100,000 acres belong to Swedish-born sisters Sigrid and Lisbet Rausing, heirs to the Tetra Pak fortune. Povlsen and the Rausings also have ambitious plans to restore habitats and boost wildlife. Sigrid Rausing notes that she and her sister are British citizens. Tim Kirkwood, CEO of Wildland Limited, Povlsen's conservation and hospitality company, says it would be harder for nature to respond to its efforts without the company owning multiple and often adjoining estates.
“Anyone from anywhere can buy as much land as they like,” says Andy Wightman, a longtime campaigner for land reform and the author of a book and website called Who Owns Scotland. Most Scots, he says, don’t object to foreign landowners, but they dislike the poorly regulated system that allows the sale of such vast areas. There is, Wightman says, “a level of incomprehension that important assets, which impact upon local economies and the environment, should be just sold to the highest bidder – no questions asked.”
Scotland has “an historically iniquitous pattern of land ownership,” and its government will introduce a bill in 2023 that will help tackle it, says Mairi McAllan, Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform. The Scottish government wants what it calls “a more diverse pattern of land ownership,” meaning more community-owned land or land held for the public good by the public sector.
McAllan believes the focus should be on how the land is used, rather than whether owners are foreign or not. “The test should always be: Are the people who live and work in this area benefiting from it?” Scotland's land should "absolutely" be used to mitigate climate change, she adds, but in a way that people support.
By accelerating the decline of traditional hunting estates, which employ hundreds of people, Scotland’s green lairds also open themselves to the charge that rewilding means de-peopling. Some hunting estates and their supporters accuse rewilders of undermining the grouse shooting and deer stalking industry, and thereby taking away the jobs that industry supported.
This has historical resonance: The forcible eviction of tenants in the 18th and 19th century to make way for sheep grazing led to rural depopulation and emigration from Scotland. The so-called Highland Clearances still fuel nationalist sentiment today.
“We're investing heavily in nature restoration on our land and seas,” McAllan says. “But we have to do it in a way which is not, frankly, tantamount to a second Clearances.”
Jamie Williamson greets his guests in a short-sleeved shirt, grubby shorts and hiking boots. “Sorry I don’t have my kilt on,” says the affable, energetic 74-year-old, who is trailed everywhere by his springer spaniel, Annie – “a good listener who never complains or answers back.”
Williamson runs Alvie & Dalraddy, a traditional sporting estate on the western edge of the Cairngorms National Park. He’s deeply skeptical about the green lairds and their rewilding plans. “What they feel is we’ve managed the land badly, and we should go back to nature. But this land – nearly all of Britain – has been managed in one form or another, whether it’s for grouse shooting or sheep and cattle.”
Williamson is struggling to maintain his revenue from grouse and deer shooting on an estate surrounded by prominent rewilding projects. One of them is Glenfeshie, the estate owned by Povlsen, the Danish billionaire.
Sitting at the heart of Williamson’s 13,000-acre estate is Alvie House, a shooting lodge that the Williamson family have lived in for five generations. Its drawing room has a baby grand piano, an outsized fireplace flanked by stag heads, and floor-to-ceiling shelves. One row of books includes a faded volume of “The Grouse in Health and in Disease”; another row opens up to reveal a secret drinks cabinet.
Back in the 1930s, when his grandfather ran it, the estate’s income came mostly from high-spending guests who shot grouse or stalked deer. In the recent past, Williamson’s customers might have bagged 200 birds a day. Now, after several years of unpredictable weather – drought, late frosts – the grouse population has “effectively collapsed,” he says. Gunfire occasionally booms across the estate, but it’s coming from a clay pigeon shooting range, not the moors. “We’re at an all-time low for grouse,” Williamson says.
Alvie & Dalraddy relies on other sources of income, including a caravan park and campground, and tourist attractions such as zip wires and quad biking. The estate also has pastures, timber forests, a quarry and an operation supplying wood chips for biofuel.
Williamson, who has a PhD in forestry, is scathing about plans to restore the Caledonian Forest that rewilding groups suggest once covered much of Scotland. “It’s a myth,” he says. Much of Scotland’s tree cover disappeared thousands of years ago because of climatic changes, he says. Williamson cites statistics from the British government's forestry agency that show only about 4% of Scotland was covered in trees in 1350; by 1905, it was 4.5%. He accuses rewilders of trying “to recreate some romantic period in the past.”
