A response to Jamie Macdonald, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Clan Donald Lands Trust

Wendy Mitchell first began working for the Clan Donald Lands Trust in 1984. The former employee has spoken out at length in the West Highland Free Press with a series of claims outlining the problems facing an organisation which oversees a 20,000-acre estate, and some 10,500 acres of crofting townships, as well as the visitor centre and museum in the grounds of Armadale Castle.

I was very glad to learn that the Trustees of CDLT are concerned about the recent articles in your paper. (WHFP 9/1/2015) However I was also disappointed that they are so concerned about the number of column inches their response might take up that they have failed to respond to so many of the points raised.

Firstly I would like to put some of the figures they have quoted in context. CDLT says they have contributed £750,000 to the local economy in 2014 and have done similar for several decades. Presumably this figure is based on the wages paid to staff — however if there have been other contributions I would be very pleased to know about them.

They also say they employ 14 full time staff and around 34 seasonal staff. Assuming the seasonal staff work six months of the year this gives a full time equivalent of 31 people. Also assuming that the above figure is actually for wages alone this means that the CDLT staff have an average FTE wage of over £24k per year. This seems unlikely as by the admission of CDLT the core staff signed up to the reorganisation without any financial benefit to themselves. When I worked there most of the general staff were on little above minimum wage. Also, a significant number of the staff in the restaurant in particular were under 21 and therefore only entitled to the lower level of minimum wage.

I would also like to say that a significant number of core staff left after the reorganisation because they considered the changes unsustainable. Some staff who were already struggling with existing responsibilities were given additional ones and I was told during this process that “actual ability to do a given job would not be taken into account”. I am at a loss as to understand how anybody thought this would lead to a successful outcome.

When the job that Stephen McKeown got was advertised the salary was stated as £35-45k per year. As the most senior paid position in the organisation one would assume this has the highest salary.

Admittedly it costs more to employ people than the actual pay they receive due to employers’ National Insurance Contributions etc. But even including that there is a discrepancy. Some of this money would not have gone directly into the local economy, it would have gone to the government. In a very roundabout fashion it may have come back into the local economy but including it in the above figure is misleading.

Therefore, I assume that the figure also includes payments to Campbell Stewart MacLennan & Co. Portree, who as far as I am aware do the accounts and payroll, Bidwells as Land Agents, who have their Head Office in Cambridge, and Miller Harris, Forestry Consultant, Fort William. I will leave it to your readers to decide how many of these organisations they consider to be local.

Also Stephen McKeown and many of the seasonal staff stayed in staff accommodation — so while any payment for this technically stayed in the local economy it would in fact have gone to CDLT.

As I am sure all your readers will know finding affordable accommodation of any kind is a major problem in the area and living costs are disproportionately high compared to median income.

CDLT also states that they have net assets of over £4 million. Presumably this is the book value for the property in their possession. This being so, these assets are only actually valuable if they can be realised or used as security against loans. As far as I am aware it is CDLT policy not to sell any assets they consider particularly significant <I>(which explains why the Keeper’s and Shepherd’s Cottages were unavailable when various local people inquired about them in the past).

The maintenance garage on the outskirts of Ardvasar has been on the market for several years but has not sold. Presumably, because the land on the shore side of the road is all in-fill and the land on the other side of the road is contaminated with hydrocarbons because there used to be a petrol pump on the site.

Therefore, there are severe constraints on anybody wanting to acquire this site and develop it.

I also believe there have been attempts sell off other properties, including the old church in Tarskavaig, that have hit major obstacles and that the attempt to create new crofts in Achnacloich was severely criticised by the Scottish Crofters Federation as they considered the sites entirely unfit for purpose.

I now move on to the new forestry plantation which CDLT hopes will provide “a very substantial source of funding in 20-30 years time”.

Some of the recent plantations are native woodland, for example the area near the Ardvasar road junction. But the most recent plantation, which adversely affected the farm tenant, is, as far as I am aware, commercial conifer with less than 10 per cent native species.

Plantations like this tend to become a monoculture as very little can survive beneath the canopy and therefore do nothing to encourage biodiversity.

There is extensive coniferous woodland already on the estate, which seems to be overly mature and therefore difficult to harvest cost effectively. The site and extent of the new plantation was presumably chosen because it is much more accessible and has economies of scale, but it encompasses some of the best farm land on the island. As far as I am aware the public had no prior information about this plan, which has significant long term effects on the landscape and which cannot be reversed.

I will now move on to the Glencoe Foundation money. The only information I could find about this is available from http://www.faqs.org/tax-exempt/DE/Glencoe-Foundation.html

These figures are for the years 2007 to 2011 — covering the period of the global financial crisis and ending before the death of Ellice McDonald, who may have left money to the foundation in his will — thereby increasing the assets.

But the figures available clearly show the assets went down from almost $6.4 million in 2007 to around $5.5 million in 2011. In 2011 over $100k more was paid out than the return on investment generated.

