Skye Clan Chief’s Labour of Love Proves Fruitful for Local Economy

Mark Williamson, Group Business Correspondent. The Herald 29 October 2018

Hugh MacLeod.


What is your business called?
Dunvegan Castle & Gardens on the MacLeod Estate.

Where is it based?
Isle of Skye.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?
Dunvegan Castle & Gardens is at the heart of the 42,000-acre MacLeod Estate on the Isle of Skye. As the ancestral home of the Chiefs of clan MacLeod for 800 years, Dunvegan is a major heritage attraction and key driver of economic growth on Skye, acting as a magnet for over 168,000 UK and international visitors each year. The Estate also comprises the MacLeod Tables Cafe, four retail outlets, 5 holiday cottages, seal trips, amenity woodlands, Dunvegan Pier, Glenbrittle Campsite and Cuillin Coffee Co.

What is its turnover?
£2.9 million. Annually the estate contributes an average of £800,000 to the local economy through employment and the purchase of goods and services.

How many employees?
We are one of the largest private sector employers on the island with 20 permanent staff and up to 50 seasonal employees.

When was it formed?

Why did you take the plunge?
It fell to me by an accident of birth. After becoming the 30th chief of the MacLeod clan in 2007 on the death of my father I could have hired a manager but I felt duty bound to take on the Herculean challenge myself. I take a low-key approach to the role of clan chief, preferring to focus my attention on running the MacLeod Estate which leaves me with very little time for anything else. I regard it as a huge privilege and see myself as a custodial link in a chain that stretches back 800 years. My aim is not to be a weak link.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?
Creative producer, director and writer working in film and TV. Although my MacLeod Estate workload has diverted around 80% of my time away from my media career, I am currently working on a slate of two feature film projects which are at varying stages of development and packaging. Film is a very tough profession which requires bucket loads of commitment, talent, patience and luck to succeed in. For that reason, I see it more as a vocation rather than a job and after Dunvegan, it is my main passion.

How did you raise the start-up funding?
Despite receiving 35 per cent of the total castle restoration costs in grant aid funding from Historic Scotland back in 2009, the estate’s debt levels increased as a result of the £1.4 million investment in the Dunvegan castle roof and garden restoration works alongside the other £2.6 million capital investment over the last ten years to further enhance our visitor facilities across the estate. Having no other funding options available, I decided to mortgage my London property and used the funds to invest in Dunvegan in order to conserve the fabric of the building which was in a very poor condition due to the failure of the roof, windows and cement harling. The wider estate was also in a parlous state and I made the decision to invest all the fruits of our seasonal labours back into the estate. Although still a work in progress, I am very proud of what we have achieved to date.

What was your biggest break?
Securing grant aid funding from Historic Scotland in 2009 which helped to part fund the major Dunvegan Castle roof and windows restoration in 2010.

What was your worst moment?
The financial crash in 2010 just before we were due to start major restoration works.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?
Working with my fantastic team and ploughing the seasonal proceeds of our various commercial tourism enterprises back into the estate to help create more jobs and underpin the local economy.

This month, Dunvegan Castle & Gardens was awarded the Tourism Award at the Scottish Land & Estates Helping it Happen Awards. These form part of a campaign to highlight how landowners and rural businesses across Scotland play a key role in enabling and supporting success in rural areas.

What is your biggest bugbear?
A lack of integrated public transport in the Highlands and a lack of investment in much needed infrastructure improvements on the Isle of Skye.

What are your ambitions for the firm?
The estate’s mission is to preserve the unique heritage of the Macleod Estate by being commercially successful in all we do to enable continuous reinvestment and to develop and share the unique history of Dunvegan Castle & Gardens with our visitors. Our remote island location is a very challenging place to run a business from both a logistical and staffing point of view, especially due to seasonality. It is only commercially viable for us to be open between Easter and mid-October. However, Skye’s remoteness is also part of its USP and we do our best to capitalise on this during the season in order to reinvest the proceeds to further enhance the visitor experience.

What single thing would most help?
A new airport. Skye remains the missing link in the Highlands and Islands’ chain of airports and the MacLeod Estate has long been an active supporter of Skye’s lobby group Fly Skye. My late father, John MacLeod, lobbied hard alongside Charles Kennedy MP in the 1980s to retain the flights at Broadford when they were facing the axe but to no avail. Skye has changed beyond all recognition since then and many of the people who live and work here desperately need flight links to Edinburgh and Glasgow as do our visitors.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
To ‘hold fast’ in the face of adversity.

How do you relax?
I sit or lie down depending on my mood.