The Scottish aristocracy is nervous. Change is afoot. ‘As one whose family was involved in the 1707 Act of Union, I can’t really comment on the referendum,’ barks one of the country’s pre-eminent dukes. ‘But the buggers are out to get us!’ The buggers, according to His Grace, are those currently trying to persuade the Scots that they should peel themselves off from the rest of the United Kingdom and become independent. The vote is on 18 September, and impassioned campaigning on both sides is in full flow. But were you to skip 300 or so miles northwards from Berwickshire to John O’Groats, combing heather and dredging lochs as you go, you’d be hard pushed to find a single Scottish grandee who favours the split. Will their 80,000-acre estates be parcelled out to crofters? Might SNP leader Alex Salmond bring in a swingeing castle tax? Will treasonous Scots cast off the Queen as their head of state? It’s causing disquiet among the ranks, if not the file.
To outsiders, Scotland has always seemed a romantic place. The castles! The reeling! The men in skirts! But if you think it’s all wild, woolly and remote moorland, then think again, because these days Scotland is not only teeming with tufty dukes and earls, but also with smooth Danish fashion tycoons, Tetra Pak heirs, British royals, Egyptian billionaires, French bankers… Half the private land is owned by just 432 people, with 50,000-acre estates rubbing up alongside one another. There isn’t a spare inch of grouse moor to be found.
Those who are most fearful of the impending referendum are the nobility. Let’s call it Old Scotland. Whether it’s the bracing air or the chemicals they put into Irn-Bru, Scottish toffs have always differed somewhat from their southern counterparts, lagging behind the pace of change by, oh, two or three centuries. If you’re Old Scotland, then you probably live in a castle with a ghost (‘We actually have five ghosts,’ says Eleanor, the Duchess of Argyll, who lives with her husband Torquhil, Scotland’s elephant-polo champion, at Inveraray Castle in West Scotland). You own 40,000 to 140,000 acres, you probably have a mountain (instead of 4,000 acres of bland home county). You have your own tartan. You are a member of a clan and can dance complicated reels. You regard someone who lives in another castle two hours’ drive away as a close neighbour, and indeed you are probably related to them – although one of your ancestors almost certainly skewered one of theirs with a pike. You also possess an impressive impermeability to the cold, and, somewhat confusingly, an English accent too, because you went to public school – either in the south, or more probably to Gordonstoun or Glenalmond.
The Argylls, one of the grandest Scottish families, are a marvellous example of Old Scotland. They are one of the 432 largest landowners in Scotland, with an estate of 60,000 acres. At the centre sits Inveraray, a grey-stone castle used for the Scottish bits of the Downton Abbey 2012 Christmas special. To try and make it pay its way, the castle has been opened to the public and it has a thriving café where day-trippers can order a ‘Duke’s Special Hot Chocolate’ – ‘hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows,’ explains Eleanor, 41, an ex-Downe House girl who was born a Cadbury and knows her cocoa. ‘This place eats money. But what if Salmond imposes a mansion tax? We’re done for,’ she says, sweeping her hand in the direction of the neat lawn in front of the house, where a handful of American Downton fans recently landed a helicopter for a dinner hosted by the Argylls at the castle. And yet, as you find again and again with Old Scotland, modern life co-exists with some fairly feudal throwbacks. The family flag will only fly over the castle if Torquhil himself is in residence, for instance – ‘not if it’s just me and the children,’ explains Eleanor. And Torquhil, who has ‘millions’ of other titles as well as being a duke (including Marquess of Kintyre and Lorne and Admiral of the Western Coasts and Isles), is what’s known as a clan chief – Chief of Clan Campbell, to be exact.
If you’re a member of a clan, then you are proper Old Scotland. But unless you are Scottish or one of those Americans who clings on to their Scottish ancestry, don’t even think about trying to understand it. The system dates from those brutal medieval years when Scotland was under the thumb of hairy, bloodthirsty Bravehearts wearing no underpants (‘They didn’t wear underwear so that they could lift up their skirts and cross rivers without getting things wet,’ explains Mark Tennant, a 67-year-old stalwart of Old Scotland, who lives in a castle an hour from Inverness). Extraordinarily, the clan system still exists. In Edinburgh this April, 21 people with the surname ‘Strachan’ gathered at the Royal Scots Club to nominate a new clan chief, with various other Strachans from abroad listening in via Skype. The Strachans had been without a chief since the last one, an admiral, died without any heir 186 years ago. It was time to put that right. A chap in a kilt called Rob Strachan, who runs his family’s fishery in Aberdeenshire, was duly voted in, and everyone celebrated with a boozy whisky dinner.
