The Highland sporting estate: Absentee landlords slow to embrace change

February 23, 2003

The modern Scottish Highland sporting estate continues to be a place owned by an absentee landowner who uses its 15-20,000 acres for hunting and family holidays. While tolerating public access, he (82% of owners are male) feels threatened by new legislation, and believes that canoeing and mountain-biking should not take place on his estate at all.

This is the picture of today's laird that emerges from a unique study by academics at the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is based on a survey of 218 sporting estates covering 4.5 million acres of the Highlands and Islands.

Dr Peter Higgins and Dr Douglas Macmillan, co-authors of the report said: "This is the first study of its kind in over 25 years and the first ever to look specifically at sporting estates. We set out to develop a better understanding of today's sporting estate and its owner. Very little was known about them, yet they own huge areas of Scotland. We found a slowly changing picture. While most owners remain traditional in outlook, and many estates have been in the family for over half a century, increasing numbers are being run as profitable rural businesses by relatively new owners. Profitable estates remain comparatively few but even ten years ago such commercial activity was rare."

The researchers found that half of the estates surveyed had been owned by the current owner or their family for 25 years or less. Thirty per cent had been in family hands for more than fifty years. Two thirds of lairds were absentee landowners, with their main residence elsewhere.

While some make a profit on their estates, over two thirds of owners who responded still regard their estate primarily as a place for family and friends, and for sporting activities. Over half saw the maintenance of employment, family continuity and conservation as 'very important'.

But while leisure pursuits are seen as important for their own family and friends, the estate owners have mixed views on access for the general public. While 88% of owners either encouraged (22%) or tolerated (66%) public access in general, there was strong opposition to particular activities taking place. Sixty-four per cent of respondents opposed any mountain-biking on their estates, with 49% against canoeing, 40% against cross-country skiing and 36% opposed to any camping.

"Such attitudes sit uneasily with new access legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in January which will give the public the right of responsible access to virtually all land in Scotland." claimed Dr Higgins. "Clearly there is still some work to do to ensure that all recreational users - hunters and others - can confidently enjoy their respective legal rights."

The research is published ahead of Royal Assent for the Land Reform (Scotland) Act which gives a new right of public access to land in Scotland and gives the right to buy to crofters.

Over half of estate-owners regard their estate as 'a commercial enterprise'. However, only 16% of estates were usually or always profitable. Indeed 64% were usually or always unprofitable. Analysis of the accounts of a random sample of nine estates suggests that on average they lose £39,531 a year, with several losing over £100,000. Unsurprisingly, despite employing an average of eight people on each estate, cost-cutting is seen as increasingly important.

Mr Wightman, co-researcher commented that, "It is important to understand that sporting estates are still owned in the main in order to provide for the consumption of leisure by their owners. In this sense they are no different from other expensive hobbies such as yachting. Deficits should thus be regarded not as trading losses but as the costs of maintaining the infrastructure of a leisure asset."
For further information, contact:
Dr Peter Higgins on 44-131-651-6520 or (Unavailable 20th Feb)
Dr Douglas MacMillan on 44-122-427-4128 or
Mr Andy Wightman on 44-131-538-5175 or (Unavailable 20th Feb)

Or Iain Stewart, ESRC External Relations, on 44-179-341-3032 or


1. Copies of the report "Sporting Estates and Recreational Land Use in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland" are available from Iain Stewart at the ESRC. From 24th February 2003, they will be available at [] or from the authors at the School of Education, University of Edinburgh, St Leonard's Land, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AQ.

2. The research was conducted by Dr P Higgins and Mr A Wightman of the School of Education, University of Edinburgh and Dr D Macmillan and Ms Kirsty Leitch of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Aberdeen. It was funded by the Economic and Research Council.

3. The study population of 218 estates covered 4,550,327 acres of land in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Responses were received from 85 estates representing 1,841,152 acres of land. The financial data was based on analysing the accounts of a randomly selected group of 9 estates owned by UK registered companies.

4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at

5. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

Economic & Social Research Council

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