Alvie & Dalraddy shares a border with Kinrara, the 9,300-acre estate that BrewDog, a Scottish brewery, bought for £8.8 million earlier this year. BrewDog has banned blood sports and has vowed to plant a forest “capable of pulling one million tonnes of carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere,” its co-founder, James Watt, said in March. It aims to plant what it calls The Lost Forest.
“It’s been 5,000 years since trees were there,” Williamson says. “It’s been lost for a long time. And it wasn’t gin-soaked lairds who cut them all down.”
Williamson says planting native woodlands in Scotland won’t avert climate change so long as Scots import cheap timber from countries that wreck their own ecosystems to provide it. “If we want to sort global warming, we’ve got to make ourselves more self-sufficient in timber products,” he says. “So if you’re planting trees that will never be harvested, it’s slightly self-defeating.”
Another growing source of friction between landowners is deer, which roam freely across the land unless fences prevent them. Rewilding estates cull deer to protect their tree-planting projects, but this can reduce the number of deer on nearby shooting estates, along with those estates’ incomes.
Williamson worries about the impact of BrewDog’s plans on his neighboring estate. “If BrewDog decides they’re going to just slaughter all their deer . . . that would destroy our deer-stalking,” he says, adding that BrewDog needs to use gamekeepers to control foxes and other predators. “If they don’t put gamekeepers in, and the foxes and everything build up, that would destroy most of our grouse shooting.”
In a statement, BrewDog said it had an active dialogue with Williamson’s Alvie estate and had written a deer management plan for Kinrara with its neighbors and NatureScot, the government’s nature agency. BrewDog also said it would consult with its neighbors and other bodies before any predator control, which would only be done by qualified wildlife managers to benefit Kinrara’s conservation objectives.
Much of Williamson’s estate consists of heather-clad uplands given over to grazing sheep.
Grouse shooting and deer stalking were once Alvie & Dalraddy's main sources of income. Now it's farming and tourism.
The collapse in grouse numbers has increased Alvie & Dalraddy's reliance on tourist attractions such as zipwires.
Alvie & Dalraddy also offers tourists a caravan park, campground and quad biking.
Williamson is sensitive to any threats to his revenue because – unlike deep-pocketed green lairds – he says he has no accumulated wealth to fall back on. Media reports suggest that Povlsen has sunk millions of pounds into nature restoration projects at Glenfeshie and other landholdings. Povlsen's rewilding company, Wildland Limited, said it has made “very substantial investments” in its estates but couldn't give an exact sum. The Bentlys say they expect to sink as much money into Kildrummy in the first few years as they did buying it.
Williamson says Galbraith, the Scottish property agent, recently valued 9,600 acres of his high ground at £5.7 million, mostly because of natural capital. While Galbraith declined to comment on what it said was “client-confidential information,” Williamson was incredulous at such a high valuation. “They valued it on what they thought they could sell in carbon credits,” he says. “Most of the land is not deep peat, and it won’t grow any trees because it’s too high. It’s bare moorland. Scree.”
Yet Williamson, a businessman who is constantly looking out for new revenue streams, seems reluctant to entirely dismiss ideas such as natural capital. “Have we missed a trick, or is it all a scam?” he asks. “To my mind, it looks like a Ponzi scheme. But you never know.”
Camille and Christopher BentlyREWILDERS, KILDRUMMY ESTATE
“We’re very aware that we’re strangers in a strange land.”
Christopher and Camille Bently know that Scots can be wary of Americans with grand plans and deep pockets. Thirty miles from their estate, former U.S. President Donald Trump outraged locals by bulldozing part of a pristine beach to build a golf course he said would revitalize the region, but hasn’t.
“Camille and I fell completely and utterly in love with Scotland, and that’s why we’re here today,” Christopher says. “We’re very aware that we’re strangers in a strange land.”
Camille, 39, has striped dungarees and dirty boots, and wears her red hair in a tightly wound bun. She seems both repulsed and fascinated by Kildrummy’s history. In early 2020, on her first tour of the rundown estate, she climbed a staircase to find herself face to face with one of the previous owner’s trophies: a stuffed lioness with two stuffed cubs. “I was physically taken aback and really had to bite my lip,” she says. “Because who does that? Who shoots a cub?”
Christopher Bently, 52, sold his father’s antique coin collection for $40 million to set up the Bently Foundation, which funds conservation efforts worldwide. The foundation is directed by Camille, his second wife, whom he married in 2015 in a neo-gothic mansion on the Scottish island of Bute.