What does being a clan chief mean? ‘Well, in practice, probably only that the Duke of Argyll would have to have a Campbell in for a cup of tea if they came knocking on his door,’ says Adam Bruce, son of the 90-year-old Earl of Elgin. Adam, 46, is the man who knows everything about Old Scotland. ‘The Bruce tartan is one of Vivienne Westwood’s favourite tartans,’ adds Adam, who lives in Edinburgh with his wife Sofia, daughter of the Italian Prince di Belmonte, and their two small sons. His father, Andrew, is himself clan chief of the Bruces, and lives in large, neo-classical Broomhall House, 15 miles west of Edinburgh, its hall stuffed with the bits of the Elgin Marbles that the British Museum didn’t buy in 1816, after the 7th Earl ‘borrowed’ them from the Parthenon.
‘When George VI came here just after the war, he said, “Still got all the loot then!”’ chuckles the current earl. When we meet, he is planning to sing a song at this summer’s 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn (when King Robert the Bruce, the family’s famous ancestor, saw off the largest English army to ever invade Scotland) for around 600 Bruces on the lawns of the estate. Travel even further west and you will find the Earl of Glasgow, clan chief of the Boyles and a Liberal Democrat peer whose seat is a colourful 13th-century castle called Kelburn. This attracted worldwide attention in 2007 after he invited four Brazilian graffiti artists to use a large cherry-picker and spray the castle walls with a psychedelic mural. Amid rolling Scottish hills, it looks properly mental, but Lord Glasgow, 74, is devoted. ‘I was a bit apprehensive I suppose, but now I think it’s rather lovely,’ he says. Several of his castle’s window frames are buckling, and one chimney in particular leans at an alarming angle, but his fortunes have been boosted since 2012 by the installation of 14 wind turbines. ‘You do tend to become rather in favour of wind farms when you have one,’ he admits.
In the Borders, Adrian, Lord Palmer, is also trying to keep his estate going. He doesn’t have a castle. But he does have a whopping Edwardian house called Manderston with 109 rooms. It has been used as a film set in lieu of Buckingham Palace and has a solid silver staircase – the only one in the world. Adrian, 62, a descendant of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit family, is on first-name terms with the staff who work in the first-class section of East Coast trains, because he shuttles back and forth to London every week for his role as a crossbench peer. ‘I mean, [the pro-independence movement] simply do not know what they’re doing,’ he thunders, puffing on a small cigar in a room overlooking the house’s ornate fishponds.
But Scotland’s real Buckingham Palace is Scone Palace, where all Scottish monarchs, including Macbeth, were crowned. It’s owned by the Earl of Mansfield, although he and his wife have moved to another house on the estate, and it’s currently being revamped for its heir, Viscount Stormont, and his family. Mungo, as he’s known, is married to the ebullient Sophy – ‘she’s magnificent, like a ship in full sail,’ says another Scottish toff. Their 22-year-old daughter Iona runs with a grand young set that includes Ossian Moncreiffe, 23, the flame-haired son of Peregrine (whose full title is Peregrine Moncreiffe of That Ilk and who often appears at casual dinner parties in a kilt). Scone is in Perthshire – ‘the poshest county in Scotland,’ claim many of those who live there. ‘Nonsense – we call it the Surrey of Scotland,’ fights back Christine, Lady de la Rue, from the Borders. She has just sold Ayton Castle, a vast, gothic, red-brick pile, to a pair of gay undertakers from England, but is remaining in the Borders nonetheless.
A rival royal stronghold sits not far north of Scone Palace: Balmoral. With just over 60,000 acres, the Queen clocks in at number 17 on the list of Scotland’s biggest private landowners. ‘We’ve seen more of the royals recently,’ says a gossipy neighbour. ‘Charles and Camilla are often at Birkhall, the lodge that the Queen Mum left Charles. Of course the royals can’t comment on the referendum, but it’s almost as if by being more visible they’re trying to sway things for the unionists.’