I am sure your readers and I would be very grateful for any explanation about the current situation with regard to this that the Trustees can provide.

There can be no doubt that without the very substantial input from people like Ellice that the Trust could not have continued to operate in the manner in which it did. There have also been other significant benefactors including AWR MacDonald, for whom there is a plaque in the laundry at Clan Donald Skye, but of whom I suspect very few people have heard.

The following is an extract from a speech given at the Annual Dinner of Clan Donald Queensland in 2006. “We have unfortunately learnt of the recent passing of one of the Clan Donald Land Trusts founders Mr AWR MacDonald of Sydney, Australia who left a bequest to the trust of some £1.2 million, which is to be invested and the income is to be used to develop various cultural and musical activities associated with the Clan Donald internationally. Mr MacDonald was an artist and Art curator.”

As far as I am aware the development of various cultural and musical activities never took place and I would be grateful for clarification from the Trustees as to what actually happened to this most generous bequest.

Another significant benefactor was Harold McIsaac, who not only paid for the Operational Review, as mentioned by Jamie MacDonald. He also contributed £100k toward the cost of the new deer larder at Armadale and paid for the publication costs of the ‘Crosslet’ magazine which were previously covered by CDLT. This magazine informs members of the news and events of the organisation.

He and Allan MacDonald of Vallay paid for the new playpark in the castle grounds. Allan has since resigned and Harold died in June of last year. Both these people were from New Zealand and contributed a lot of time, money and effort to CDLT, but very few people on Skye have even heard of them.

When Harold died the news was a real blow to Clan Donald internationally as it was unexpected and he was well liked and respected. But there was no announcement in the local press here and no obituary appeared on the Clan Donald Skye website.

What this indicates is that CDLT does not seem to be thanking some of these most generous people properly or making information about them available to the people of Skye. This begs the question why anybody else should support CDLT in a similar manner when their contributions are apparently so undervalued.

What I suggest it that the entire governance structure of CDLT is in urgent need of a complete overhaul to make it properly accountable and for them to take their Corporate Social Responsibilities far more seriously than they do now.

This would mean having representatives on the board who actually live here, and consulting and informing stakeholders (that is everybody who is affected by their decisions) in a manner commensurate with modern business practice.

As far as I am aware the only current Trustees that reside in the UK are Jamie MacDonald, who responded on behalf of the others; Sir Ian MacDonald of Sleat, who lives in Yorkshire and was the previous Chairman of the Executive Committee; and Clanranald who has a house in Killin.

I believe Clanranald was deeply dissatisfied with the outcome of the Operational Review and I believe he did not attend the last trust AGM. I would be happy to be corrected if any of the above is wrong, as I would not want anybody to be under the impression that my allegations are either spurious or vexatious.

The significant failures in CSR are the major cause of unrest between CDLT and its tenants because none of the people affected by the very significant changes were properly informed about them and had no time to budget accordingly for the huge percentage increases in rent.

It is astonishing that nobody at CDLT noticed that the rents had not been increased in line with inflation for decades and then it was considered acceptable to “rectify” that in one fell swoop.

I would also suggest that is it imperative that as many Trustees as possible come to Sleat to conduct a public meeting where anybody interested can participate and not just the crofters, which is what seems to be on offer at the moment.

In particular I would like answers to the following questions:

  • Why have so many of the buildings of historic importance been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair and what they intend to do about this?
  • Why there is no mention of the preservation of these buildings in the CDLT Charitable Objectives?
  • Why the library has been closed when it provided such a wonderful resource and what is going to happen to the archival collection now as some if it at least was formerly in the public domain at the National Archives in Edinburgh and is considered to be of national importance?
  • Why the Trustees seem to believe that this decision has no bearing on their Charitable Objectives?
  • Why the Charitable Objectives include: “The relief of those who are in need by reason of age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage and in selecting those individuals who may benefit from such assistance the Trustees shall be entitled to take into account an individual’s connection with the Clan Donald (and its septs) and also his or her place of residence. And, “Providing funds to assist in the education of Clansmen, to provide scholarships at schools and universities for the sons and daughters of Clansmen.”
  • Why there is no specific mention of any obligation toward either the tenants or other local residents in the Charitable Objectives?
  • Why it was considered acceptable to tell somebody they would be the new General Manager, introduce this person to people locally, then apparently change their minds about the suitability of this person — then appoint another unknown person to this post without ever advertising the post in the approved manner, or possibly at all?

I am sure there will be plenty of other matters arising should the trustees see fit to come to Sleat to answer these concerns.

I can see no reason why they would not be willing to do so if they are “really not an arrogant crew” and are “prepared to listen and discuss”.

Nobody wants this organisation to fail — the knock on effects would be catastrophic for the local economy. Lots of people have tried very hard over the years to make it a success but what has been done does not seem to have provided a lasting solution.

I am certain there is a better way and that the organisation can realise its full potential and become the centre for excellence it ought to be.

Wendy Mitchell, 1 Dail Mor Ardvasar Isle of Skye IV45 8RT