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Cardross: Taking the long-term view

Alastair Orr Ewing tells Rural Matters how the estate sees its past, present and future. 

Cardross Estate – covering 4,500 acres between the Lowlands and the Highlands – occupies a commanding position above the River Forth with spectacular views in all directions. Cardross is a blend of tenanted farms, grazing lets, holiday cottages, commercial and residential property lets, a tenanted shoot, commercial forestry, and a thriving events business.

Rural Matters: Cardross is involved in a number of different ongoing activities. How do you manage the various elements of the estate? 

Alastair Orr Ewing: Our first priority is to uphold and enhance the reputation of Cardross. We have excellent relationships with our tenants and the local community and these ties are incredibly important to us. My parents and I especially appreciate that whilst Cardross is a responsibility, we are very lucky to have such an amazing place to enjoy. It is very important to find ways of sustainably and viably opening up Cardross for the enjoyment of others too. 

In common with any rural business we have to balance the need to generate an income on a day-to-day basis while ensuring that we manage our exposure to risk, preserve the long-term value of our main assets and build good opportunities for the future. Our starting point is to look at what we have on the estate already and to consider how we can make each element better – more efficient, more productive, more sustainable, more relevant to customers and suppliers. 

Each element of our operation impacts to a greater or lesser extent on the other activities and we need to always be mindful of the whole. For example, if we expanded our events operation significantly it may potentially have a detrimental effect on the farmland, so we would always take a view based on the long-term benefits for all aspects of the business. 

RM: Do you think things have changed significantly since the days when your father was running the estate? 

AOE: The process of diversification began at least 20 years ago. My parents introduced the holiday cottages which are becoming an increasingly important part of our business and they have also run a B&B business out of the main house for 15 years. Over the last three years I have focused more consistently on diversification and with the help of Galbraith have identified where there are new opportunities and where we can fine-tune our existing operations. 

One example of this is that Galbraith has helped us review our let agricultural land and as a result we have used different methods of letting and managing the land, something we are continuing to review. Diversification includes not just exploring new avenues of opportunity but also taking a more entrepreneurial view of existing businesses. 

RM: Do you think the current political and economic climate is more challenging for landowners in Scotland than was the case for previous generations? 

AOE: Economically, I think every generation has its challenges. It’s a case of making the best plan you can for the particular obstacles and opportunities you face. Politically it could be said to be challenging on a national level but on a local level we try to work closely with the local authority and public sector organisations. 

In terms of the way we interact with our tenants, it’s not the landlord-tenant relationship of bygone times; we are providing a service to paying customers and we seek to ensure they are satisfied with that service. Over and above that principal, we are aware that with happy tenants a thriving community is created, who then support Cardross as a whole. 

RM: Cardross is committed to conservation and wildlife. How do you see that fitting with the other activities of the estate? 

AOE: Flander’s Moss, the largest lowland raised bog in Europe and internationally important as a habitat for specialist plants and animals, is on part of the estate. It is open to visitors as a National Nature Reserve and managed by Scottish National Heritage. 

Perhaps because of the importance of Flander’s Moss, we have always been committed to conservation as a family. Many of our activities are either of themselves environmentally friendly or promote local businesses which are committed to a low carbon footprint. I don’t see a dichotomy between environmental activities and income generation. The fact is that there are commercial opportunities from the increasing public interest in sustainable products and services. 

We hosted the first Scottish Wild Food Festival earlier this year. This brought together artisan food and drink producers from across Scotland and included workshops and talks on healthy living, plus educational wildlife walks. We already work closely with local food and drink producers and include their products in our welcome hampers for guests at the cottages. There has been a resurgence of interest in high-quality food and drink in Scotland recently, which is a great boon to tourism. 

Two of our tenants have created new rural businesses – one has created a cosy shepherd’s hut for short breaks and another is converting a barn into a space which can host workshops and retreats, with hands-on demonstrations of activities practiced for hundreds of years on Scottish smallholdings, including bread making, fabric dyeing, fermentation, and goat and cow milking. We were pleased to support them as they develop their own business ventures. 

RM: Cardross has been the venue for the Doune the Rabbit Hole festival for seven years now, attended by 6,000 people in 2019. How have you facilitated the event? 

AOE: The relationship with the music festival organiser is very good – my preference is to collaborate with potential customers and be flexible. I see it as a long-term partnership offering mutual benefit. While we cannot sustain a financial loss for several consecutive years, we can be flexible in the beginning and take a long-term view. This has really paid off in terms of the music festival which was quite low-key at the beginning but has gone from strength to strength. 

This year the headline acts included The Wailers and Sister Sledge and a huge programme of events for all ages runs alongside the music – everything from yoga to theatre, political debates, DJ-ing workshops and fire performers. 

The region benefits from the festival because all the hotels and B&Bs in the local area are completely booked up and it is a good opportunity for local performers and providers of food and drink. The local taxi companies are also kept busy. 

In 2019, the festival’s economic impact assessment is expected to demonstrate almost £1.5 million local economic impact, and £2 million of Scottish national impact from the event, pushing a huge £4 million total economic impact across the UK, which is astounding. The Guardian named Doune the Rabbit Hole as one of the top 10 family-friendly festivals in the whole of the UK in 2019, which was very pleasing. 

RM: The estate is an absolutely beautiful setting for a wedding with glorious parkland and amazing views, have you explored this as an opportunity? 

AOE: We have dipped our toe into this sphere of activity but we have deliberately moved quite slowly. For the happy couple, it’s the most important day of their life, so it’s important to get it right. Most of our demand came from those looking for a wedding for 40-50 people. We have now created a beautiful reception space, The Byre, to suit that size of party and the first wedding there was in September 2019. It’s a beautiful and very private location so that our neighbours will not be disturbed. Guests can stay overnight in the holiday cottages. We also offer larger events in a marquee on the lawn and the marriage ceremonies themselves can be held in the main house. Our first larger wedding will be held outside the house in May 2020. 

RM: What does the future hold for Cardross? 

AOE: In the immediate future, there will be some filming taking place on the estate for a TV series, and more events – we are hosting a Canicross event, which is a combination of cross country running and dog walking, which certainly sounds fun! We are also looking to start our own food festival event called Taste of the Trossachs in the near future to highlight the first class food and drink available in the area from local producers, restaurants and farms. 

We will be introducing our new Glamping Pods for visitors from next year. We are running that business as a joint venture with a third party who are providing the pods and will profit share with them, reducing our exposure to risk. Currently we have a high level of demand for our holiday lets between April and September. The aim is to increase our occupancy throughout the year. In the longer term we hope to continue to work closely with our customers, suppliers and the local community as a vibrant rural business.

Galbraith has worked with Cardross since 2014 with James Bowie acting as the estate factor. Cardross has drawn on additional Galbraith services including GIS mapping, forestry, planning and building surveying.