‘There is a big difference between Balmoral and Birkhall,’ says another who’s in the know. ‘Balmoral is incredibly uncomfortable and hideous, with retro electric heaters and a bagpiper who plays in the garden at nine every morning. And you’ll find all the old-school sorts invited there, like the Earl and Countess of Airlie and Lady Butter, and all they talk about is the Highland Games. Birkhall is a much more beautiful house with proper hostessy touches – the sheets have a higher threadcount, there are flowers, and the food is better. Camilla’s good at all that, and they have a more glamorous crowd to stay. Mostly friends from the South.’
Carry on motoring and just outside Inverness you’ll find yourself on the Gibbs’ Belladrum estate. Leonie Gibbs, a ravishing sculptress and artist, was a Fox-Pitt until she married an equally handsome Scottish chap called Joe, the descendant of a Glaswegian iron magnate. They live in a white, fairytale house called Phoineas, where you are likely to find Leonie, 51, drifting through the kitchen in velvet robes – ‘Do you want a cappuccino? I can make you frothy milk on the Aga with a fork,’ she offers – while Joe, 57, works on his annual music event, the Tartan Heart Festival, headlined this year by Tom Jones. The Gibbses are the key to this part of Scotland. Sit at their kitchen table and you might be put next to one of the Moncreiffe family (very Old Scotland), or Leonie’s cousin, the infamous Kenyan toff Tom Cholmondeley, who was imprisoned for three years in Nairobi in 2006 after shooting dead a poacher on his land. If you’re very lucky, you might even get Kit Fraser, a member of the vast Fraser clan, who lives in a castle nearby. In 2011, he stripped down to his underpants outside the Royal Bank of Scotland AGM in Edinburgh to demonstrate Scotland’s anger at the Scottish bankers ‘stripping the nation bare’.
‘It used to be nicknamed Happy Valley around here,’ explains Leonie, ‘because of all the affairs. There’s a bit less of that now. It’s feast or famine in this part of Scotland. In February and March it’s bleak. So bleak you almost don’t want to get out of bed. But in August all the houses are full and everyone whirls around for tea and dinners. And reeling parties.’
Reeling – where Scots gather in kilts, gowns and tartan sashes to whirl around to set dances called things like ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’, ‘The Gay Gordons’ and ‘The Bees of Maggieknockater’. ‘In my day, if a boy asked you to dance and you didn’t like him, you’d offer him “Hamilton House”, because that is the reel with the least touching. If you did like him, you’d offer “The 51st”, because that had the most touching,’ says Lady Liza Campbell, the 54-year-old author and sister of Colin, Earl Cawdor. He lives in a house on the family’s 60,000-acre estate in Inverness-shire, while his stepmother, Angelika, lives in Cawdor Castle itself, where Macbeth lived. There was an almighty row when it transpired that Colin’s father, who died in 1993, had left the castle to his second wife, and tensions have simmered ever since. In 2002, Colin and his family stole back into the castle while Angelika was on holiday in America, only for her to launch legal action the second she flew back. Colin and his family traipsed out again. Still, Angelika has to contend with two ghosts – the first Earl Cawdor and a young lady in a blue velvet dress with no hands – which can’t be fun.
There are still big reeling balls that take place throughout the year – the Northern Meeting in Inverness-shire, the Oban Ball on the West Coast and the Skye Ball being three of the grandest – although these days you’re less likely to find admiring locals lining the streets to watch partygoers arrive in their finery. ‘They’re more likely to be pelting eggs!’ says Stephanie Fraser, the boss of cerebral-palsy charity Bobath Scotland, who lives just outside Glasgow. Like dozens of grand Scottish women, Stephanie is a patroness of the Royal Caledonian Ball. This takes place not in Scotland, but in London every May. It sees around 700 Scots from around the world descend on Grosvenor House for a night of high-octane reeling. Everyone who attends is given a little booklet, at the back of which is a list of the ball’s patronesses, rather wonderfully listed in order f precedence, from the immensely grand Duchess of Buccleuch down to the lowly Mrs So-and-Sos who don’t have any title at all. For the past three years, it’s been compiled by Adam Bruce, the aforementioned son of the Earl of Elgin, in his role as Marchmont Herald, a ceremonial post that essentially means he’s a direct representative of the Queen in Scotland and from time to time has to dress up in a gold frock coat like a town crier.
