Clan chief puts Skye estate in ‘hibernation’ in COVID-19 fight for survival

Dunvegan Castle attracts thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

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For 800 years Dunvegan Castle on Skye has been the ancestral home of the chiefs of  the ancient and mighty Clan MacLeod.

In that time it has witnessed its clansmen march off to countless wars and bloody battles, but now it faces just as serious a threat to its future in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.

As one of the largest private sector businesses on Skye, the estate employs 20 permanent staff and recruits an additional 40 seasonal workers.

But now MacLeod Estate, which includes the world-famous fortress and its gardens, has been placed in what has been described as ‘quasi hibernation’ with the majority of staff furloughed.

Owner Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod, 30th chief of Clan MacLeod, told the Lochaber Times: ‘As you know, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better for all of us.

‘I have placed the estate into a state of quasi hibernation with the majority of estate team furloughed.’

Forced to close for the first time since it opened to the public in 1933, Dunvegan Castle and Gardens is at the heart of the 42,000-acre estate and is a major heritage attraction and key driver of economic growth on Skye, acting as a magnet for more than 180,000 visitors last year.

Annually the estate contributes an average of £900,000 through a combination of employment and purchase of local goods and services, and since 2008 alone, it has contributed £8.3m to the Skye economy and more than £12m to the Scottish economy.

Mr MacLeod said the Lochaber Times was welcome to share the content of the most recent memo he had sent to estate staff.

In it, Mr MacLeod said the current level of uncertainty over how long the global pandemic and economic shutdown will last, poses some serious challenges for everyone and every business.

‘I am writing to you today to set-out our current contingency plans and what we hope to achieve despite this unprecedented COVID-19 crisis,’ he told staff.

‘The key objectives are to protect employment where possible and to ensure that this historic estate can survive to help with the future recovery effort. Our chances of success depend entirely on the length of the lockdown.

‘The longer the crisis lasts, the greater the economic devastation and the longer the recovery will take. We are already seeing deflationary pressures across the economy which means that the world is taking a pay cut with a corresponding drop in living standards.

‘This is likely to cause a terrible humanitarian crisis in poorer countries unless there is a coordinated global effort to support public health and the economic recovery.’

Mr MacLeod added that the estate does have financial reserves which have enabled the  estate to weather the initial economic impact so far.

But he warned: ‘The stark reality is that we are facing a 94 per cent drop in income this year. This means that we must take whatever actions we can to make this overdraft last for as long as possible until such time as other forms of emergency government backed loans/funding become available.

‘Businesses of all shapes and sizes are locked in a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ struggle to stay afloat for long enough to receive the government support that has been promised.

‘Those businesses with no reserves or high levels of debt have already gone bust and others may only have weeks or months left, especially on Skye where the tourist season ended before it even had a chance to begin.’