The Bentlys bought Kildrummy sooner than they had planned, alarmed at how fast the price of Scottish estates was rising. They wanted to put down roots and “do the right thing” for the climate, Christopher says. “The world is on the verge of a catastrophic environmental collapse. We’re seeing the very early effects of that, and it’s going to get worse fast.”
Fast-growing Sitka spruce, used for commercial timber, is cut down to make way for a native woodland at Kildrummy.
Looming over Kildrummy Estate is a ruined castle dating back to the 13th century.
Years of intensive management to boost grouse populations has damaged Kildrummy's land, say the Bentlys.
The Bentlys want to restore Kildrummy into a semi-wilderness where dwindling species are protected.
Christopher has heavily tattooed arms, a trimmed white beard and a fedora perched on his bald head. He doesn’t look much like a Scottish laird, although his vocabulary is authentic – he says burn, not stream; glen, not valley – and he can pronounce Ardhuncart, the neighboring shooting estate, like a local (“Ard-HUNK-art”).
The Bentlys tour the estate in a specially converted electric Land Rover. They drive through lowland pastures to a hillside where a dense plantation of Sitka spruce – a fast-growing, non-native tree used for commercial timber – is being felled to make way for the planting of native woodland. These woodlands store more carbon, and sustain more flora and fauna, than single-species timber plantations.
Some new woodland has already been planted, then fenced off to deter deer from eating the saplings. Hundreds of deer roam Kildrummy and neighboring estates, their numbers once kept artificially high so that hunters could pay to shoot them. The Bentlys have reluctantly begun culling the deer.
“We love animals,” Christopher says, “and to learn that deer were a pest and a serious threat to our planting program took a while to set in.”
The Land Rover trundles up to Kildrummy’s old grouse moors. They are instantly recognizable by the huge patches where the heather has been burned. Traditionally, peatlands have also been drained and burned to improve grazing for sheep and deer.
Peatlands are huge carbon sinks, but when they’re damaged or dried out, they can emit carbon dioxide through oxidization or peat fires. Supporters call muirburn a time-honored land management technique that benefits other species and prevents wildfires by removing a surfeit of combustible heather. Critics say muirburn damages the peat, threatens biodiversity and triggers wildfires. According to the Grouse Moor Management Group, an independent body commissioned by the Scottish government, “the wider impacts of muirburn are highly contested,” with studies offering varying and sometimes contradictory results.
Even large parts of the Cairngorms National Park are given over to sport shooting. Cairngorms is Britain’s biggest national park, where rivers tumble from snow-dusted mountains through rocky tundra and ancient forests. By the park authority’s own 2014 estimate, 44% of its acreage is heather moorland, some of it managed to produce grouse and deer for sport shooting.
The Bentlys say they aren’t against hunting, only against damaging the environment to support it. Kildrummy was heavily managed to create “extremely favorable conditions for grouse – which was extremely unfavorable for everything else,” Christopher says. “It’s beyond conservation because first we need to restore it to a state to be conserved. It’s been neglected for so long.”
Kildrummy’s game books record a steady decline in the number of grouse shot in the 2000s. They stop at 2015, the year the estate’s gamekeeper was jailed in the goshawk incident. Birds of prey are protected in the UK, although Scotland’s minister for rural affairs and the environment, Mairi Gougeon, said last year they were still “killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors.”
A 2020 report by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, an animal welfare group, estimated that up to 260,000 wild animals in Scotland were killed each year to protect grouse populations. One of the seven estates featured in the report was Kildrummy. Under the Bentlys, that era is over, although they have kept handwritten records titled “estate vermin.” These list the thousands of animals – rabbits, foxes, weasels, hedgehogs, wildcats, birds of prey – trapped, poisoned or shot at Kildrummy since the 1960s. Reviving these species and restoring their habitats is the Bentlys’ immediate priority.
Jeremy LeggettREWILDER, BUNLOIT ESTATE
“We don't have much time to deal with climate meltdown and biodiversity collapse.”
Another green laird, Jeremy Leggett, is a longtime climate campaigner who made his millions from solar power. Leggett, who is English, recently bought Bunloit, an estate on the steep banks of Loch Ness.
