In castle halls and stately home parlours across Scotland, the chatter of visitors has been stilled. Tourists no longer crowd the battlement of the great fortresses of Stirling and Edinburgh. Romantic lochside ruins and historic tea rooms sit silent behind locked gates.
“It’s been awful,” said David Henderson, manager at Castle Menzies in Highland Perthshire, which in normal years would have seen more than 3,000 visitors pass through its carved stone porch since opening for the vital summer season in April.
The coronavirus crisis and lockdown has dealt a hammer blow to recreation around the world, but the threat is particularly acute in a Scottish heritage sector that has been central to the appeal of the country’s growing tourism industry.
Scotland has also been more cautious about easing restrictions than the UK government has in England.
The historic environment directly contributed £2.3bn to the Scottish economy in 2017, the latest year for which figures were available, up from £1.8bn in 2014, according to public body Historic Environment Scotland, which manages more than 300 sites, including Edinburgh Castle.
An HES survey of heritage businesses and organisations conducted in April — just a month into the lockdown — found that 78 per cent had by then already lost revenue because of the coronavirus crisis and 22 per cent believed they would be unable to survive without significant intervention.
“It’s the crisis of crises,” said Patrick Duffy, chief operating officer at the National Trust for Scotland, a leading conservation charity that in May warned that a £28m fall in expected revenue caused by the pandemic had put its future “in doubt”.
In order to shore up its finances, the NTS has slashed conservation project spending and started consultations on laying off 429 of its 751 permanent employees.
“The mathematics is very clear for us this year: half of our income is just wiped out,” said Mr Duffy, adding that difficulties created by shortage of operating funds and likely weakened demand meant NTS’s revenues were likely to still be down by more than a quarter next year.
While most of the trust’s 360,000 members have remained loyal so far, the pandemic has hit the value of its financial investments hard. “We have to cut our cloth to fit the outlook,” Mr Duffy said.
As steward for celebrated castles, houses and other historic buildings as well as famous landscapes and battlefields, the trust’s troubles have far-reaching implications for Scotland’s cultural heritage.
But while Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s economy and culture secretary, has suggested the government could be ready to support the trust with endowment funding, she made clear it would have to rethink its “very harsh” cost-cutting plans.
“It is not at all tenable for the Scottish government to provide funding to it when it is — and wants to continue — making its staff redundant on the scale that it is talking about,” Ms Hyslop told a parliamentary committee in May.
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The government is also likely to face calls to help HES, which the ruling Scottish National party created in 2014 through a merger of other heritage bodies, and which Ms Hyslop said faced a “dramatic” £21m fall in its income due to the crisis.
Visitors have been a vital source of revenue for many owners of Scotland’s historic buildings, who spend an estimated total of more than £1bn a year on repair and maintenance. Preserving ageing walls and roofs against an unforgiving climate is a constant challenge, but the HES survey reported some postponement of essential maintenance since lockdown.
At Arniston House, an elegant Palladian mansion near Edinburgh, the pandemic has put on hold plans to rebuild two of its roughly 20 chimneys.
But Henrietta Dundas, daughter of Arniston’s owner, said some work could not be delayed for long. “The maintenance of the place is a huge responsibility,” Ms Dundas said. “You’ve really got to keep on top of it.”
The Scottish government on Wednesday threw a potential lifeline to the heritage sector, saying it hoped to allow tourism and hospitality businesses to reopen “within appropriate safety guidelines” from July 15. But Fergus Ewing, tourism secretary, warned the move depended on further taming the pandemic. “This date cannot be definitive,” he said.
At Castle Menzies, which is owned by a charitable trust, Mr Henderson is hopeful lockdown might be loosened to allow some visitors from August, easing the strain on carefully accumulated financial reserves the castle would need “if the roof blows off in a storm”.
The retired army major has already been preparing the 16th-century building for socially distanced operation. The imposing tower’s narrow spiral staircase was something of a “choke point”, Mr Henderson said, but one that could be managed by introduction of a passing system, while the tea room had already been reorganised with fewer tables.
“If the government gives us even a wee season, it will enable places like this to carry on,” he said.
Ian Baxter, chair of a forum organised by sector body Built Environment Forum Scotland to chart recovery from Covid-19, said reducing the risk of transmission in old buildings would be a complicated task, with potential risks for their often fragile fabric. “What does deep-cleaning mean for a historic site?” he asked.
Amid such challenges, Ms Dundas at Arniston said it was also important to stay alert for opportunities. The lockdown had forced the cancellation of a dog show that had been part of efforts to expand the estate’s events business, but she was now eyeing a possible new role for a large field previously used for agriculture.
“That’s an enormous space that maybe we could use for socially distanced outdoor events,” said Ms Dundas said. “We’ll do everything we can. It is really tough, but hopefully we can stick in there.”
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