Open letter, from the Clan Donald Lands Trust

9th January 2015

THE RECENT articles, correspondence and editorials in the West Highland Free Press on various matters relating to the Clan Donald Lands Trust have really concerned us as trustees.

In this letter, given the constraints on column inches, we’d like to focus on the two principal points raised, the financial status of CDLT and the review of crofting rents.

Our most urgent priority is to analyse for your readers the assertion of ‘financial woes’, ‘the lurching from crisis to crisis’ and ‘deep trouble’ of CDLT and clarify what has actually happened over the last few years.

First and foremost CDLT is a longstanding, important and contributing member of the Sleat community.

In 2014 alone we will have injected over £750,000 into the local economy, as has been the case for several decades.

CDLT employs 14 full-time staff and has about 34 seasonal employees. It is the second-largest employer on Sleat and this year was confirmed as a five-star visitor attraction — one of only two on Skye. We have an award-winning museum. We have wonderful and improving gardens. Visitor numbers have been rising and bookings are looking good for this season. So we must be doing something right!

As many readers will know, American and Canadian benefactors set up CDLT in 1971, to rescue the land held for generations by Clan Donald from sale on the open market.

Integral to such purchase was the primary charitable objective of the trust, the promotion of the history and culture of Clan Donald and other clans of the Western Isles, and this remains our principal goal.

Since its inception CDLT has been funded by its commercial activities and ongoing donations from clan members. Ellice McDonald, a wealthy American, has been the most significant contributor since 1976, when he set up the Glencoe Foundation, primarily to support CDLT. Through Glencoe, Ellice gave substantial sums of money — about $12 million over a 35-year period — more or less on an ad hoc basis for current and future requirements, operating costs and capital projects (the Museum of the Isles, the Stables and self-catering accommodation).

From about 2010, when he became ill and unable to take such an active role in running the trust, the other Glencoe directors formalised arrangements to ensure funds remained available to CDLT — donations were then made solely from income arising from the endowment pot, leaving the capital intact. CDLT remains assured of Glencoe funding, but now to a specific budget.

Glencoe funding has always been needed to cover operational costs. However, in 2010, when current income was not sufficient to cover outgoings, CDLT had to draw on the reserves built up in previous years when income was well in excess of expenditure.

Recognising that this modus operandi was not sustainable at loss levels accumulating to over £1 million by year-end 2010, the active trustees undertook a root-and-branch reorganisation, both restructuring the trust and reducing staff costs. This was funded largely by the generosity of the late Harold McIssac, who brought a new level of financial competence.

The reorganisation has effectively reduced the organisation’s current deficit from £438,000 in 2010 to a manageable £146,000 in 2013 – a sum more than covered by available reserves. The 2014 accounts are expected to show a small but overall surplus and therefore an addition to reserves. CDLT is now in a much healthier financial position. It has no liabilities, outside of day-to-day business activities, net assets of over £4 million and more than £300,000 in the bank. The assertion, therefore, that CDLT is in ‘financial distress’ is far from the mark.

Indeed plans are in place to rebuild its capital base through realisation of non-core assets for either investment in the infrastructure or retention for “leaner times” and to complete a woodland creation scheme, which should provide a very substantial source of funding in 20-30 years’ time.

Most importantly CDLT has full support from its core staff, who signed up to the reorganisation, without any additional financial benefit to themselves. Our new chief executive, starting at the end of January, is replacing Stephen McKeown — he has taken up an excellent position as a zoo head in Dubai. Not surprisingly, our new CEO questioned the board in detail on the background to the WHFP articles, but is satisfied with the answers provided. They are keen to continue the process of strengthening the objectives of CDLT for the benefit of its stakeholders and have proven expertise to implement our plans.

The trustees and staff at CDLT are committed to running a sustainable organisation, which preserves our Clan Donald and Lordship of the Isles heritage — our charitable mission — and, at the same time, benefits the Sleat community. We’re looking forward to continuing our reforms and welcome any comments of feedback that readers may have.

The other issue that has caused us concern is the reaction to our review of croft rents. Rents have not been increased, as permitted by crofting regulations, for over three decades — some crofters are enjoying rent levels agreed in 1971. We felt quite justified, as part of our reorganisation, in bringing these rents more in line with known market rentals for croft tenancies. The incremental income to CDLT is not of ‘make or break’ significance, but it will contribute to the sustainability of the organisation and like the rest of the funding be ploughed back into the local community.

A meeting was set up with the crofters on 10th December 2014. Unfortunately it had to be postponed because of bad weather but another is planned for the end of January. We understand the strength of feeling amongst the crofters and are prepared to listen and discuss — we’re really not an arrogant crew at CDLT. Be assured that we’ll come back to you after the meeting so your readers can see what progress has been made.

The trustees and staff at CDLT are committed to running a sustainable organisation. We look forward to continuing our reforms and more than welcome any comments or feedback that readers may have.

With best wishes for 2015.

Jamie Macdonald Chairman of the Executive Committee Clan Donald Lands Trust Hooke Farm Hooke Beaminster Dorset DT8 3NZ