Leggett lives and works in what was once Bunloit’s schoolhouse. The building has large windows, high ceilings and a floor made from giant stone slabs. The views of the loch are stunning, although Leggett, who is 67, emits the restless vibe of someone who doesn’t do much staring out of windows. “Jeremy could have just retired and played golf all day,” says one of his rangers, “but he looks like a man who hasn’t slept for a week.”
Leggett hopes that research at Bunloit will kick-start a land-management revolution in Scotland and beyond that will help avert climate meltdown and biodiversity collapse. On the day that Scotland records its highest September temperature since 1906, Leggett tells Reuters he aims to precisely measure the increase in carbon sequestration and biodiversity at his estate – now renamed Bunloit Rewilding. He says he will make the data public, as part of an effort to “beat this monster problem that threatens our collective future”: climate change.
Bunloit was previously the private shooting estate of a wealthy doctor. Among its range of habitats – peatlands, pastures, timber plantations – is a forest of ancient oaks where the branches sprout with tree lungwort, a rare, lettuce-like lichen that only thrives in the cleanest air. The forest seems empty, but Bunloit’s camera traps have captured images of wild boar, badgers, deer, pine martens, owls and foxes. The tranquility is occasionally shattered by Royal Air Force jets swooping low across the loch’s unruffled water.
Leggett left Oxford University in the 1970s with a doctorate in earth sciences, then taught at Imperial College in London. He also did research that was partly funded by the oil industry, which he says made him “an early convert to the perils of climate change.” He quit teaching in 1989 to become a climate campaigner for Greenpeace International, then quit Greenpeace to found Solarcentury, a pioneering solar energy company.
Back then, Leggett says, he got used to being told that he was “a rootless dreamer and that solar would never be making energy for grown-ups.” Now, solar is the cheapest form of energy and its deployment is soaring. “So I thought: Why not have a go at helping create that kind exponential growth elsewhere in the survival story, by taking carbon down out of the atmosphere?”
Leggett took the £3.3 million he got from the sale of Solarcentury in 2020, raised millions more, and bought Bunloit and a second Scottish estate for £7 million. Then, partnering with start-ups and other experts, he has deployed advanced technologies to build a granular picture of Bunloit’s carbon stores and biodiversity. Drones equipped with lidar, or laser imaging, have flown over the estate to create 3D models of trees, right down to the last branch and leaf. These are used to calculate the volume of wood and therefore the volume of stored carbon.
Initial results suggest that native broadleaf trees store up to 100% more carbon than suggested by the less sophisticated models currently being used. In total, Bunloit stores between 845,472 and 1,234,334 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, the standard unit for measuring emissions of greenhouse gases. Of this, its peatlands alone could hold about a million tonnes, which is equal to about 2% of Scotland's carbon emissions in 2019.
But Bunloit’s neglected peatlands also emit carbon, making the estate a net source of greenhouse gas emissions – about 240 tonnes of them annually. By restoring the peatlands, felling conifer plantations and planting more broadleaf trees, Bunloit aims not only to reverse this but also save about 60,000 tonnes over the next century.
A British biotech company called NatureMetrics helped Bunloit measure its biodiversity using another advanced method: eDNA sampling. Dozens of soil samples were tested for organic traces of fungi and fauna, to establish which species were present on the estate. The survey, which was complemented by information from camera traps and rangers, provided baseline data against which Leggett can measure Bunloit’s progress.
The research at Bunloit will be used to create an online platform or database that provides what Leggett calls “good verification science” to landowners, policymakers, scientists and investors. He hopes to encourage financial institutions to stop lending to projects that he says destroy nature, such as oil fields or coal mines, and start lending to those that repair it.
Leggett acknowledges the criticism that, by hastening the demise of shooting estates, rewilding is simply replacing one elite for another, greener version. He has set up a company called Highlands Rewilding Ltd that will buy and restore Beldorney, his other Scottish estate. Thousands of smaller investors will be encouraged to buy shares via crowdfunding, and Leggett hopes the majority of these “citizen rewilders” will be Scots, particularly Highland Scots.
With its remote location, youthful staff and intense leader, the Bunloit estate feels a bit like a cult hunkering down for an imagined apocalypse. Except a real catastrophe is now looming, and Leggett feels there is no time to lose. The interview is interrupted by the sound of a plane’s engine. This time, it’s not a fighter jet “practicing for World War Three,” as Leggett puts it, but a small turbo-prop of the kind that ferries high-end tourists up and down the loch. Leggett doesn’t look up.