This year was the ball’s first under the helm of a new chairwoman, a dynamic blonde lawyer called Felicia Morris. Felicia is married to a Scottish architect called Houston, son of the late, celebrated Scottish architect James Morris. They may live in a vast, impeccably modern house in Knightsbridge but, when they got married, they registered their own tartan at Kinloch Anderson – the Scottish tartan experts – and Felicia is chairwoman of a party where nannies still bring young children to watch from a balcony as their parents dance to bagpipe music. As the new queen of the London-based Scots, she is also alarmed by the prospect of independence. ‘Everyone’s very worried,’ she says. ‘It’s being talked about incessantly at dinner parties.’
There doesn’t tend to be much interaction between Old Scotland and New, because New Scotland is largely made up of foreign money. For several decades, Scottish estates have been slowly bought up by cash from abroad. ‘Although only five or six estates a year come on to the market,’ says Evelyn Channing from Savills’ Edinburgh office. ‘They come for the sport, for the fishing, the shooting, the stalking. And for the privacy. If you own 50,000 acres of land it’s quite hard to be photographed on it.’
Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai has a 62,000-acre estate in West Scotland, just off the tip of Skye. Scotland’s richest man is another Emirati gentleman, Mahdi al-Tajir, who owns the Highland Spring mineral-water company and 15,000 acres just outside Gleneagles. And Mohamed Al Fayed can occasionally be found at his pink castle, Balnagown, 30 miles north of Inverness.
Al Fayed bought the estate in 1972 because of the links he says exist between ancient Egypt and Scotland. Legend has it that Princess Scota, the daughter of a pharaoh, fled Egypt around 1300BC and conquered what later became called Scotland in her honour. ‘She told all her soldiers, “Please, go and make love with all the women and increase the Egyptians here.” This is what happened!’ Al Fayed insists. Like much of New Scotland, he doesn’t come that often – ‘three or four times a year now’ – but his affection for all things Hibernian means that his castle is basically lined in tartan, and a throne that supposedly belonged to William Wallace sits in the entrance hall. Al Fayed is no fan of Alex Salmond – ‘he is a real idiot, which is why I say he should go fish for salmon. Ha ha!’ he chuckles – but has commissioned the sculptor William Mitchell to design Scotland’s very own Statue of Liberty, an 8ft statue of Princess Scota, should the split go ahead.
The Arabs aren’t the sole foreigners knocking about up there either. The Danish tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, who owns the fashion group Bestseller, has been on a shopping binge in recent years, snapping up estates dotted around the country that amount to 160,000 acres. The Rausing sisters, Sigrid and Lisbet, have almost 100,000 acres between them. Donald Trump now owns two golf courses and large swathes of land at opposite ends of the country. The polo-fanatic Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach has spent a reported £20m on building a lodge near Dalwhinnie, right in the heart of Scotland, and rumour has it that a handful of rich Frenchies, fed up with brutal taxes at home, are on the lookout for boltholes. But not all New Scotland is foreign. Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre owns 18,000 acres near Ullapool, and one of Scotland’s richest women, the Stagecoach boss Ann Gloag, owns a castle, Kinfauns, and a hefty chunk of land not far from the Gibbses. ‘But did their ancestors fight at Bannockburn?’ thunders an Old Scot. Arrivistes, then. And it illustrates neatly what Old Scotland, by and large, thinks of New. Mohamed Al-Fayed may have had a kilt made for him, but chances are you won’t find him invited to a reel.
Given the fairly feudal distribution of land in Scotland, you can perhaps see why the big landowners are nervous. Cries for independence and modernisation from more urban Scots in Glasgow and Edinburgh have rattled them. New Scotland is probably safer. Not only are they insulated by their immense wealth, the fact that they’re foreign means they can’t be blamed for notorious historical events like the 18th- and 19th-century clearances when peasants were forced off their land. But Old Scotland is definitely panicked, as if they can already hear the tumbrils approaching. ‘England used to be our Auld Enemy,’ says a worried Scottish peer. ‘Now we really must stick together.’